8 Steps to Perfect Grilled Fish That Won’t Fall Apart on the Grill

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

Say goodbye to the days of cooking disasters with our tried-and-true grilling technique.

Fish fillets have a bad reputation on the grill. Why? Because it’s likely that they’ll stick to the grill grate, and when they do, you can forget about removing them in whole pieces. The delicate texture of cooked fish makes it virtually impossible to remove fillets neatly, so what you end up bringing to the table are inelegant shards of what you hoped would be an elegant piece of fish.

Introducing our recipe for perfectly grilled, easy-release fillets. You may find it surprising that the key to success revolves around how you prepare the grill before you even begin to cook.

STEPS TO PERFECT GRILLED FISH

1. Heat the grill and let the grate heat up. Lightly dip a wad of paper towels in oil; holding the wad with tongs, wipe the grate. Continue to wipe the grate with the oiled paper towels, re-dipping the towels in oil between applications, until the grate is black and glossy, about 5 to 10 times.

Greasing the grate is not the objective here—rather, coating it with oil seasons the grate, much like you’d season a cast-iron skillet. Due to the high heat of the grate, the oil polymerizes, creating a layer that helps prevent proteins in the fish from sticking to the metal. When cooking delicate seafood, we recommend wiping the grate multiple times so that it builds up a coating, guaranteeing that your fish won’t stick.

2. Brush both sides of the fish with thin coat of vegetable oil.

3. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Place the fish skin side down and diagonal to grate slats.

5. Reduce the heat to medium, cover the grill, and cook without moving the fish until the skin side is brown, well marked, and crisp, 2 to 4 minutes.

6. Try lifting the fish gently with a spatula after 2 minutes; if it doesn’t cleanly lift off grill, continue to cook, checking at 30-second intervals, until it releases.

7. Using 2 spatulas, flip the fish to the second side.

8. Cover the grill and cook until the centers of the fillets are opaque and register 125 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 3 to 7 minutes longer. (This technique works best with salmon fillets but can also be used with any thick, firm-fleshed white fish, including red snapper, grouper, halibut, and sea bass. Cook white fish to 140 degrees, up to 2 minutes longer per side.)

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Simple Grilled Salmon

For a dependable grilled salmon recipe, we found the best overall cooking heat to be medium-high, which browned the fish without burning it and, more important, created the crust that would let us turn the salmon fairly easily.

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