This rustic approach actually protects the delicate meat during cooking for a juicier result.
There’s a general rule in barbecue and grilling that the thicker the protein, the easier it is to cook. Or perhaps that should be phrased as, the lower your chances of messing it up. It’s MUCH easier to cook a 2″ thick steak perfectly than it is to nail a thin cut one. The same logic applies to seafood. Big shrimp are going to grill better than teeny ones. And of course, whole fish is going to grill better than thin filets.
As a bonus, keeping the fish gutted but whole allows you to both crisp the skin up, and introduce aromatic herbs and citrus by stuffing the cavity. And you still end up with that phenomenal grilled flavor. My favorite way to devour the finished product is to serve it up on a platter and stand around with some cold beers. Don’t be shy, just dig in! And don’t forget to eat that amazing cheek meat, too.
The real secret to grilling whole fish:
Honestly, the secret hero of grilling whole fish (aside from starting with a lovely raw product) is spray oil. Lots of spray oil. There are other methods that involve special tools or very specific steps that may or may not work, but this is the most foolproof one I have come across. The biggest peril of grilling fish is having it cling to the grill, and tearing the delicate flesh. Lubricating with plenty of oil lessens that risk. Significantly. I coat the fish in olive oil to start, then spray both the side of fish AND the section of grill grate I am about to flip on to. And I don’t just do it once – but every time I plan on moving or flipping the fish.
Obviously, you will need to exercise a little caution when spraying pressurized oil near charcoal! If you’ve not done it before, it’s pretty much the same as spraying any aerosol directly in front of a lighter – you will get massive (although brief) flame flareups. So just use caution, short burst of spray, and keep your eyebrows removed from the action.
Set up two zone grilling for whole fish:
Your grill will need to be set up with two distinct zones for cooking – hot and cold. You can create this on both a charcoal and gas grill, but honestly, please cook over charcoal. Your food and tastebuds deserve it and it’s NOT difficult at all. Basically, the idea of a two zone grill is to only have the heat on one side. You start by using the hot side to sear the fish, then move it to the cool side to finish cooking without burning the skin. You can read more about how to set up your grill for two zone cooking here.
Best type of fish for grilling whole:
My absolutely favourite fish to grill whole is Red Snapper. It’s a great size for grilling and has a clean, fresh taste without being “fishy”. The pinkish hue of the skin is also more appetizing for many folks than grey skinned fish. You can also use Dorade or Bronzini, too. I source my fish from Fulton Fish Market – it’s shipped fresh from New York and is premium quality. If you want to try some of their stuff, you can hit their website and use code JESSP at checkout to get 15% off any new order over $175 (excludes their bundles).
How you know when the fish is ready:
The best way to grill this fish is to get a great sear and color to start, then allow it to finish cooking gently until done. To tell when your fish is ready, you can use two indicators. First, keep an eye on the inside of the cavity, particularly at the thickest part. Since the fish is gutted, you will be able to visually see when the flesh turns from transluscent to a more opaque shade of doneness. To be completely sure, you can use a fast reading thermometer. When the fish reads 140f at the thickest part, it’s done.Print
How to grill whole fish (without it sticking!)
1 x whole fish (like snapped), gutted and scaled
3 x slices of lemon
1 x small bunch of fresh parsley
1–2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
Spray oil (preferably olive oil)
- Heat a grill for two zone cooking, where the coals are off to one side. This creates a hot and cool zone to cook with. The hot side should be about 400f.
- Pat the fish dry using a paper towel, both the skin and the cavity. Season the cavity with some salt, then stuff with the lemon and parsley.
- Pour the olive oil over the outside of the fish, ensuring both sides are well coated. Season both sides with generous amount of salt.
- Spray the hot side of the grill grates with oil, being careful not to hold the can too close. Place the fish directly onto the oiled grates directly over the hot coals to sear and crisp the skin. Cook for 2 minutes.
- Now, you will flip the fish over, but still onto the heat. Spray another section of the grates over the got coals where you intend to flip the fish, then using a fish spatula or rigid turned, gently turn it over. Cook for two minutes.
- If your fish is getting too blackened, you can move it to the middle zone halfway between the hot and cool areas to cook a little more gently.
- If you have not achieved the desired char/color on the outside yet, you can repeat the high hear sear process of spraying and flipping, but you will also apply spray oil to the surface of the fish itself. Spray directly onto the skin that is facing up right before you flip.
- After you have a decent char on the outside, it’s time to move the fish to the indirect side to finish cooking. Spray the grill grates in the area you intend to move the fish to, over indirect heat. Gently move the fish and close the lid to the grill.
- To check when the fish is done: you can keep an eye on the meat in the cavity to see when it changes from translucent to a more opaque shade. Or for a more precise reading, the fish is done when it reads 140 on a thermometer.
- Once cooked, served immediately, and don’t forget to enjoy that delicious nugget of cheek meat!