How to grill fish: Culinary institute campus president gives tips and tricks

Cooking fish is more challenging than cooking a steak, as each species . . . has a different cooking time

Published May 23, 2024 4:30PM (EDT)

Display of fresh fish at a fish market (Getty Images/Gary Yeowell)
Display of fresh fish at a fish market (Getty Images/Gary Yeowell)

This story comes from the Institute of Culinary Education, which has campuses in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as online programs.

Institute of Culinary Education

Los Angeles Campus President Lachlan Sands, whose restaurant career began in the kitchen at the seafood stalwart Water Grill, advises on how to achieve perfectly grilled fish and avoid missteps.


Clean Your Grill

This is the first step to making sure your fish cooks properly. The grill should be clean and smooth to ensure that the heat will diffuse effectively. Chef Lachlan explains that we put oil in a pan to create a viscous layer and to smooth over the micro serrations and micro scratches in the pan. “It’s the same for the grill,” he says. “You don’t want it to be rusty or dirty, you want it to be smooth.” He recommends putting oil on a paper towel to rub on the grill using a pair of tongs. “That won’t create a non-stick surface with a viscous layer, however, it will fill in the micro scratches that are on the grill that would otherwise diffuse the heat."


Protect the Fish

“If the fish has skin, the presentation side is always the skin side — it’s as simple as that,” he says. You must protect the skin before you put it on the grill. After seasoning with salt and pepper, brush the skin side of the fish with some mayonnaise. “Because it's an emulsion, it adheres to fish really well."


Stop the Shred

When on heat, sometimes the part of the skin that is not touching the grill will drape lower down and fall beneath the grill lines. “If you use a spatula or scraper, you’re just going to rip it,” Chef Lachlan warns, advising to let the fish cook two-thirds of the way through [time will depend on the type of fish] and lift it up using a carving fork instead of a spatula. “You can test to see if the skin has gotten the right color and crunchy consistency. Once it has achieved the right color, it will lift off on its own. You won’t have to force anything.” You can also use the carving fork to lift it slightly, then slide a fish spatula underneath the fork and above the grill. “If the fish doesn’t lift, it hasn’t been on there long enough.” 


Finish Gently

Once the bottom of the fish has that nice color, there are two options: Either close the grill or put a pan on top of the fish for about 10 or 15 seconds. The goal is to catch enough heat from the grill to cook the top of the fish so that it is just firm. “If the bone side gets just enough heat so it coagulates just beneath the surface, your guests won’t notice that that part is cooked less," he says.


Remember, It’s Not a Steak

“People think cooking fish is like cooking steak,” Chef Lachlan laments. He explains that, unlike steak, where the goal is to achieve the same temperature throughout, fish can have a gradual doneness from quite cooked on the skin side, all the way to lightly cooked on the bone side. “All fish reach temperature at different speeds,” he says. “It depends on the thickness and consistency of the flesh. That can take a bit of practice.”


More pro grilled fish tips:

  • If you are cooking fish that does not have skin, figure out which side had the skin and put the opposite side on the grill so that you always have your presentation side down.
  • Cook whole fish on both sides. “Because it's so thick, and there is a bone in there, it won't cook all the way through if you only cook it on one side.” He suggests waiting until the grill lines are formed on the bottom skin side, then painting the top with mayonnaise and flipping it over to cook it the same way.
  • Don’t move the fish! With the exception of getting that diamond pattern, by turning from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock, you should not move the fish around on the grill.
  • According to Chef Lachlan, arctic char works well on the grill. “It cooks very fast, so it might be one to two minutes from start to finish,” he says. But when it comes to a thick, dense salmon steak, it may take three to four minutes to cook.

By Kiri Tannenbaum

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