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  • The Chopping Blog

How to Grill Whole Fish

Posted by Sara on Jul 23, 2018


When flipping through cooking magazines this time of year, I typically come across eye-popping centerfolds of beautifully grilled, whole fish. It looks so approachable and easy to execute, but in reality most people will never try it at home because it seems like a very daunting task to take on. Starting with the first step of where to buy a whole fish to the final step of knowing when the fish is done and how to serve it, there are a lot of unknowns preventing home cooks from trying this recipe. 

I would like to change all of that by taking you on a step by step instructional journey, so you can learn how to successfully grill a whole fish this summer. 

Purchasing Your Fish

The first step is to purchase a very fresh fish. Fresh fish should not have any odor; they should have clear eyes and bright red gills. My local grocery store, Valli in Evanston, always has a really nice display of whole fresh fish available, but other options include Mariano's, the Asian grocery stores around the Argyle St. and Broadway area, Dirk's Fish, The Fish Guy or any other fish market you can trust. Be sure you have the fish monger gut, scale, and remove the gills from your fish for you! These tasks are pretty messy to tackle at home, but snipping off the small fins with scissors is easy enough to do yourself.


Fish that are ideal to grill whole are small bass, perch, trout, Branzino and snapper. 

Prepping the Fish

Preheat your gas or charcoal grill over medium-high heat. While your grill is heating, prepare the fish. Using a sharp knife and starting behind the head, make slashes through the skin of the fish going about 1/2 inch deep into the flesh.


The cuts should be about 2 inches apart from each other. 


Seasoning the Fish

Using a few paper towels, thoroughly pat both sides of the fish making sure it is totally dry. This will prevent the fish from sticking to the grill. Brush the outside of the fish with grapeseed oil, and season with salt and pepper to taste.


You definitely want to be sure to season the cavity of the fish with salt and pepper, too. As an optional step, you can place a few lemon slices and sprigs of fresh herbs in the cavity. 



Grilling the Fish

To ensure your fish does not stick to the grill, lightly oil the grill grates with a high smoke point oil such as grapeseed or canola. To do this, pour a small amount of oil on a rag, and using a pair of tongs, rub the oiled rag on the hot grates.


Lay the fish down over the hottest part of your grill, and walk away.


Allow the fish to grill so the skin can crisp, which can take between 5 to 7 minutes.


Use a spatula to peek under the fish to determine if it's golden brown.


If it's ready, grab a couple of large spatulas, a friend for moral support and a glass of wine, and very carefully slide the spatulas under the fish.


Flip the fish over to the second side. My fish actually stuck just a bit to the grill grates, so I used the underside of my spatula to carefully release the skin from the grill without doing too much damage. 


Finishing the Fish

Close the lid of your grill, and continue cooking the fish until the thickest part is opaque. I used my spatula to gently pry a thick part of the fish apart to ensure it was cooked through. Once it was done, I carefully transferred the fish to a platter, and served it with a tomato, cucumber and olive salad. 


Serving the Fish

Run the blade of a butter knife along one side of the spine of the fish to loosen the meat. Using a large spoon or even a pie server, gently lift the meat from the top fillet away from the bones and onto a platter. Using your hands, pull the spine and attached bones out of the bottom fillet of the fish. It should come out in one piece. Even though you have done your best to remove all of the bones, it’s inevitable that you’ll find some small “pin” bones in your fish, so be careful.  As seen in the photos, I discovered that even though it looked beautiful, serving the cucumber-tomato salad on top of the fish made it hard to fillet, so next time I make this I will definitely serve the salad on the side. 

Hopefully you're ready to take on the job of grilling a whole fish this summer, but if grilling fish fillets is a more comfortable place for you to start, check out The Chopping Block's Owner/Chef Shelley Young's instructional video for some guidance. 

If you need some hands-on practice before you try the real thing at home, be sure to sign up for Grilling Boot Camp or Seafood on the Grill on our outdoor patio this summer or Seafood 101: Summer Edition offered on:

Topics: fish, Grilling

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