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Go to Steven Raichlen's skewer school and get stuck on kebabs.

Tips for stellar grilled fish.

Plus, recipes for Tangerine Teriyaki Tuna and
Whole Grilled Snapper With French West Indian Seasonings.



Cooking Class

Fish Meets Fire
by Steven Raichlen

Fish may live in water, but it reaches its apotheosis in fire. This truth will be readily acknowledged by anyone who has enjoyed fresh fish hot off the grill. Grilling is the best way I know to cook fish: the high dry heat crisps the skin, keeping the flesh moist and tender. The smoky scent of the fire seems to bring out the natural sweetness of the fish. And because there's no added fat, as in frying or sautéing, grilling is the ultimate in high-flavor, low-fat cooking.

Alas, grilling fish is not failproof and anyone who has tried to grill a fish only to have half of it stick to the grate may question my enthusiasm for a method that's as ancient as mankind itself. Fortunately, once you know about a few simple techniques and grilling devices, you'll grill perfect, stick-free fish every time.

Pick The Right Fish

The first secret is to pick the right sort of fish to grill. Steak fish, such as tuna and marlin, are perfect for grilling. (Their compact muscle structure keeps them intact on the grill.) Likewise, firm fish, such as dolphin (mahi-mahi) are great for grilling — even as fillets. Fatty fish, such as salmon and kingfish, are terrific for grilling. (Their oils keep them from drying out and are good for you to boot.) In fact, the only fish not suitable for grilling is fragile fillet fish, like sole or haddock, and even these can be grilled if you use a fish basket or fish grate.

Firing Away

In general, fish should be cooked over a high heat. (However, if you're cooking a large whole fish, you may need to work over a medium fire or even use the indirect method.) If using a gas grill, preheat it to high. If using charcoal, build a "three zone" fire. Rake half the lit coals in a double layer on one side of the grill; the other half in a single layer in the center of the grill; and leave the other side of the grill coal free. This gives you a hot zone to sear over, a medium zone to cook over, and a cool zone where you can move the fish if it starts to burn.   

Keep It Clean

Whatever your fuel, preheat the grill with the grate in place. (This sterilizes the grate and loosens any debris.) Vigorously brush the hot grate with a long-handled, stiff wire brush to knock off any debris. Oil the grate by folding a paper towel into a pad, dipping it in a bowl of oil, and running it over the bars of the grate. (Use tongs to hold it.) You can also use spray oil, but lift the hot grate off the grill with pliers or tongs and spray it away from the fire. (Spraying the oil directly on the grill will result in a dangerous flare-up.) I can't stress the importance of good grill hygiene enough: food sticks to a dirty grill and fish is especially prone to sticking. Besides, a dirty grill is gross.

Grab The Right Gear

Grill and cookware shops sell several accessories that further minimize the problem of sticking. The easiest to use is the fish basket, a flat wire basket that holds the fish between its hinged panels. The beauty of the fish basket is that you turn the basket, not the fish, so you never have a problem with breaking delicate fish fillets or sticking. (Don't forget to spray the basket with oil.) Use a large fish basket for grilling a whole fish; a multiple fish basket for grilling small fish or fish fillets; and a square wire basket for grilling fish steaks. One manufacturer (Charcoal Companion) makes fish baskets with removable handles, so you can close the lid of the grill to speed up the cooking.

Another useful accessory is the fish grate (sometimes called vegetable grate) — a flat metal plate with rows of holes in it. The holes allow the smoke and fire flavor to reach the fish, while providing more support than would the bars of a grill grate. Use a fish grate when grilling fragile fish fillets or steaks. Preheat it well and spray it with oil before adding the fish.

The Magic Of Rubs And Marinades

Fish tends to be rather mild tasting, so I like to jazz it up with a rub or marinade. A rub is a mixture of herbs, spices, and seasonings. One good rub for fish is equal parts salt, pepper, and chopped fresh or dried oregano, parsley, and rosemary. Sprinkle this mixture on the fish steak or fillet and rub it in with your fingers. Let it marinate for 15 minutes while you build your fire.

Marinades are good for dry fish, like tuna and wahoo. The basic ingredients are some sort of oil (olive or sesame), some sort of acid or flavoring (such as lemon or lime juice or soy sauce), some aromatics (such as onion, garlic, ginger, scallions, chili peppers, etc.), and a generous sprinkling of herbs, spices, and seasonings. The marinade keeps the fish moist during grilling and you can use any excess for basting. (Just be sure to boil the excess marinade in a saucepan first to kill any bacteria.)

How To Tell When It's Done

To tell when grilled fish is done, press it with your finger: the flesh will break into large clean flakes when it's cooked. Another test is to insert a metal skewer into the thickest part: it will come out very hot to the touch when the fish is cooked. Yet another test is to cut a small slit in the top with the tip of a paring knife. Fully cooked fish will have lost its translucence — even in the center. Remember that fish will continue to cook even after you've taken it off the grill.

Try Steven Raichlen's Recipes:

Tangerine Teriyaki Tuna
Whole Grilled Snapper With French West Indian Seasonings

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  • As with so much in cooking, your final results will be only as good as the raw materials. Start with impeccably fresh fish — the sort you get from a trusted fishmonger or gourmet shop. (If you shop at a supermarket, salmon is probably your best bet.) Fish should smell fresh and clean, not fishy. (Don't be embarrassed to ask to smell it.) Whole fish should have bright gills and clear, glassy eyes.
  • Many fish benefit from a light smoke flavor. Soak some oak or hickory chips in a pan of cold water for 1 hour. If using a charcoal grill, toss the chips on the coals just prior to putting on the fish. If using a gas grill, wrap the chips in foil, make a few holes in the top to let the smoke out, and place the foil bag under the grate over one of the burners. (Or follow the manufacturer's instructions.)
  • When cooking whole fish, make a few diagonal slices in the side of each fish to the bone. This helps the fish cook more quickly and evenly.
  • Don't marinate the fish for too long, or the salt and acids will "cook" it.
  • Use a wide spatula or tongs — not a barbecue fork-for turning the fish. A barbecue fork tends to break up the fish.
  • Use a clean plate for transferring the fish from the grill to the table. Never put cooked fish in a plate with raw marinade — you run the risk of bacterial contamination.

About Steven Raichlen

Steven Raichlen is the author of 20 books, including the IACP/ Julia Child Award-winning Barbecue Bible and the new Barbecue Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades (both published by Workman) and the High-Flavor, Low-Fat Cooking series, which won two James Beard Awards. He recently created a Barbecue University at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. You can reach him at his web site:

He has appeared numerous times on national television, including The Today Show and Good Morning America as well as CNN and The Discovery Channel. Raichlen lives in Coconut Grove, Florida, with his wife Barbara.



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