A beach. A campfire. A glistening fish-minutes out of the water-cooked on a stick or grate over blazing coals. It’s a scene that’s almost as old as mankind itself and as enjoyable as perfect beach weather. And it serves to remind us that fish never tastes better than when cooked over open fire.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of us either burn fish to a crisp, serve it raw in the center, or leave half the fish sticking to the grate of the grill.
Fortunately, there are three methods for grilling a perfect whole fish every time. But before you even start your fire, choose the right kind of fish for grilling whole. Flat fish, like snappers, pompano, black bass, sole, trout, porgies, and grunts are ideal for grilling whole. You can also grill large whole fish, like salmon, using the indirect method.
The fish should be impeccably fresh. The eyes should be shiny and clear the gills should be red and the fish should be utterly free of a fish smell. Ask your fishmonger to gut and scale the fish before you take it home.
Make 3 or 4 deep diagonal slashes in each side of the fish to the bone. This allows the marinade and basting mixture to penetrate the flesh and speeds up the cooking time.
You may want to invest in a fish grilling basket. These hinged, fish-shaped devices keep the fish off the grate (where it can stick), enabling you to turn the fish without having it slide off a spatula. Essential? Of course not. But fish baskets can make the process a whole lot easier.
The Medium Flame Method
1. Preheat the grill to medium.
2. Generously oil the grate or hinged fish grilling basket. Brush both sides of the fish with oil or melted butter. Place the fish on the hot grate directly over the heat and grill until the skin is dark and crisp and the flesh is cooked through to the bone, 6 to 15 minutes per side, depending on the size of the fish. Turn the fish, using a long spatula or by inverting the basket, and cook the other side the same way.
3. To test for doneness, press the fish with your finger. When properly cooked, the area around where you pressed will break into firm flakes. It should pull away easily from the bones.
4. Use a long crook-handled spatula to gently slide the fish off the grate (or remove the basket from the grate) and onto a platter.
The Indirect Method
This method is particularly well suited to large fish, like whole salmon.
1. Set up the grill for indirect cooking and preheat to medium. You don’t really need a drip pan because fish is so lean, but if you wish, set one in place.
2. Generously oil the grate or hinged fish grilling basket and brush the fish on both sides with oil or melted butter. Place the fish in the center of the grate, away from the heat, cover, and grill until cooked through, 30 to 60 minutes (sometimes more), depending on the size of the fish.
3. Follow steps 3 and 4 in The Medium Flame Method for testing for doneness and removing the fish from the grate.
The Banana Leaf Method
This method from Southeast Asia is the easiest way to grill a 1- to 2-pound whole fish. A fresh or frozen banana leaf will keep the fish from drying out. It can be purchased at an Asian or Hispanic market. The banana leaf should be cut into a rectangle a little larger than the size of the fish you will be grilling. In a pinch, you can make a high-tech banana leaf by cutting 4 to 6 sheets of aluminum foil slightly larger than the fish and stacking them in layers.
1. Preheat the grill to high.
2. Generously oil the grate. Brush both sides of the fish with oil or melted butter. Place the fish on the hot grate directly over the heat and grill until the skin is dark and crisp, 6 to 12 minutes, depending on the size of the fish.
3. Place the banana leaf on the grate next to the fish and invert the fish onto it. Cook until the fish is cooked through to the bone, 6 to 12 minutes, depending on the size of the fish.
4. Follow steps 3 and 4 in The Medium Flame Method for testing the fish for doneness and removing it from the grate. Discard the banana leaf before serving.
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