Branzini, Arctic Char, Red Snapper and Sea Bass all turn out amazing with this simple, rustic approach to grilled whole fish that is a healthy, wonderful dinner option for family or guests!
One of my kids’ favorite things to eat for dinner is a “whole fish”. In fact, this is what my oldest requested for our back-to-school feast this past year, specifically mentioning that she wanted it to have the head and tail on! She’s all about presentation, I guess.
I know that lots of kids aren’t that into seafood but I feel like grilling a whole fish is a great way to get them excited about it. Whenever I plan to make a whole grilled fish for dinner, I take the girls to the farmer’s market or a store that has a good, fresh selection of seafood to “help” me pick out a fish. They love seeing them displayed on ice along with the octopus and shellfish. It’s almost as good as a trip to the aquarium, lol.
I have posted on here before about how much we love eating grilled fish. Like these Garam Masala Salmon Steaks that take less than 15 minutes and are Whole 30 compliant. And a grilled whole fish is just as easy, healthy, and quick to make, although it has a totally different, subtler flavor.
I always try to cook a whole fish within a day of purchasing it, preferably the day of, because fish really is so much better fresh, not frozen. Whole Foods and some other grocery stores will even prepare your fish for you, doing the descaling and cleaning while you wait so you don’t have to mess around with that at home. I don’t shop for everything at the higher end, pricier grocery stores like Whole Foods, but quality seafood is something I feel like it is worth it to splurge on once in a while.
Plus, I can usually get a more diverse selection there, too, over what is typically offered at my normal grocers. Some of our favorite options for grilling are Branzini or Arctic Char, although Red Snapper and Sea Bass also work well with the simple flavors of lemon and herbs on the grill.
Here are some tips I think you will find helpful for grilling a whole fish if you have never tried it before.
Don’t put your fish on the grill straight out of the fridge.
A cold fish is more likely to stick to the grill. You want to pull your fish out and let it sit on the counter for 20 minutes or so, just like when cooking a steak, while you are heating the grilled and prepping lemons and garlic.
Clean and oil your grill grate before grilling a whole fish.
While your grill is preheating, brush it well with a grill brush to remove any past stuck-on bits of food so that it is clean. Then take some tongs and a wad of paper towel doused with a bit of oil and wipe down the tops of the grates with the oil-soaked paper towel using the tongs so you don’t singe fingers.
Don’t attempt to flip your fish too early.
Once a whole fish has cooked long enough on one side, it will release from the grill grates and be flipped easily onto the other side, without sticking. If you go to flip it and find that it is tearing apart because the skin is still stuck to the grill grate, chance are that the grill wasn’t hot enough when you put the fish on, the fish was too cold when you put it on, or that it just hasn’t had long enough to cook yet so the skin is still stuck.
You can see in these pictures that the skin of my Branzini was totally intact and there really was no secret to my method other than the three tips I mentioned above. Their tails all singed off, which is normal, but if you care about keeping the tail more preserved for presentation, you could wrap it in aluminum foil before cooking. This is one dish where I serve it whole, as is with the lemon slices and everything still in it, on a platter because it has a rustic, wonderful appearance to it. This is maybe romanticizing our approach to food and dinner too much, but eating this way gives me a feeling of gratitude and connectedness to the Earth and I feel like there is a sort of hearkening back to centuries upon centuries of our human ancestors who ate much more simply than we do today. That grateful feeling is something I don’t think I think enough about when it comes to the foods we eat and it strikes me every time I prepare and serve a whole fish this way.
This approach to cooking grilled whole fish is so simple that it hardly feels like a recipe. You can swap out the lemon for lime or even orange slices, and switch up your herbs from thyme to sprigs of marjoram or cilantro or even parsley, if you like.
Also, keep in mind when selecting your fish that a 2-pound fish will feed 2 people. If you can get smaller fish that are around 1 1/4 pound, you could grill one for each person at dinner, which is especially nice if this is something you are serving guests.
Ready to fire up that grill? Let’s get going!
- 1 1 1/4-2 lb. whole fish
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1/2 lemon, sliced into discs
- 1-2 sprigs thyme
Remove your fish from the fridge and let it stand at room temperature for 20 minutes. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
Lightly drizzle the fish all over with the olive oil and season generously, inside and out, with the salt & freshly ground pepper. To properly season meat, don't get your hand too close when sprinkling seasoning on - if you pull your hand back a bit and sprinkle salt from a little higher up you will get more even coverage. Stuff the cavity of the fish with the lemon discs, garlic cloves, and thyme sprigs.
Preheat the grill to medium-high heat and use tongs to brush the cleaned, preheated grill grates with an oil drenched paper towel.
Carefully transfer the fish to the grill so the aromatics don't fall out and grill for 8-10 minutes over medium-high heat. Don't attempt to move the fish. When the first side is done, it will be lightly charred on the bottom and the skin will release easily from the grate. Flip the fish over and and grill until cooked through and the flesh is white throughout, about another 8-10 minutes.
Carefully remove the fish from the grill and place on a platter to serve.
Like what you see here? Be sure to sign up to join my mailing list so you don't miss out on more recipes like this one!