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Throw Another Fish on The Barbie: Grilling for a Healthier Fish Dish

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When I was a child, my mom made a habit of introducing me and my brothers and sisters to various exotic foods almost weekly when she’d bring the groceries home from the corner store. She would coax us like kittens into trying all kinds of fun tastes — corn fritters, baked eggplant covered in mozzarella, okra fried in egg with honey drizzled over the top, pomegranate seeds (sorry, but I still don’t see the point), and my favorite, steamed jumbo shrimp dipped in cocktail sauce. I grew up in a small town in the heart of the American breadbasket, so these foods were ever-so exotic to me, and I loved the foreign and exciting textures and flavors that jumped out of Mom’s grocery bags.

My favorite exotic food, hands down, was fish. My dad fished in season, and he’d bring home catfish, rainbow trout, and bass — every one a different but delicious taste. My siblings and I learned how to clean and debone the catch, and Mom would batter-fry it; that pungent fish-frying-in-the-pan smell to this day takes me back home. We savored the fish days, which only came around to our house a couple of times a year.

Now, decades later, I live in a different world of health-conscious people and responsible eating. No, not everyone pays close attention to what they eat, but in my family we have to. For us, batter-fried fish is no longer on the menu. So if I want to eat fish, and I do, I have to find a healthier way to cook it.

Young woman serving healthy grilled food to guests

This is where grilling, the oldest cooking method of all, saves the day, except for One. Big. Downside — I’m not great on the grill. Even my aprons are skittish, unlike the fearless, handmade, leather dealios that serious Texas master grillers wear. Little Believed Fact: BBQ did not originate in the American South where Olympic BBQ events honoring the best sauce are held in large open fields multiple times a year. I’m pretty sure Neanderthals cooked over an open fire... but I digress.

I dug in and researched How to Grill Fish, and what do you know? A plethora of grand ideas popped out of Google. Like always. I found dozens of recipes for fish marinades, bastes, rubs, sauces, and sides like you would not believe. Or maybe you would; maybe I’m the only one who didn’t know about the community of fish grillers living amongst us. Nevertheless, I’ve now garnered a handful of smart techniques and recipes that will make your grilled fish experience as exotic and flavorful as my mom’s batter-fried version. Almost.

Out of the Pan and Onto the Grill

I have to admit that grilling in general has always conjured heaps of bad juju for me. A disaster waiting in the wings. But grilling fish . . . ugh. Who can do that without the fish falling apart and dropping right onto the coals? Or the whole mess burning to a crisp while you pelt the flames with baking soda? Worst of all, though, are the looks you get from your family as they poke at the raw salmon or dry halibut sliding around in butter on their plates. The Apocalypse of fish cookery. Is that a thing?

But I am not afraid anymore; if I follow a few simple tips borrowed from the experts, I can do this, and so can you. Here’s what I’ve learned about grilling fish:

  1. Start by choosing the right fish. A firm, thick-fleshed or naturally oily fish, like salmon and tuna, work best for grilling.
  2. Never put fish on a cold grill. Preheat the grill on medium high. Clean the hot grill with a steel brush, and lightly oil it and the fish before you begin cooking.
  3. For crispy fish, use direct heat. Distribute the heat source evenly, place the fish directly over the heat source, and cook uncovered.
  4. If you don’t want crispy fish, use indirect heat (don’t forget to preheat the grill). For a gas grill, turn on only half the grill. For charcoal, pile the briquets under one side of the grill. Place the fish on the side of the grill without a heat source, and cover to cook.
  5. If you have soaked your fish in marinade, pat it dry with a paper towel before you cook it.
  6. Cook the fish until it’s just done. If you’re a Nervous Nellie like me, you’ll overcook your fish every time, so follow these instructions: Flip the fish when the edges are crusty. It’s done when the center is just opaque, and the edges flake when you test them with a knife.

Tip: If you wrap the fish in aluminum foil, you won’t get that grilled taste. But if you like steamed fish with other assorted veggies — Norwegian style — try it. Remember to oil the fish before you put it on the grill.

Fresh fish on the grill with lemons and herbs for seasoning

Mmmm... Smells Fishy To Me

I love sauces and seasonings, don’t you? Of course you do. So for an even more exotic and tasty experience, try a few seasonings and marinade tricks to go along with the fish you now grill like a master. After all, if the Texans can do it, so can we.

General Tips for Seasoning and Marinating Fish

  • Put fish and marinade in a ziplock bag and leave in the refrigerator for 30 to 60 minutes.
  • Dab excess marinade with a paper towel before grilling.
  • Baste fish occasionally with leftover marinade while cooking.
  • Brush fish and the hot grill with oil before cooking.
  • Substitute olive oil butter, soy butter, or olive oil for dairy butter if you want a healthy, unsaturated-fat alternative.
  • Mix different chopped herbs with butter or oil before basting the fish. Fresh cilantro, basil, chives, thyme, rosemary, and garlic are typical complements to fish, but you choose the flavor you want.
  • Place a cedar plank or half-inch thick citrus slices on the grill first, then lay the fish on top rather than cooking it directly on the grill. Don’t be afraid to experiment with variations on the fish-bed idea.

Marinade and Basting Combinations

Mix the ingredients listed below to get a cool, sweet, or spicy kick for your fish.

  • Brown sugar, soy sauce, and white grape juice (add vinegar for more punch) or chicken stock marinade
  • Olive oil, soy sauce, Dijon mustard, and minced garlic marinade
  • Olive oil and lime juice baste
  • Lemon juice, olive oil, minced garlic, minced fresh rosemary or dried rosemary, grated lemon peel, salt, and pepper marinade (great on tuna and swordfish)
  • Lemon juice, rosemary, olive oil, salt, and pepper marinade
  • (Spread on both sides of salmon while grilling) Sour cream, minced fresh chives, fresh dill, ranch salad dressing, minced fresh parsley, minced garlic, seasoned salt, and pepper
  • (Rub over catfish before grilling) Paprika, chili powder, cumin, coriander, cayenne, garlic powder, and salt
  • (Coat fish before grilling) Bread crumbs, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and parsley

Works Cited

  1. “How to Grill Fish,” Martha Stewart, “Everyday Food,” June 2012,
  2. “Grilled Fish With Citrus,” Martha Stewart, “Everyday Food,” June 2012,