Trying to grill fish fillets is one of those things that frustrates a lot of people, fish fillets can stick to the grill grates or just plain fall apart when cooked. People think that to grill fish you just cook it like you would a hamburger or steak, that school of thought is wrong. With most foods there is really no right or wrong way to grill them, fish would be the exception to that rule.
There are a two basic techniques to grilling fish and most of the grilling problems will occur when you are using the wrong technique with the wrong type of fish fillet. There are way to many different types of fish out there to try to cover them all individually in one article so here are the basics: a fish fillet like salmon is hearty and dense while lets say tilapia is light and delicate fish. It is easy to tell the difference between dense and delicate types fish, the denser the fish heavier it will feel.
Grilling Over Direct Heat:
This technique should be used for dense fillets, whole fish or any type of fish fillet that is referred to as a steak when sold. One of the keys to grilling fish over direct heat is to be sure to get the grill as hot as possible before placing the fish onto your grates. Placing fish onto your grill before it is hot will cause the fish to stick. Also a cooking oil should be used in this process either on the hot grates or a light coating on the food itself.
Another tip is when rotating and turning your fish is to move it to a spot on the grill that has not just had food on it. This will assure that the grates are as hot as they possibly can be. As a general rule small fish fillets over direct heat should be cooked for 2 minutes per side while a thick fish steak should cook for about 10 minutes per inch of thickness.
A grill basket can really help especially with delicate fish.
Foil Packet Grilling:
This is the technique that should be used for delicate fish fillets, it can be used for any type of fish as well. Basically you wrap your fish fillet in foil with some type of liquid which will act as steam in the pouch and grill over indirect heat. I like to start the packet over direct heat for the first couple of minutes to get things steaming. You will need to use indirect heat to prevent the contents of the package from burning.
Many things can be used inside the packet to steam your fish as well as add flavor a few of them are: Seasoned butter, Lemon Juice, Wine, and Salsa, just to name a few. This method will take longer then direct grilling I would begin to check a small fillet after 6 to 8 minutes.
How to know if your fish is done:
I am sure you have read many articles telling you that when the fillet flakes when lightly scraped with a fork it is done. It is fine to check fish cooked in a pouch this way but it does not work well when cooked over direct heat. When you grill fish over direct heat it immediately firms up the outer meat of the fish which will prevent it from flaking.
For this you should use a thermometer, you are looking for 155 degrees (I will pull the food off about 5 degrees short of the ideal temperature and tent it with tin foil for 5 minutes before serving) or you could cut a piece in half to make sure it is opaque all the way through.
A Few Final Notes:
Delicate fish can be cooked over direct heat with the use of a grill basket. However it may fall apart when removed.
You could also grill any type of fish fillet on a wooden plank.
If your fish has a thick and thin side keep the thick end over the heat for more even cooking.
If using smoke tread lightly fish will absorb a lot more smoke flavor than red meat.
About the author: Mike is the owner of 4thegrill.com, a Certified Food Safety Professional and KCBS member.
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