Hooked on the grill

A fearless guide for barbecuing your favorite seafood


"I like the fishes, swimmin' round in the sea,
I like to plop 'um on the grill
And I cook 'um up for me with a big pat of butter
Man it can't get better than this."

― "Moloka'i Slide," by Tad Suckling

Those words from a catchy Hawaiian tune echo the sentiments I felt on my first trip to Hawaii. Everywhere I ate, seafood was in abundance, prepared as easily as the song says: grilled and served with a simple sauce. But while the serendipity of throwing together a beachside meal makes for good lyrics, in practice, grilling seafood successfully takes a little know-how.

The challenge lies in the physical makeup of fish, which is more fragile than a hunk of meat. Success is based on how you "plop 'um on the grill."

Dense, firm fish in pieces that are at least 1 inch thick and small enough to slide onto a wide spatula (or thread onto skewers) can be placed directly on the grill. Turn them once, carefully.

But even for firm fish, as well as others that are more delicate, a little support works wonders. Set the fish (or piece) on foil trimmed to fit the outline of the fish, then lift the two together on and off the grill. No sticking. No falling apart. You don't need to turn the pieces over. Cover the grill so thick pieces will cook through.

Most fish cooks well over direct heat (see "How to Grill Fish" on page 2 of this article). For large, thicker pieces, such as whole trout or salmon, indirect heat provides temperature controls more like baking.

Shellfish presents few problems on the barbecue: Clams, oysters, and mussels pop open to eat. Barbecue shrimp and lobster in or out of the shell. Crab is best if cooked first, then warmed on the grill.


How To Grill Fish

Heat grill while you prepare the fish to cook.

DIRECT HEAT - beneath the food

1. If using charcoal briquets, cover firegrate with a single, solid layer of ignited coals. Let briquets burn down to desired heat.

If using a gas barbecue, turn burners to high and close lid for 10 minutes. Adjust the burners to desired heat.

Set the barbecue grill in place and measure heat:

2. To oil grill, brush with salad oil. Lay food on grill, cook as recipe directs.

3. Cover gas barbecue. Do not cover charcoal barbecue unless recipe specifies.

INDIRECT HEAT - on opposite sides of the food

1. If using charcoal briquets, mound and ignite 60 briquets on the firegrate of a barbecue with a lid. When briquets are dotted with gray ash, in 15 to 20 minutes, push equal amounts to opposite sides of firegrate. Add 5 more briquets to each mound of coals now and every 30 minutes while cooking. Set a drip pan on firegrate between coals.

If using a gas barbecue, turn all burners to high and close lid for 10 minutes. Adjust burners for indirect cooking (no heat down center) and keep on high unless recipe specifies otherwise.

Set barbecue grill in place.

2. To oil grill, brush with salad oil. Lay food on grill, but not over heat source.

3. Cover grill (open vents for charcoal). Cook as recipe directs.

Firm, dense fish that can go directly onto the grill: mackerel, mahi mahi, opah (moonfish), orange roughy, salmon (with skin), shark, sturgeon, swordfish, and tuna.

Fish that need support: barracuda, bass, butterfish, catfish, Chilean seabass, cod, flounder, halibut, lingcod, rockfish, sablefish, salmon (without skin), sand dab, snapper, sole, tilapia, and trout.

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