It’s okay, you can admit it: grilling fish can be intimidating. Unlike the relatively simple process of cooking steak or chicken or vegetables, fish can be a dicey proposition, always threatening to overcook, undercook, stick to the grill or just fall apart.
“Fish is just not very forgiving – that’s a fact,” said Scott Jones, a former executive editor at Southern Living. Jones is the current head of Jones Is Hungry, a media company focused on food writing, recipe development and culinary consulting, where he offers “no-snobbery wine and craft beer education.” Fortunately, Jones is happy to offer some expert tips to take the hassle and mystique out of grilling fish.
Know your fundamentals.
“I think that when it comes to grilling fish, the first rule is the one that’s most often overlooked: start with a clean grill,” Jones said. “I don’t care what kind of grill master you are, if you have the coolest tools, or if you have a robust fillet or whole piece of fish – if your grill is dirty, your food’s going to stick. … When [your grill’s] well-heated and clean, throw a little oil on it and put your fish on there.”
Don’t overdo it.
“You’ve got to learn to only turn a fish once and not overcook it. It’s a lot like chicken this way: you put the fillet on, and you can see it begin to turn opaque about halfway through. So rather than flip it back and forth, which is gonna tear up the fish, you put it on the grill and walk away,” Jones said. “You wait until it cooks about halfway through (or maybe just a touch more), where it starts to turn opaque, and then you turn it once and let it finish all the way through, and then you’re ready to go.”
“Another thing that people often do is put the wrong kind of fish on the grill directly,” Jones said. “For smaller fillets or more delicate fish, they make these fish baskets that help you hold the fish together. Rather than getting a spatula and turning it, which could break your delicate fillets apart, a fish basket helps you seamlessly turn it and allows for more beautiful fillets.”
Jones recommends another key piece of equipment: “Get yourself a good fish spatula. It’s totally different than a regular spatula you’d have on the grill. A fish spatula tends to have less metal and much thinner spaces in it, so there’s less surface area for the metal to stick to the fish.”
“The thing about fish and marinades is that you have to be careful, because you don’t want the marinade to be so assertive that it either masks the delicate nature of the fish – because you want to be able to taste the meat – and you want to strike the right balance of acidity and oil,” Jones said. “If you have too much oil in the marinade, you’re gonna get flare-ups. If you have too acidic of a compound, it’s already going to start cooking the fish. You can’t marinate fish like you would a piece of chicken or a piece of beef or pork, because it’ll be cooked through. It won’t be good once you grill it.”
When asked what he uses himself, Jones replied, “I’m kind of a traditionalist: I typically use some fresh herbs, maybe a squeeze of lemon juice – not a ton – or depending on the kind of fish, maybe some black pepper. … You can never go wrong with some garlic, fresh herbs, a little citrus juice … those tend to be pretty wonderful.”
Leave the skin (at least at first).
“One of the tricks to grilling for many fish is to keep the skin on, if you can, and put that side down first on the grill,” Jones said. “You can take that skin off if you want, but it creates an initial barrier sometimes when it first hits the grill. Some people kind of like that crispy feel – and a lot of people don’t – but when you put the skin-side down first, it allows the fish to crisp up initially, and you can either remove it or eat it.”
Maybe the most important rule, though, is to have fun. For Jones, who fishes at Smith Lake and who particularly enjoys crappies and shad, that’s what it’s all about: “Few things in life, even if it’s not a great fish … there’s nothing like fishing and filleting your catch and eating it, whether it’s grilled or fried or baked. That’s half the fun.”