I Was Too Scared To Grill A Whole Fish—until My Guru Showed The Way

I've been riding this food writing racket for more than a decade now, and to this day I still have culinary blind spots. But that is the ultimate privilege of my profession, which has allowed me to nail a proper French omelette, finesse my spaghetti carbonara, and tackle French bistro food, and do this during my working hours.

Lately I've been yearning for my Weber kettle grill, which has sat idle in my backyard through snow and cold for six Chicago months. But spring is here. Burgers, steaks, chicken wings were all de rigueur (and frankly a bit boring), so I thought long about how I can improve my grilling aptitude. And then it struck me, like a flying carp to the face:

I've got to learn how to grill fish.

The whole idea seemed so romantic. I'd close my eyes and find myself in the Greek Islands. Before me, a whole dorade caught 30 minutes earlier, now charred crisp from the wood fire, dressed simply with salt, pepper, olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon. It all sounded so transportive, so delicious and satisfying, and yet... unfeasible. Grilling whole fish was something trained chefs do so you don't have to, plus it was something you'd pay $35 after the markup.

It sounded like a chore. Turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong.

I have chef Erling Wu-Bower to thank, whose restaurant Pacific Standard Time sits two blocks from Takeout world headquarters. I consider him perhaps Chicago's most deft seafood cook (he was nominated for a James Beard Award at his previous Chicago restaurant, Nico Osteria). Hearing him proselytize about grilling fish has an inspiring quality—not only in the sultry manner he describes its taste potential, but in how it makes his audience want to find the nearest open fire pit and start cooking.

The image of cooking a whole animal with its eyes staring back at you can be intimidating to some, but Wu-Bower said it's leagues more satisfying than cooking a featureless filet. He described the many experiences possible with just one whole fish: "The collar of the fish is one of the most delicious thing you'll ever eat. The crunchy part by the tail. The belly that's super fatty and little bit offaly versus the shoulder that's just pure meat. The skin that's burnt versus the skin that's still a little chewy. This is the experience about whole fish I love so much."

I sat down with Wu-Bower at Pacific Standard Time, and within 30 minutes, he provided all the tools I needed to start grilling. Wu-Bower did not offer a specific recipe. Rather, he shared bullet points of wisdom, which taken together gave me the confidence to tackle grilling fish whole. I share this with you now.

  • "With grilling anything, but specifically fish, it's 30% about the fish and 70% about controlling the fire," Wu-Bower said. A gas grill works fine, charcoal is better, but for best results, consider grilling over wood. Personally, I'm using lumpwood charcoal together with wood chips in a Weber kettle grill. A Weber, Wu-Bower said, is "one of the greatest things on earth. It's cheap, it works, it's engineered beautifully."
  • One of my biggest mistakes is I don't let my lump charcoal burn down to glowing embers. I never wait long enough. The time it takes from lighting your chimney starter to throwing the fish on the grill should ideally be 45 minutes. It should be hot enough that "it's hard-to-impossible to hold your hand over it." The 45 minutes is a perfect amount of time let the fish marinade and you to drink a few beers.
  • Branzino, or Mediterranean sea bass, is one of the least expensive fish you can buy. At my local Whole Foods, I was able to score one for $12. The fish was compact and manageable, but large enough to feed two. This would be an excellent fish to start your grilling adventure.
    • Make vertical slits on both sides of the fish, about an 1 1/2 inch apart, cutting nearly to the spine. It's going to allow the marinade to penetrate and help the fish cook more evenly.
    • The fun is in the marinade. Wu-Bower suggested starting with olive oil, some sort of acid (such as white wine, lemon juice, or both), fennel, whatever herbs you've got growing in your garden. Crush a clove of garlic. Salt and pepper, obviously. Flip this 3-4 times at room temperature, spooning the marinade into the open slits. After 45 minutes of marinating, stuff white wine-olive oily fennel, herbs, and lemon slice into the cavity of the fish, as much as you deem appropriate.
    • Once the grill is at temperature—there should be no flames, just glowing coals—take out your bottle of Pam or cooking oil spray. Cooking spray is your friend. Stand at a distance and spray the hell out of the grill grates. Be very careful here. Then, spray the hell out of the side of the fish you'll place onto the grates. "This is not a shy coating. You're shellacking the fish with it."
      • Place the fish with the opening of the guts (where you've ideally stuffed with fennel, lemon and herbs) facing you, with the backbone away from you. Why? "You're going to roll the fish over, and it's much easier to roll it on its backbone than the guts. There's more structural support."
      • Consider the "10-minute rule" of grilling fish. The thickest section of the fish is behind the head, near the shoulder. Measure it. The rule is 10 minutes an inch to cook (flip it once halfway, obviously). "It really works like a charm," Wu-Bower said.
      • After you've placed the fish on the smoking hot grill, immediately cover it with the lid. If you're using a Weber grill, leave the air control holes open—both on the lid as well as the underside of the grill. This helps circulate heat and create a more even cooking. Say you're cooking five minutes a side, Wu-Bower suggests removing the lid after 2 1/2 minutes.
      • Before you roll it over, respray the fish with Pam, as well as spray the part of the grate where the fish will land once you flip it. Using metal tongs by the head and, if you're willing to invest, a $15 fish spatula beneath the guts, roll it over once. Baste the top of the fish—now charred and crisp—with that white wine-olive oil marinade. Cover with the grill lid.
      • When the fish is done, use the metal tong and fish spatula again, at which point you must "confidently place the fish onto your serving platter," Wu-Bower said. "A fish can feel your fear. And if you're fearful, it will stick on the grill like a motherfucker."
      • I did everything Wu-Bower suggested I do. The above is the result. It was easy. It was breathtaking.