How to Grill Fish and Seafood

It seems daunting, but grilling seafood is easy

Grilled Tuna Steaks With Sesame Seeds

The Spruce

From ocean to plate, grilled seafood makes a healthy main dish. It's easy to prepare for a weeknight meal since the prep and grill time is minimal. For weekend entertaining, grilled kabobs provide easy finger-food for eating while mingling. But fish and other seafood is delicate and can dry out easily, making the task of grilling it seem intimidating. Still, with a few tips and some grill-side patience, a delicious end product is easy to achieve. Whether it's tuna or salmon, shrimp or lobster, a quick char on the grill creates a dish your guests will beg you to replicate.

tips for grilling and barbecuing fish
Illustration: Ashley Deleon Nicole. © The Spruce, 2019

Types of Fish to Grill

Salmon, halibut, tuna, and other deep-sea fish often come from the market cut into fillets or steaks, making them the best choice for grilling. Fillets have both a skin side and a flesh side and contain little, if any, bones. The skin side adds stability to grilled fish and also seals in the moisture by providing a barrier between the flame and the meaty flesh. Steaks help grilled fish maintain its integrity via the bones that secure the flesh to the outer skin layer. Fish steaks look nice on the plate, but it can be difficult to navigate the bones while eating. 

Trout, catfish, and other small fish can be purchased whole. Grilling a fish whole is simple to prepare. Plus, a whole fish acts as a decorative centerpiece to a summertime spread. So if you like to "wow" your guests, grill your fish whole—just make sure they're okay picking around the bones.

Shellfish, like shrimp and lobster, can be grilled right in their shell, with minimal prep, and then peeled later on for eating. 

Prepping the Fish

All fish—fillets, steaks, whole fish, and shellfish—should be rinsed with cool water and patted dry with a paper towel before grilling. To prep a fillet, run your finger down the thickest "spine" of the fleshy side to check for protruding bones. Use tweezers to extract any bones you find (there should only be a few). Steaks and whole fish require no further prep. Just season or marinate them and you're good to go. For shrimp, either rinse them and leave them in their shell or devein them, peel them (leaving just the tails attached), and skewer them onto a kebab. For lobster, use a sharp knife to pierce the shell behind its eyes. Humanely kill this crustacean by slicing it quickly through the head. Then, flip the lobster onto its back and cut it down the entire length of the shell, making two halves with flesh exposed. 

Most fresh seafood tastes best brushed with a little butter or oil, dressed in lemon, and then seasoned with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs of your choice. This can all be applied prior to grilling to retain moisture. But if you want to get fancy, marinate your seafood before grilling. But avoid sugary marinades or glazes, especially on thick fillets or whole fish—the sugars can burn before the fish is fully cooked, creating a bitter taste.

Prepping the Grill and Equipment

Fish is less likely to stick to a clean grill. So first up, clean your grill grates thoroughly by heating them up and using a grill brush to brush off any debris from your previous cook.

If you're grilling thin fillets, a delicate fish, or you just want to make your life easier, invest in a stainless steel fish or vegetable-grilling tray. Place this tray on top of your grill grates and bring it up to temperature, just like you would your regular grill. 

Lastly, have a wide, thin spatula on hand for grilling fish and grill tongs for grabbing and flipping shellfish.

Grilling Fish or Seafood

A hot fire is key to retaining the juice and flavor of seafood. So once your prep is over, allow your grill to heat up to 400 to 500 F, depending on the recipe. Next, oil the tray or your grill grates just before cooking with high-temperature oil, such as grapeseed, peanut, or olive oil.

For fillets, common sense says to cook them skin-side down. However, cooking them flesh-side down, then flipping, creates a yummy crust on the surface of the flesh, while preserving the skin so the fillet holds together as it's flipped. The result is a moist and appealing end product.

For seafood such as lobster, place the shell-side down on the grill. This allows you to cook the meat at a high temperature while basting it with butter or a marinade during the process. 

Fish holds together better if you leave it alone, flipping only once (or not at all) during the grilling process. Grill a fish fillet, steak, or a whole fish for a total of 10 minutes per inch of thickness (measured at the thickest point). Fish is fully cooked when the flesh begins to flake and is opaque in the center. Some fish, like Ahi tuna, is often served rare in the center with grill marks on the flesh.

For shrimp, the grill time is much shorter. Grill shrimp approximately 2 minutes on each side, depending on the size. Shrimp will not flake like fish, but an opaque center assures doneness. Lobster should be grilled for 8 to 10 minutes until the meat is opaque and pulls away from the shell. Be careful not to overcook shellfish, making the meat tough.

A fresh squeeze of lemon or a pat of herbed butter is all you need for serving a non-marinated piece of seafood. Or top it with fresh salsa or chimichurri before plating.