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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.
When you buy a fish in the grocery store, most of the time it comes pre-prepared in many ways; it’s been cleaned, descaled, and likely beheaded for your convenience.
But when you buy a fresh caught fish from a fish market, or catch one yourself, things aren’t so simple. This is both a good and a bad thing, as it creates a bit of a chore for you, but opens up a ton of options. One of these options is grilling the whole fish, even for fish where grilling is often not an option; white fish are usually too flaky and delicate. But when you keep the whole banana (so to speak), the fish remains a bit more robust on the exterior.
So, let’s go over step by step the process for taking a whole, fresh fish from the water to the table.
1. How to Clean a Fish?
If you’ve never cleaned a fish before, it may seem like a daunting task. After all, where do you start? The answer: the scales. They don’t taste very good.
First, you’ll want to descale the fish. This is easier than it may sound, but takes a bit of practice before it stops feeling clunky. Take a very sharp knife, preferably one with only a single cutting edge. Set the knife upright, blade down on the fish, then tilt it slightly so that the cutting edge of the knife is facing AWAY from the direction the scales are running on the fish (away from the head, in other words). You’re never going to want to really get your knife blade under the scales or you may score and ruin the meat. Drag the knife, leading with the blunt side somewhat, and applying enough force to scrape the scales. Short, firm (but not too vigorous) strokes are needed here to remove the scales. Make sure to get all of them, from the base of the tail up to the gills.
Repeat on both sides until all scales are gone. From there, you move onto cleaning.
To put it delicately, begin at the rear. Take your knife and cut a small triangle or wedge at the fish’s rear (you should see a small hole there, which should be the center of your wedge; use your imagination as to what it may be for), between the two bottom fins. This gives you an easy entryway for your knife, especially if yours has a blunt tip but sharp edges.
Cut a gash all the way from that rear fin to roughly the “chin” of the fish, and then scrape out all the innards. Make sure you get everything, as these innards are largely inedible, mostly because the intestines and stomach are small and difficult to separate out from the other, potentially tastier organs (unlike in, say, a chicken).
If you prefer, you may also cut off the head and fins at this point, but it’s not necessary. You may also choose to remove the bones.
Depending on the fish, this could be an easy or difficult task. If the fish has large, thick bones (like a salmon), you can easily widen your gash and then pull the bones out; this is a surprisingly easy task, as fish bones aren’t very strongly connected to the flesh even when uncooked. It is somewhat time consuming, as you need to be thorough, but it’s one of the easiest things in the world.
In the case of something like a mackerel…you’re probably better not bothering. You could pull bones out all day and still miss what feels like a hundred of them inside. Even professionally deboned fish filets of this type are often left with quite a few nigh-invisible bones.
Rather than lulling yourself into a false sense of security, just skip this step for a fish with more delicate bones, and simply be careful when you’re eating it, and advise your guests to do the same.
2. How to Grill Your Fish?
Believe it or not, this is the easy part.
The hard part is basically figuring out what surface to use. You have essentially three separate options.
You could lay your fish directly on the grill grates, the same way you would a steak.
Alternatively, you can wrap your fish in a foil packet before tossing it on the heat.
Finally, you could use a wood plank for grilling, and toss your fish on there to soak up a little bit of extra woody flavor; cedar is a popular choice.
All three of these work just as well as the others. The latter two are self-explanatory, and very simple. The first requires a bit more prep, as I’ll explain in a moment.
No matter what else you do, you’ll need to prepare your fish with some sort of seasoning. A light blend of salt, pepper, and lemon juice (or slices of fresh cut lemons) is a classic accompaniment to most fish, though goes better with white fish like bass.
Pat your fish dry before rubbing it down with the seasoning, no matter what you choose. This is doubly important if you plan to cook directly on your grill grates.
Likewise, if you’re directly grilling the fish, you’ll want to generously oil the grates; if you’re feeling lazy (and your grill is properly clean) you could just slide a stick of butter up and down the grates once they’re heated up a little bit.
Toss the fish onto the grill, making sure it’s under indirect heat. Grill about 10 minutes on each side, until thoroughly white all the way through.
And…that’s it! I told you this was the easy part.
You can, of course get fancier with it, but that’s all in the preparation of the fish. Particularly, it’s a popular technique to stuff the fish’s cavity with some kind of aromatic (things like fresh garlic cloves or ginger) that impart a nice flavor while cooking.