Cooking 101: Basic tips for grilling fish

Jun 2, 2011 at 2:30 a.m. ET

Summer is here and around the country, people are getting their grill on. Do you find grilling fish to be an upstream battle? It doesn’t have to be if you follow these basic grilling tips.

bbq salmon steak

1Go fish

Like most foods, buying fresh fish is usually your best option, but good frozen fish can be found, too. When buying fresh fish consider the following:

  • Follow your good sense… of smell that is. Good fresh fish doesn't require you to pinch your nose due to strong odors.
  • Look for displays that are refrigerated, clean and bright.
  • If you're buying whole fish, look for shiny, moist skin and bright pink gills.
  • Avoid the piles of fish that look several days old.
  • Pick fish that looks firm.
  • White fish should look, well, white -- not yellow or beige.
  • If you're buying frozen fish, look for tightly wrapped packaging, inspect for signs of freezer burn or dryness, check sell-by and use-by dates, and buy from a store that has a quick turnover.

2Prep time

When you get home from the market, immediately transfer your fresh fish to a plate or bowl, cover it tightly and refrigerate it. If the fish is packaged, keep it wrapped as-is and store in the refrigerator. Use your fresh fish within a day of purchase (or by the "use by" date on the package).

If you decide to marinate your fish (best for drier, thicker types of fish like tuna or swordfish) limit it to just a few hours, otherwise the fish could get mushy.

Try this recipe for lemon, dill and garlic marinade >>

3Fish fit for your grill

Typically, thick and firm fish is best for grilling since it won't easily fall apart over the grill. Fish with a high natural oil content is best, too (think salmon, tuna, and halibut).

Try this recipe for grilled salmon with fruit salsa >>

Other types of fish that are more delicate -- like tilapia, sole and flounder -- do better cooked in a packet that you can easily make with foil.

Try this recipe for grilled tuna with olive tapenade >>

How to make a foil packet to grill fish

  • Cut the foil so it's big enough to enclose the fish completely.
  • Center the fish on the foil, season it with oil, herbs, lemon, onions, garlic, etc., and seal the foil around the fish.
  • Place the packets in the center of the grill and cook for 5-7 minutes on both sides.

Try this recipe for fish and vegetables in foil for an almost-complete-meal >>

4Let the grilling begin

  • When you're ready to use your fish, first rinse it with cold water and pat it dry (if your fish is wet when you put it on the grill, it won't sear).
  • Prior to heating your grill, spray the grate with non-stick cooking spray.
  • Get the grill going to about medium-high heat.
  • Unless you're marinating your fish, season it before cooking by brushing it lightly on both sides with oil, then sprinkling it with salt and pepper.
  • Just before placing the fish on the grill, lower the heat to medium. Place the fish on a diagonal (for good looking grill marks and easier flipping). Cover the grill and allow it to cook for about three minutes or so. Test the doneness by gently trying to lift the fish with your metal spatula. If it doesn't come up easily, let it continue to cook, but check it at intervals of 20-30 seconds.
  • The basic rule is to grill the fish for about 8 minutes per inch of thickness.
  • When your fish is finished, it should be firm to the touch, flake easily with a fork and look opaque all the way through.
Because fish can dry out quickly over the grill, it's best to stay close to keep a watchful eye on your meal. Resist the temptation to frequently flip your fish. One time is enough.

Grilling fish can be fast, fun in the summer months and -- of course -- delicious! These tips will have you ready to add even more meal options to your next barbecue or weeknight meal.

More great grilled fish dishes

Grilled sea bass tacos
Grilled salmon with pecan pesto
Grilled cod with beurre blanc sauce
Grilled trout with lemon caper mayonnaise
Lemon stuffed grilled Branzino