How to Cook or Grill a Whole Fish

  • 01 of 07

    Slashing the Fish

    Biracial Chef Peparing Fish
    jonas unruh / Getty Images

    Grilling a whole fish is dramatic and thrifty all at the same time: You get to deliver a gorgeous, smoky grilled fish to the table – and you lose far less meat than you would had you filleted the fish beforehand.

    Start with a scaled and gutted fish that has had the gills cut out. First, you need to slash the fish on both sides every three inches or so. This helps the whole fish cook evenly. If you did not do this, the thick part would still be raw when the tail end was overcooked.

    This step-by-step uses a striped bass, known as rockfish in the South, but other excellent candidates for this treatment include bluefish, red drum, large walleyes, trout, landlocked salmon, smaller salmon such as Sockeye, black seabass, porgies, white seabass, Pacific rockfish, weakfish, snapper, and grouper.

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  • 02 of 07

    Oil the Fish

    Oiling raw mackerel fillets
    Philip Wilkins / Getty Images

    Grilling fish can be tricky – they stick to the grill a lot. So minimize this by making sure your grill is very clean, very hot, and very well oiled. Do this by soaking a paper towel in canola or some other inexpensive oil, then wiping down the grill with it just before putting the fish down.

    As for the fish itself, it should get a coating of a tastier oil such as olive or sesame oil. This helps prevent it from sticking to the grill and helps the seasonings adhere to the fish.

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  • 03 of 07

    A Tip on Prepping a Whole Fish

    Wrapping whole sea bream in baking paper, with lemons, herb, and butter
    Ian O'Leary (c) Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

    A quick tip: Have a "wet" hand and a dry hand. You will need to handle the fish frequently as you deal with it before cooking, and you do not want to keep running to the sink to wash the oil off your hands. So keep one hand oily, the other dry.

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  • 04 of 07

    Salt the Fish Well

    Close up of a chef sprinkling salt onto a fresh fish.
    Mint Images / Getty Images

    Salt your fish—more than you think you need to. There is something about a salty, grilled fish cooked over a hardwood fire. Yum! Liberally sprinkle salt over all parts of the fish, including the head, tail and inside the body cavity.

    At this point, it's important to not add any more seasonings. Most other seasonings, even black pepper, will burn on the grill and taste bitter when you eat the fish. Save the additional seasonings for when the fish comes off the heat.

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  • 05 of 07

    Grilling the Whole Fish

    Fish grilling on a barbecue with lemon slices and rosemary
    wundervisuals / Getty Images

    Lay the fish down on the grill with the tail facing farthest away from the heat. It will cook much faster than the head end, even with the slashes you made. It is very important that you do not grill large fish over very high heat! They will burn to a crisp on the outside before the center is cooked through. Steady, medium heat is what you want.

    How long? About 10 minutes per side on a 20-inch fish such as this striped bass. The general rule is ten minutes per inch of thickness.

    Only flip your fish once. It is a difficult operation that requires you to carefully lift the fish with two spatulas (or one long one), and GENTLY flip it over. If you have done everything correctly, you will get little or no skin sticking to the grill.

    Does sticking happen? You bet. Don't fret, the fish will still be tasty!

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  • 06 of 07

    The Finished Fish

    Whole roast trout with herb butter
    Philippe Desnerck / Getty Images

    Once the fish is done – you will know by looking at the exposed backbone in one of the slashes and seeing that it's cooked through to this point – lift it off the grill and set it on a platter to rest a bit. Enjoy the "oohs" and "aahs" of your guests.

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  • 07 of 07

    Serving a Whole Fish

    Grilled whole red snapper with salad and rice
    Lisa Romerein / Getty Images

    To serve, slide a spatula under a section that had been scored and simply lift it out and onto a plate. For the section closest to the head, move the spatula into the top of the fish over the ribs, which start below the backbone, then around the top and down toward the ribs in a semicircular motion. This ensures a boneless piece.

    Oh, and don't forget the cheeks of the fish, which are my favorite part. They will be orbs of yummy fish right under each eye. And the tails, if not burnt black, are crunchy and nutty-tasting. You can also pick at the meat between the ribs, as well as in the belly.

    Eating a whole fish makes for a primal, deeply satisfying meal. It may not be dainty, but it sure is good!