Expertly grilled fish: How to get your wish

Grilled salmon and summer salad dish, served at 18 Seaboard in Raleigh, N.C.
Grilled salmon and summer salad dish, served at 18 Seaboard in Raleigh, N.C. (JULI LEONARD / Raleigh News & Observer)
Posted: July 26, 2013

Grilling fish and seafood can be intimidating.

Many of us either overcook the fish or undercook the fish or can't get the fish off the grill in one piece. We try special seafood grill baskets and every spatula in our kitchens, to little effect. We end up sacrificing more fillets and shellfish to the flames than we have eaten for dinner.

So we reached out to a handful of experts, including Katherine Alford, vice president of the test kitchen at Food Network Magazine; Barton Seaver, chef and author of Where There's Smoke and For Cod and Country; Jason Smith, chef and owner of 18 Seaboard in Raleigh, N.C.; and Gene Briggs, chef at Osso Restaurant & Lounge, in Charlotte, N.C.

All have their own techniques, and trial and error will determine the best approach. Here are a few key tips they agree on:

The grill must be clean. Preheat the grill and then scrub off any food particles.

The grill should be oiled. Dip a folded square of paper towel into a cooking oil. (Try an olive oil blended with canola oil, which has a good flavor but can handle higher temperatures.)

Use tongs to rub the oiled paper towel on the grill grates. Do not spray a cooking oil, like Pam, on the grill when it's heating. It will cause flames to flare up.

Start with good seafood. Find a market that sells fresh seafood. "There's no trick for recovering from bad seafood," Seaver said.

Advice from the pros

Gene Briggs: Be patient. Oil the fish or shellfish, which will help prevent sticking. Once the seafood or fish is placed on the grill, Briggs said, "Don't touch it." Our instinct is to fuss with it, to move it, to feel like we're cooking. And don't panic. Fish will initially stick but will release once a crust develops. If you move the fish, the grate cools down and that process starts over again, increasing the likelihood that the fillet will fall apart.

Katherine Alford: Start with shrimp and scallop on skewers, then graduate to fish steaks, such as swordfish or tuna, then try foil packets for delicate fish. Cook the seafood 75 percent of the way on one side, and then flip it to finish cooking the remaining 25 percent.

Barton Seaver: Keep the fish skin on for grilling. It helps the fillet stay together and helps keep the fish from drying out. Unlike our other experts, Seaver advocates a low-and-slow approach. He uses low heat on a gas grill or a small charcoal fire and places the seafood away from the flames. Then close the lid to create an oven effect. Fish is done when it is opaque, the top of the fillet starts to flake, and moisture can be seen pushing up through the fish. Seaver cooks fish until the internal temperature is 120-125 degrees. (Note: This differs from the federal government's recommendation of cooking finfish to 145 degrees.)

In his cookbook, Seaver offers a recipe for fish brine (see accompanying recipe). Brining, Seaver said, helps season the fish throughout, strengthens the proteins before cooking, and retains moisture.

Jason Smith: Baste the seafood. For fish, Smith uses a fresh herb oil made by steeping flatleaf parsley and basil stems in an olive oil blend. For shellfish, Smith uses butter because the shellfish is lean and can handle some fat. Smith even dips his spatula in the herb oil or butter before trying to remove the seafood from the grill.

More delicate fish, like trout or catfish, need high heat. Meatier fish, like swordfish or tuna, can cook over medium heat.

Preparing different kinds of fish

Chef Barton Seaver shares these tips for how to prepare various species of fish.

Bluefish: Roast them slowly over a smoky fire and serve them with something acidic to balance the richness.

Catfish: Most fillets are sold without the skin, which can make grilling difficult with this delicate, flaky fish. Use care and restraint when grilling catfish. Do not fuss with them.

Mahimahi: Choose fresh fillets instead of frozen whenever possible.

Snapper: The skin is key to holding this flaky, fragile fish together. Always grill skin side down.

Trout: This fish is easy to grill, but the flesh cooks quickly, so take care. Consider stuffing the cavity of a whole trout with citrus and herbs.

Tuna: Tuna should be cooked to medium rare. When cooked beyond that point, it tends to dry out quickly.

Smoky Catfish and Trinity Black-Eyed Pea Salad

Makes 4 servings

1 pound domestic catfish fillets, soaked in Fish Brine (see recipe below)

Juice of 1/2 orange or lemon

Handful of wood chips, such as hickory or mesquite, soaked in water for 15 minutes

1 (15-ounce) can black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed under cold running water

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips

1 small red onion, peeled, sliced very thin

3 stalks celery, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar or good-quality white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Leaves from 4 sprigs fresh mint, torn

1. Prepare fish brine (see recipe below) with the addition of juice from half a lemon or orange. Soak catfish fillets in the brine for 20 minutes.

2. Mix black-eyed peas with pepper strips, onion, celery, vinegar, and olive oil in a medium bowl. Season to taste with salt and sprinkle with the mint. Toss to combine and let sit at least 15 minutes.

3. Preheat grill to a medium heat. (You should be able to hold your hand over the heat for only 2 to 3 seconds.) For a charcoal grill, add a handful of wood chunks to the coals. For a gas grill, place presoaked wood chips in a pouch made from heavy-duty aluminum foil and poke holes in the pouch. Place wood-chip pouch below the grate but above the burner.

4. Place catfish on the grill for indirect heat so the fish is not directly over the heat source. Cover the grill and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness. The fish is done when it flakes under gentle pressure.

5. Serve catfish hot off the grill on a bed of the salad. Any leftover fish can be flaked into the salad, refrigerated, and served the next day.

- Adapted from

Where There's Smoke: Simple Sustainable Delicious Grilling

by Barton Seaver (Sterling Epicure, 2013)

Per serving: 573 calories, 47 grams protein, 82 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 92 milligrams cholesterol, 520 milligrams sodium, 31 grams dietary fiber.

Fish Brine

2 cups warm water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

Mix water, salt, and sugar and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Submerge the fish in the brine, weighing it down with a plate if needed, and brine according to these guidelines:

Trout, shrimp, sardines, and other delicate seafood: 15 minutes.

Bass, barramundi, sablefish, and other flaky fillets: 20 minutes.

Halibut, mahimahi, bluefish, and other flaky, meaty fillets: 30 minutes.

Salmon, mackerel, Arctic char, and other meaty, full-flavored fish: 35 minutes.

Amberjack, cobia, swordfish, and other dense, steaklike fish: 40 minutes.

- From Where There's Smoke: Simple Sustainable Delicious Grilling by Barton Seaver (Sterling Epicure, 2013)

Salmon With Citrus-Spice Glaze

Makes 4 servings

3 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons orange juice

11/2 teaspoons smoked paprika

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

4 center-cut skin-on salmon fillets (6 ounces each)

1. Prepare outdoor grill for direct grilling over medium heat.

2. Stir sugar, orange juice, paprika, cumin, and crushed red pepper in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves.

3. Sprinkle salt and pepper on flesh side of salmon.

4. Grill salmon, skin side up, 4 minutes, then carefully turn salmon over. Brush sugar mixture over salmon. Cook 4 to 5 minutes longer or until just opaque throughout, continuously brushing sugar mixture over salmon. (Instant-read thermometer inserted horizontally into center of fillets should register 145 degrees.)

5. Carefully remove salmon from grill by sliding long, thin spatula between fish and grill grate. Discard skin.

- From The Good Housekeeping Test Kitchen Grilling Cookbook: 225 Sizzling Recipes for Every Season (Hearst Books, 2013)

Per serving: 383 calories, 38 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 107 milligrams cholesterol, 254 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Grilled Trout Salad With Ramp Ranch Dressing

Makes 4 servings

2 cups sour cream

4 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

6 ramps, chopped (see note)

2 sprigs of lemon thyme, stem removed, chopped

2 sprigs of marjoram, chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 large head of romaine lettuce, chopped into bite-size pieces

4 radishes, thinly sliced

1 cup sweet peas

1 cucumber, thinly sliced

4 trout fillets

Olive oil blend

1. Combine sour cream, buttermilk, onion powder, garlic powder, ramps, lemon thyme, and marjoram in a small bowl. Stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste.

2. Place lettuce, radishes, sweet peas, and cucumber slices in a large bowl. Pour 1 cup of dressing over the salad and toss. Save remaining dressing for another use. It will keep in the refrigerator for five days.

3. Preheat grill to high heat. Season trout fillets with salt and pepper. Brush skin side of each fillet with olive oil blend. Place trout, skin side down, on grill and cook for 11/2 minutes and then flip and grill for about 30 seconds. Fish should be opaque and cooked throughout.

4. Divide salad among four plates. Place a trout fillet on top of each salad.

- From chef Jason Smith of Raleigh, N.C.

Note: If you cannot find ramps, use green onions or garlic scapes, the green parts of garlic bulbs that grow above ground.

Per serving: 772 calories, 61 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams sugar, 54 grams fat, 186 milligrams cholesterol, 451 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

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