How to grill fish to perfection, then season with sauces, marinades, rubs

May 30, 2016

Mahi mahi kebabs are marinated in a spicy mixture, made with yogurt, onion, garlic, paprika and other spices, before being grilled along with fresh tomatoes.

Seafood and the grill. A match made in heaven. The ultimate fast food. Everything from shrimp to fish steaks and whole fish welcome smoky tones from one of our summertime pleasures — grilling.

No matter the equipment or the fuel, most seafood takes to grilling. I like to make fish kebabs on the hibachi, soak cedar planks for grilling a slab of salmon, light the gas grill for quick-cooking thin fillets, slow-smoke fresh-caught trout, griddle-grill mussels or shrimp and hardwood-roast meaty fillets for a special-occasion dinner. I love large whole fish skewered on a rod and slowly cooked in the campfire embers. Hobo packs of whitefish chunks, tiny new potatoes and sweet onion slices channel a Wisconsin Door County fish boil.

Before I light the grill, I take time to figure out the acceptable seafood to purchase. In this country, everyone wants to eat the same fish. We’re overfishing the most popular species, and we ignore other delicious varieties. Branch out; try the mackerel, the porgy, the skate and the yellowtail rockfish. All delicious and far less expensive than wild-caught Alaskan halibut.

If you think I’m overzealous about knowing your fish sources, please read at least one of the articles in the Associated Press’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series about slavery in the seafood industry. You’ll never enjoy all-you-can-eat shrimp at a cheap buffet restaurant again.

That being said, there are plenty of wonderful fish (and shrimp) options available. Just be sure to shop at stores that have vetted their sources. I read signs and packages and look for Marine Stewardship Council Certifications or check my Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app. Then I take their advice and adjust my cooking accordingly.

Here’s my starter guide for successful, flavorful seafood grilling all summer long:


Sustainable seafood can be pricey, so I add herbs and spices judiciously. I want the flavor of the protein to come through. Think salt and pepper, or a rub of herbs, a spritz of citrus or a dash of good quality oil. Then, boost flavors after grilling with a finishing sauce or a small pat of herbed butter or drizzle of aromatic olive oil and a shower of fresh herbs.

Sure, you can purchase bottled fish seasoning, but I have drawers filled with spices and a collection of salt from my travels, so I make my own, such as the all-purpose seafood rub that follows. Store it in a covered bottle, and use it on fish fillets for speedy weekday grilling.

For a zesty touch, try the spicy fish marinade that follows; I especially like it with skewered meaty fish.

For special-occasion grilling, I douse grilled fish and shrimp with a Mexican-style garlic, oil and dried-chili-pepper mopping sauce; the recipe follows. Alternatively, the lemon, ginger and chive finishing sauce that follows tastes terrific on most grilled fish. I especially like it on small, farmed Mediterranean sea bass or brook trout.


Good heat from hardwood charcoal or neutral-tasting gas is a must. Preheat a charcoal grill 30 minutes before cooking; plan on about 10 minutes for a gas grill. Most seafood cooks nicely when positioned directly over the heat source. Large whole fish or fish fillets weighing more than 3 pounds do better with more moderate heat, so I use the indirect method (not over the heat).

Add soaked wood chips to the coals or put them on a piece of foil set over the heat source if you like a smokier flavor. Always heat the grill grate thoroughly before you put the fish on it. Oil the fish — not the grate — to prevent sticking.


Forget the adage of 10 or 11 minutes per inch of thickness — the fish will be overcooked. I leave the fish at room temperature for 20 minutes or so before cooking, then set my timer for 8 minutes per inch. I can always add more time. The fish should almost flake when tested with the tip of a fork.


Season the fillets and oil them lightly. Grill directly over the heat. Resist the urge to turn them often; one flip is sufficient. If your grill grates are hot, the fish will release when the protein is set so you can turn it without tearing. Thin fillets, such as tilapia at less than 1/2 inch, cook in 4 minutes total. Fast food, indeed.


Make sure the fish is eviscerated, scaled and the gills have been removed. Rinse it well; pat dry. Season inside and out with salt and pepper or a seafood rub. If desired, fill the cavity with sprigs of fresh herbs. Oil on all sides, and place on a hot grill, directly over the heat.


Use a heavy, well-seasoned cast-iron griddle or skillet, and heat it on a hot grill until a drop of water evaporates on contact. Add 2 tablespoons high heat oil and then seasoned shrimp (peeled and deveined if desired) or scrubbed mussels or clams in a single layer. Cover grill and cook 2 minutes. Stir well. Cover grill again and cook until shrimp are just pink or mussels or clams have opened, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove to a platter, and drizzle generously with the some of the dried chili mopping sauce if desired.


For one of our favorite methods for moist, smoky fish fillets, simply soak cedar grill planks (look for them in large supermarkets, at Williams-Sonoma or hardware stores that stock grilling equipment) in water for 30 minutes or longer. Place a salt- and pepper-seasoned fish steak or fillet (salmon is great, so are mackerel and rockfish), skin side down, on the soaked plank set directly on the grill. Cover the grill and cook until the fish nearly flakes, usually 20 to 25 minutes for a 1 1/4-inch-thick fillet. Do not turn the fish, but baste every 5 minutes with the fish marinade or mopping sauce that follows. Carefully remove the fish (plank and all) to the table.



Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 5 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

I like to use double-prong metal skewers to prevent the food from slipping all around on the kebabs as I grill. Alternatively, use two bamboo skewers that have been soaked in water at least 20 minutes. This recipe is also terrific with 1/2-inch wide strips of salmon fillet; skip the tomatoes and thread the fish strips onto the skewers.

12 ounces mahi mahi, ahi tuna or swordfish steaks, each 1-inch thick

12 or 16 large cherry tomatoes

Half recipe spicy fish marinade, see recipe

Olive oil

Chopped fresh cilantro

1. Cut fish into 1-inch cubes. Alternately thread fish and tomatoes onto 4 double-prong metal skewers. Place skewers on a plate. Coat fish and tomatoes on all sides with marinade. Let stand at room temperature 20 minutes, or refrigerate up to 1 hour.

2. Meanwhile, prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium hot.

3. Spray or drizzle kebabs with oil. Place kebabs on grill directly over heat source. Cover grill and cook 2 minutes. Turn kebabs. Continue grilling until golden and fish is nearly firm when pressed, usually 2 minutes more. Serve hot sprinkled with fresh cilantro.

Nutrition information per serving: 250 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 160 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 41 g protein, 227 mg sodium, 1 g fiber


Prep: 10 minutes

Makes: about 3/4 cup

1/2 cup plain, nonfat Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 small white onion, finely grated

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon each: salt, turmeric, ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Use to coat raw fish fillets or skewered cubed fish steaks destined for the grill. Let fish rest with the marinade for 20 minutes before grilling.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 19 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 1 g protein, 101 mg sodium, 0 g fiber


Prep: 10 minutes

Grill: 15 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Leftovers make a great addition to salads; simply remove the skin and bones and pull the fillets into coarse shreds. Add soaked wood chips to the heated grill for added flavor.

2 whole Mediterranean sea bass (about 1 pound each) or 4 whole brook trout (about 1/2 pound each), scaled, eviscerated

Salt, freshly ground pepper

Fresh herbs sprigs, such as tarragon, parsley, thyme, rosemary

Olive oil

Lemon, ginger and chive finishing sauce, see recipe

1. Rinse fish; pat dry. Season inside and out with salt and pepper. Fill the cavities with the fresh herbs. Let stand at room temperature about 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium hot.

3. Spray or drizzle fish with oil. Place fish on grill rack directly over the coals. Cover the grill and cook 6 minutes. Carefully flip fish. Cover grill and continue cooking until fish almost flakes near the head, usually 4 to 6 more minutes.

4. Transfer to a serving platter, and spoon some of the finishing sauce over the fish. Serve hot.

Nutrition information per serving: 250 calories, 7 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 99 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 44 g protein, 162 mg sodium, 0 g fiber


Prep: 10 minutes

Makes: 3/4 cup

I drizzle this sauce over grilled salmon fillets, whole grilled fish and quickly grilled calamari steaks.

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice, from 2 small lemons

2 cloves fresh garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger or refrigerated ginger puree

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons each: chopped fresh chives, cilantro (or parsley)

Mix oil, juice, garlic, ginger and salt in a small bowl. Stir in chives and cilantro just before using.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 52 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 97 mg sodium, 0 g fiber


Prep: 5 minutes

Makes: about 1/4 cup

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 tablespoons salt

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1 teaspoon each: freshly ground black pepper, dried basil

1/4 teaspoon each: dried thyme, garlic powder

1/8 teaspoon sugar

Crush fennel seeds in a mortar with a pestle (or on a wooden cutting board with the bottom of a meat mallet or rolling pin). Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and shake well. Store in cool, dark place for up to 1 grilling season.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 7 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 3,490 mg sodium, 1 g fiber


Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 45 minutes

Makes: generous 1/2 cup

Use whichever dried chilies you can easily obtain — ancho are sweeter, while guajillo will be slightly spicier. If you have it, add a teaspoon or so of very finely cut dried chipotle chili for a nice kick. Use smoked paprika if you like smoke flavor. This is delicious served over grilled shrimp, mackerel and cod.

2 dried ancho chilies or 4 dried guajillo chilies, stemmed, seeded

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh garlic (10 to 12 cloves)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 to 6 fresh sage leaves, slivered, about 1 tablespoon (or 1/2 teaspoon dried sage)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika, optional

2 tablespoons freshly chopped cilantro

1. Use sharp kitchen shears to cut dried chilies into very fine strips. You’ll have about 1/2 cup.

2. Put chilies, garlic and oil into a small saucepan. Heat over low, watching closely, until garlic just starts to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in sage, salt and paprika if using. Cool to room temperature. Use at room temperature. Stir in cilantro just before using.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 91 calories, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 75 mg sodium, 1 g fiber



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