Friday, August 22, 2008

Grilled Fish: Skin-side down or skin-side up first?

It must be the glasses. Seriously -- I am convinced that the reason Alton Brown is so cool and Chris Kimball is so un-cool is the glasses. Well, maybe the haircut has something to do with it too. But when it comes to actual results rather that "personality," Chris's institution, Cook's Illustrated, wins hands down. What I mean is, if we gave one home cook Alton's instructions for say grilling fish, cooking steak, etc. and gave another home cook Cook's instructions, I'd bet my money on Cook's. They don't just talk science, the use scientific method. Not the chit chat about the molecules and proteins that makes TV personalities look smart. They take the empirical approach to evaluating cooking techniques. In other words, they test the same old boring technique (like pan searing steak) hundreds of times to find the best way. It doesn't make for the best entertainment, but it makes for some very tasty food. Sorry Alton. I don't mean to pick on you. It's just that the few of your recipes that I've tried were somewhat disastrous.

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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Rub the fish all over with 1 tsp canola oil per pound of fish (if you used an oily marinade, skip this step).
  5. If the fish wasn't seasoned earlier, generously sprinkle with salt and pepper on all sides right before placing it on the grill.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.


Anonymous said...

We swear by Cook's in our house and even have my mother in law hooked!

I can't wait to see in September if the Cook's country show on PBS is as good as the original.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. That's for the reminder on grilling fish. Can't wait to test it out.


Anonymous said...

Here's another option, especially for salmon - lower your grill heat to maybe 300, cook it skin side down, and leave it that way for the whole cook - don't slip at all. The skin will be perfectly crispy, and the fish will cook suprisingly evenly. If you have one of the 'dome' cookers like a big green egg or grill dome, the results are even better. When you go to eat, the fish will slide perfectly off the skin.

Nick Wasilewski said...

Alton is probably the best thing Food Network has going for them right now. I'm sure Cook's has had some pretty mediocre recipes that even you have cringed at.

Helen said...

Sorry if I make you cringe, Nick, but I am not a big fat of Alton's and I don't remember Cook's ever having a recipe that made me cringe. And I have definitely had more revelations from Cook's (perfect grilled fish, perfect steak, vodka pie dough) than I've had from Alton.

Stacey Snacks said...

I always grill my fish skin side up first, and on non stick foil with the grill lid open.
It works everytime, and if the fish stick a little, then just the skin stays on the grill!
Great information! thanks!

StockFoodPhotographer said...

Thanks for these great tips. I was just about to grill skin side down, the entire time. I'm glad I read this before cooking tonight :) I have a nice chunk of Pacific salmon ready to fire.

dharmse said...

Helen, do you still cover the grill with a disposable pan if you have an infrared grill? I have a Solaire grill that gets way hotter then my Ducane ever got.

Should I still use the disposable?

Jason said...

I have never tried an infrared grill, but I am guessing you wouldn't need a pie plate. it will be hot enough already

Jasmine said...

I had literally never grilled ANYTHING before, ended up with some free salmon fillets, decided to try this. Worked like a charm! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This method is too complex. I agree some fish are too wimpy to grill (I suggest poaching) but for those that are grill worthy... Just grill 'em. Use a charcoal grill and get it good and hot. Season fish they way you like it and place skin-side down. Put on the cover and close the air holes. As for time...when the fish is done it will slide right off of the skin. The hot convection of the grill will brown the top while the skin will protect the bottom. If you need multiple tools, oils and 10 steps to grill, you are doing it wrong.

Anonymous said...

Huge fan of Americas a Test Kitchen- Brown too but ATK grill instructions are the best- an update to OP- using heavy duty foul to cover the grill while preheating works better than the pie plate and ATK now suggests brushing the grates 10 times! I'm an Alaskan- Salmon is a staple. This method is perfection. And BTW, try the skin! With this method it won't stick. It's delicious and crazy healthy!

Anonymous said...

Used these suggestions and my Vermilion Snaper filets came out perfect! Than you for the information.

Asiya said...

I made this for the second time tonight and it is so yummy, delicious, and moist! A home run for the kids, too! Thank you!

Elizabeth F. Akers said...

This dish are my very favourite food of all time. Yours look amazing! YUM! Thanks for sharing this tasty recipe! I cant wait to try it!

Josa Martinez said...

I'm a skin side down first girl. Something about the aesthetic of that crispy skin as the fish filet finishes cooking. Great article!

Zyrkaloi said...

This method didn't for me. The flesh side got charred and started to fall apart and the middle was raw.