Grilling fish and seafood tends to be one of those things that seems scary for many grilling and barbecue fans. The delicate nature of fish along with the fact that it can go from perfect to “order pizza instead” in the blink of an eye, are all things that scare many otherwise expert, outdoor chefs away.
The reality, however, is once you master a few things, cooking fish is no more difficult than anything else—it just requires a bit of attention to detail.
Fortunately, pellet grills or pellet smokers can make cooking fish especially easy to do. With their electronic temperature controls combined with the great taste of the wood pellet fuel, making fish on a wood grill fueled with pellets like Griller’s Gold pellets couldn’t be easier. That said, great results can be had on a gas or charcoal grill—just make sure to manage your heat. And it’s easy to add that wood grill flavor to charcoal or gas grills by just using Griller’s Gold pellets. More on that below.
What type of fish should I grill?
In terms of what kind of fish to make on the grill—well, the answer is “any is great.” After all, people have been cooking fish over fire for as long as they’ve been catching and cooking fish!
Thicker cuts of firmer fleshed fish tend to work better on the grill—halibut and swordfish are ideal for the grill; trout, salmon, grouper, redfish, cod, and other less firm fish can also be grilled very successfully, and small/thin filets such as panfish filets (sunfish, crappies, bluegills) require the most attention as they cook the fastest, but again, are great on the grill.
When is fish done?
Most chefs like to cook fish to just past medium rare—which means the fish is juicy, just past opaque, and can be pulled apart in layers easily. For temperature, about 130 degrees in the center.
You often hear “cook to flaky” which most chefs think is dry and overdone – this is when the fish pulls apart into fine “flaky” bits. That is usually around 145 degrees or higher.
Shellfish and crustaceans like shrimp and lobster LOVE the grill—and the good news is that their firmer texture makes them a bit more forgiving.
For shrimp, fish, lobster and scallops, “perfectly done” is opaque but tender—once it becomes opaque, it’s pretty much done—and that doesn’t take a long time! But don’t overcook—it gets tough and rubbery.
Rules for Success:
- Manage your heat—on a wood pellet grill, use 350 degrees as your maximum heat, and depending on how smokey you want your fish, you may want to go as low as 225 degrees—classic “low and slow” territory. Specific examples are below.
- Clean and oil your grill’s cooking grid—fish loves to stick to dirty grill grids. Before you preheat your grill, give the grid a good scrubbing and then brush it with cooking oil. Preheat, and just before you put the fish on, brush it again with oil. Following this regimen will keep your fish from sticking.
- Use a marinade with oil on your fish—whisking oil into your fish’s marinade will also help it to avoid sticking.
- PAY ATTENTION—fish cooks really fast—so stay by the grill, and keep track of your cooking time.
- Use the fish rule of thumb for cooking time—8 minutes of total cook time for a 1” thick piece of fish over medium-high (400 degrees) direct heat. Using this as a starting point, you can usually, pretty successfully cook fish, adjusting cook time for variables such as distance from heat, heat level (medium is 350), indirect versus direct, etc.
Recipes and Cooking Methods:
Let’s have some fun and try it out!
Here are some great techniques for cooking on pellet wood grills, charcoal grills, gas grills, and some great/easy recipes to try:
Expert Hints for Cooking Fish
Here’s a great fish cooking checklist that works on all types of grills:
- Portion your fish. Smaller/thicker pieces of fish work the best on the grill but even if using thinner fish, cutting into smaller size pieces that fit your spatula will ensure you are able to turn the fish without it falling apart.
- Clean and oil the grids. Remove the cooking grid from the grill and give it a good scrubbing to remove old food, grease and carbonized “gunk”, then brush it with cooking oil like canola, vegetable or peanut oil. Many outdoor chefs we know buy an extra cooking grid that they use just for fish and they keep it super clean.
- Preheat to medium heat. 350 degrees if your grill has a numeric temperature control or to medium heat if it doesn’t (like on a gas grill). Once the grill is fully preheated, brush the grid with oil again, and put the fish on. See special hints for gas and charcoal below.
- Cook the fish turning once halfway through the cook time. If you’re using the “8 minute rule” a good way to do this is go 3 to 4 minutes on the first side, flip it and then adjust the rest of your cooking time depending on how cooked it is when you turn it.
- Use a heated platter! Remove your fish to a heated platter when it’s done – for some reason, fish loses its heat much faster than a beef steak or pork chop. Head that off by preheating your platter in a warm oven and putting the fish on it right off the grill. Don’t overdo it though—you’re going for warm, not hot.
- Use a Cast Iron Skillet. For smaller fish filets like panfish and tilapia, use a cast iron skillet on the grill, brushed well with oil. You’ll still get the great grill flavor but your fish won’t fall apart on the grill grates. Avoid cooking on aluminum foil—it just doesn’t work as well as a good cast iron skillet.
Cooking fish on a Wood Pellet Grill
First of all, start with the right wood fuel—Griller’s Gold! Fish, interestingly responds well to both mild and sweet woods like the Griller’s Gold Cherry or Fruitwood blend, and also to stronger flavors like Hickory, Smokehouse Blend, and Competition Blend. The key is to just experiment and learn what you like best. From there, follow the hints above!
Cooking fish on a Gas Grill
The good news is that with a gas grill it’s easy to manage heat – but get to know your grill’s heat—learn what burner setting gives you 350F. Also, you can get the great taste of wood fire grilling by using Griller’s Gold pellets in your grill. There are perforated tubes and boxes on the market that work great on gas grills—just fill them up with your favorite Griller’s Gold wood fuel pellets and put them below the grate on the flame deflector bars.
The heat from the gas flames will light off the pellets and you’ll get great smoke flavor! If you don’t have a pellet tube or box, the “cigar” method below works well too.
One additional hint for best success—preheat the grill with all burners lit, then when you put the fish on, shut off the middle burner(s) and put your fish there—you’ll get a good sear as the grid will be hot from the burner being on, but that area will cool a bit and the grill will act more like an oven. Then follow the rest of the above hints.
Cooking fish on a Charcoal Grill
The same reasons that make charcoal fun—the “meat/fire/good” equation, the heat, etc. can also make it tricky with fish. Here are 3 quick hints that are additional to the ones above.
- Use less charcoal, less charcoal = less heat. For a typical regular-sized “kettle” grill (like a 22” Weber kettle), use about 25 briquettes or a half-chimney of charcoal—you’ll get about 350 degrees of temperature from it.
- Set up for indirect cooking. Concentrate your lit charcoal on one half of the grill, and cook on the other side—this is more “oven” like but it will yield the best results.
- “Cigar method” Use Griller’s Gold pellets for extra flavor. Place a cup or so of Griller’s Gold pellets in the center of a doubled piece of aluminum foil, roll into a closed “cigar” shape (closed at both ends) and poke several holes top and bottom in the foil. About 4 or 5 minutes before you put the fish on, put the “cigar” directly on your coals. You’ll get great smoky wood-grilled flavor! You can also use a smoke tube or box like above.
Quick & Tasty Recipes for Grilling Fish
Garlic Butter Shrimp, Lobster, or Scallops
Melt a stick of butter and add, whisking well:
- juice of ½ lemon
- 2 cloves of minced garlic
- ½ tsp Old Bay seasoning
- ½ tsp paprika
Brush over the shrimp, lobster, or scallops prior to cooking and after turning. By the way, this is delicious on just about any fish—and for that matter—chicken breasts too!
Spectacular Lobster Tails
Using strong scissors or kitchen shears, cut the underside of the tail from where it joins the body to just short of the flippers. Spread the tail apart and then pull the meat out of the tail without detaching the flipper end, then close the shell underneath it. Spread the meat out over the tail. Prepare your grill per above instructions. Brush well with the garlic butter mixture above and place on grill meat side down.
Grill for about 2 ½ minutes, then turn the meat side up, brush with more garlic butter mixture and grill until just cooked through, time will be dependent upon the size of tails.
Chili-Brown Sugar Salmon, Grouper, or Trout
Prepare your grill and your portion of your fish for cooking.
- 2 T brown sugar
- 1 T chili powder
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
Brush your fish filets with olive oil and then sprinkle well with the seasoning. If cooking skin-on fish, just season the skinless side. If your fish is skinless, season both sides. Place skin side down (without skin, it doesn’t matter), cook 3 minutes, then turn and cook until fish is done to your liking. This preparation is also great on freshly caught lake bass and walleye.
“Blackened” grilled fish
Purchase a good quality blackening seasoning like Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun Redfish Magic. Melt a good quantity of butter and brush your filets (Chilean sea bass, redfish, grouper, mahi-mahi, catfish, bass, walleye, even salmon are all great this way) with the butter and then season generously with the blackening spice. Grill as usual, brushing with more butter at the turn.
“Bright and Tasty Tilapia”
While this recipe is great on tilapia, it’s also great for other small-filet fish like panfish or even perch filets.
- juice of 1 lime
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 T fresh cilantro chopped fine
- 2 T olive oil
Whisk the above ingredients together and brush over your fish. Let marinate for 5 minutes (no more or you’ll wind up with ceviche!) then onto your pre-heated grill. If you’re feeling confident in your skills, cook directly on the grid, otherwise put into a preheated cast iron skillet on the grill—no more than 2 minutes on the first side though!
Turn and cook until done—probably only 2 or 3 minutes more. Serve immediately!
Super Simple Chilean Sea Bass
While not inexpensive, Chilean Sea Bass (aka Patagonian Toothfish) is one of the best flavored fish there is. And if you don’t feel like popping the big $$ for it, this recipe works great on cod as well.
- Melt a generous amount of butter
- Brush your fish servings with the butter, then season gently with salt and pepper
- Grill to done, brushing with more butter at the turn.
Since Chilean Sea Bass tends to be thicker, measure the thickness of your filets and adjust cook time accordingly, going a bit longer on the first side.
Results: Mmmmm. Perfect. Seriously, nothing better than this!
And that’s it! Get your fish on, and use Griller’s Gold pellets for outstanding flavor!
And check out our other post on smoking fish on a pellet grill.