But even I, Cook's biggest fan, approached Fish 101 section in the May 2008 issue with some degree of arrogance. "What can they teach me about fish?" I thought. "They barely even publish fish recipes." I changed my mind after reading the article. It was surprisingly good and crammed a lot of info into 2 pages. None of it was new to me until I got to the Grilling section.
I've grilled fish so many times, there was something I took for granted -- you place it on the grill skin-side down first, then flip onto the flesh-side. At least, that's the way the fish authorities, James Peterson and Mark Bittman, do it in their books, and that's the way I've always done it. It made sense because that's how the fish is seared in the skillet (another direct dry cooking method). If the fish fillet is thick and needs to be finished in the oven after pan-searing, you want it to end up skin-side up toward the end of cooking. Juices tend to leak out of the fish when it's in the oven and you don't want them to make the skin soggy.
Imagine my surprise, when Keith Dresser's article in the Cook's suggested placing the fish on the grill skin-side up. That just seemed wrong. I was even more surprised when he suggested placing a disposable aluminum pan upside down on the grill while preheating to "superheat" the grill. "What fussiness!" I thought. Sure, the grill has to be very well heated for the fish not to stick, but I am sure it would be hot enough even without this aluminum thingy.
Curiosity got the best of me, however, and I decided to put this method to the test. Luckily, I had a disposable pie plate in my pantry and a salmon fillet that needed cooking?
Revelation number 1: The pie plate really works! The fish does brown significantly better and sticks less.
Revelation number 2: grilling skin-side up first produces better results. The grill marks on the flesh side are cleaner and there are fewer flare ups. Did the skin suffer? Not at all. It was just as crisp as the piece that was grilled skin-side down first. The fish on the left was grilled my old way (skin-side down first), the fish on the right was grilled Cook's way (skin-side up first).
Thanks Keith for your research and a fabulous organization of results.
Thanks Chris for sticking with your mission to improve real home cooking.
Tips on grilling fish
- Choose the right fish type. The fish to avoid are flaky fillets that are sold skinless like cod, haddock, sole, flounder, sable, and tilapia. These fish are likely to fall through the grill. All other fish types can be used for grilling. Salmon, bluefish, halibut, stripped bass, swordfish, tuna, and small whole fish like red snapper, sea bream, trout, and branzino are particularly delicious grilled.
- Scrape the grill clean. Place a disposable aluminum pan upside down on the area where you'll be placing the fish. Cover the grill and preheat on high heat for 10 minutes. Do not remove the upside down pan until you are ready to place the fish on the grill.
- Dry the fish very thoroughly with paper towels. Don't feel bad that you have to wipe off all your marinade. It will only stick to the grill, or prevent browning, or create flare ups.
- Rub the fish all over with 1 tsp canola oil per pound of fish (if you used an oily marinade, skip this step).
- If the fish wasn't seasoned earlier, generously sprinkle with salt and pepper on all sides right before placing it on the grill.
- Remove the upside down pan from the grill. Dunk a wad of paper towel in canola oil. Hold it with tongs and wipe the grill with oil 4 times where the pan used to be.
- Place the fish on the grill (skin-side up if grilling fillets), diagonal to the grill grates. Cover the grill and cook for 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness or until the fish gets grill marks.
- Slip the tins of a fork between the grill grates and gently push up on the fish. Do it in couple of places until the grill lets go of the fish. When flipping delicate fish, do not try to lift it in the air with tongs and flip onto the other side. Instead, turn it onto empty grilling space next to it, like turning a page. Grill on the other side until cooked through, 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness.
- Err on the side of undercooking. Grilling can easily dry out the fish. Estimate total cooking time to be 8 minutes per inch of thickness for steaks and fillets and 10 minutes for whole fish. Start checking for doneness 2 minutes before the estimated time.
- To remove the fish from the grill, dislodge it with a fork like you did when turning it. Then lift one side of fillet or whole fish barely off the grill, slip a spatula underneath, and lift the fish off the grill.