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How to Grill a Whole Fish

How to Grill a Whole Fish

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A video demo of this easy Greek dish, plus more recipes from San Francisco's Kokkari restaurant

Grilling or cooking whole fish can seem intimidating to many home cooks, but it's actually quite an easy process — especially if a chef teaches you how to do it. Above is a video from chef Erik Cosselmon of San Francisco's popular Greek restaurant Kokkari. With step-by-step tips, from proper heat level to tricks for knowing when the fish is done, he shares his expertise with home cooks.

The recipe for the whole fish is below, as well as two others from his cookbook Kokkari. All three recipes are served with the Kokkari Dressing, a mix of fresh herbs, garlic, and lemon juice that is decidedly Greek in flavor. If making the whole fish goes well at home, then maybe give the grilled octopus a shot.

Grilled Lamb Chops with Kokkari Dressing

Easy to grill, these lamb chops can be eaten with a fork and knife, but make sure not to miss the tasty meat near the bone.

Grilled Octopus with Lemon and Olive Oil

Meaty and full of flavor, grilled octopus is commonly served at most restaurants near the water in Greece.

Grilled Whole Fish with Kokkari Dressing

Try topping this flaky white fish with a good-quality olive oil to finish.

How To Cook A Whole Fish

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.

A step-by-step tutorial for how to roast a whole fish in the oven. Don’t be intimidated — it’s actually super easy, and crazy delicious.

Friends, we’re goin’ all in today.

We’re talking about how to cook a whole fish!

I’ve been getting tons of requests from you guys for a step-by-step tutorial on this. Because since moving to Spain, many of you know that I’ve been on a quest to conquer my culinary bucket-list item of learning how to cook (and eat!) whole fish. As a fish lover, it’s something that I have always wanted to learn, but was admittedly too intimidated to try for far too long. But a few months ago, after passing by the fresh fish stands at our neighborhood market for the hundredth time, I finally geared up my courage and walked up to one with a friendly fish lady and asked her to help a girl out. And now, months and months and dozens and dozens of fish later, “fish night” has officially become a tradition in our little casita here. And we are hooked. (<– Hehe, fish joke!)

Because here’s the thing — it’s actually ridiculously easy to roast a whole fish in the oven!

Other bonuses? It’s incredibly flavorful, thanks to just a few basic seasonings. You can also guarantee the freshness of the fish so much more accurately when purchasing it whole, versus taking a chance with a fresh or frozen filet. And perhaps most importantly, you can guarantee that your fish will be perfectly cooked with this method — amazingly juicy and flaky and tender on the inside, and deliciously crispy and seasoned on the outside. (Truly, this method has proved far more foolproof, in my experience, than cooking plain filets.) It’s a win-win all around. And while it feels so fun and new and novel to us as expats here, it’s actually how most people cook their fish anyway here in Spain, ha.

So if you’ve ever wanted to try cooking your own whole fish, get to know the nice fish lady (or guy) at your favorite fresh fish counter, and bring home a pescado or two to try. Then I’ll walk you step by step through the whole process. Don’t be scared — I seriously think you are going to love it.

Recipe Summary

  • 2 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-pound whole red snappers, cleaned and scaled
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large sprigs rosemary plus 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, or 2 teaspoons dried rosemary, crumbled
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dry bread crumbs
  • Lemon wedges, for serving

Light the grill. Rinse the fish dry the surfaces and cavities thoroughly. Cut shallow incisions in a crisscross pattern, about 1 inch apart, in each side of both fish. Season each fish cavity with 1/8 teaspoon of the salt. Put a rosemary sprig in each cavity or rub with 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary. Rub the surface of both fish using 2 tablespoons of the oil, the garlic, the chopped fresh or remaining 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, and the remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt. Sprinkle the bread crumbs on both sides of each fish. Drizzle both sides with the remaining tablespoon oil.

Put the fish in a grill basket or onto a very clean grill rack. Cook over moderately high heat for 7 minutes. Turn and grill until golden and just done, about 7 minutes longer. Remove the fish carefully so it doesn't stick.

Serve the fish on a platter. Run a knife between the flesh and the bones and lift off the fillet. Turn the fish over and repeat. Repeat with the other fish. Pass lemon wedges.

Mackerel Provençal

A whole fish hot off the grill—with its tempting crisp skin and juicy, tender meat—is one of my favorite foods, both to cook and to eat. I like to grill fish whole because, with the skin and head intact, they look so dramatic, and the skin keeps the fish moist and seals in the flavor. Yet because fish is more fragile than beef or poultry, it requires a little extra attention to keep it from falling apart on the grill. Choosing the right type of fish and cooking it over a fire that’s not too hot helps to keep the fish moist and flavorful—and in one piece.

Pick a firm fish for grilling

Firm-fleshed fish with a high oil content are the best choices. A high oil content helps keep the meat moist and gives you a bit of an advantage in getting the fish off the grill in one piece. Try strong-flavored fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and bluefish they’re particularly complemented by the distinctive, smoky flavor that grilling gives them. Less oily fish—snapper and rockfish, for example—can be grilled, too. To keep their flesh moist and prevent sticking, brush them with oil before you put them on the grill.

Shop for fish with your eyes and nose. When choosing fish for grilling, the general rules of freshness apply: Put your nose near the fish it should smell fresh, not strong or unpleasant. The eyes should be bright and full, not murky or sunken, and the flesh should feel firm and bounce back when pressed. Fresh fish is bright and shiny, not blemished or slimy.

When buying fish to grill, have your fishmonger clean and scale it. Some cooks say that grilling a whole fish with the scales intact will make the fish less likely to stick to the grill, but I find it just makes a mess. A large fish like a salmon will be easier to serve if you have it boned before you cook it. The same is true for mackerel, too, but because of its anatomy, don’t expect to get out every last bone.

Add more flavor to fish with stuffings and marinades

Another advantage of grilling a whole fish is that you can fill the cavity with fresh herbs or slices of lemon, or you can brush the insides with mustard or other seasonings. Once the cavity is filled, tie the fish with several pieces of butcher’s twine to keep the filling inside. (I don’t bother tying up small fish like mackerel.) Tying the fish also makes it easier to handle because the belly won’t flop open as you try to turn it.

Marinades are another great way to flavor grilled fish. Just don’t leave fish in an acidic marinade for more than a few hours. Acids such as lemon juice and vinegar will “cook” the flesh and, if left too long, can give the fish an unpleasantly mushy texture.

When using a glaze, baste only the inside of the fish before grilling brush the outside with the remaining glaze once the fish is off the grill. Glazes usually contain honey or sugar, which, if basted on the skin before grilling, can cause the fish to stick and burn and generally make a mess of the grill.

Soy-Glazed Grilled Snapper Mackerel Provençal

Use a clean, hot grill to keep fish from sticking

You should always grill on a clean rack, but this is especially important when cooking fish. Food will stick to a dirty grill, and if your fish sticks, your dinner is doomed. Also, be sure the grill is hot before you put the fish on it. If the rack and fish heat up together, they’ll form a bond that can be tough to break.

Once the grill is hot, give it a good scraping with a grill brush to get rid of any residue. Then, season the grill with a bit of oil for extra protection against sticking. I use a tightly rolled terry-cloth towel tied with twine and soaked in oil and rub it quickly over the grate. Just don’t use too much oil or it will drip into the fire and cause flare-ups.

A bit of oil seasons the grill to give you added protection against sticking. A rolled terry-cloth towel, tied with twine and soaked in oil, makes an easy-to-use “oil rag.”Deborah Jones

Grill fish over a gentle fire

Because fish is delicate, it doesn’t require the intense heat that’s needed to sear meat and poultry. Set the grill rack at least four inches from the fire and grill the fish directly over moderately hot coals. If grilled over too high a heat, the skin will burn before the meat can cook.

Turning a whole fish is the most nerve-wracking part. For the best results, let the fish cook for several minutes before turning, and turn it only once. For a larger fish, use two spatulas or a two-pronged sauté fork and work carefully.

A fish tends to come off the grill easiest when it’s done. In other words, if you have to chisel at the underside when turning it because it’s sticking, it probably isn’t done on that side yet. Leave the fish on until it comes off the grill with only a moderate amount of encouragement.

Cooking times will vary depending on the fish you’re cooking and how hot your fire is. To test for doneness, slip a small knife into the back of the fish and gently pull the meat away. The meat should be moist and cling for a moment before coming away. Don’t cook the fish until it flakes or it will be dry.

First of all, a question in most everyone’s mind is how do you stop the fish from sticking to the grill if you aren’t using foil or a grill basket. Well, the answer is actually easy. Here are some more tips:

  • Make sure you brush the grill plate with a little oil
    Use the freshest fish possible
  • Lightly rub the skin of the fish with oil before seasoning it
  • Move the fish as little as possible and only flip once
  • The most important thing if you want to cook a whole fish from the grill is to let the fish cook undisturbed until the skin crisps up. And this makes the most amazing crisp skin that can be eaten as well. Arguably the best part!

Recipe Summary

  • 1 (2-pound) whole striped bass, gutted, scaled, and trimmed, on both sides (see Scoring Whole Fish, below)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme, divided
  • 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 4 sprigs fresh lavender (optional)
  • Lemon slices
  • Lemon rind strips
  • Fresh thyme, rosemary, and, if desired, lavender sprigs

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Score whole striped bass rub evenly with olive oil. Sprinkle skin and scored flesh with salt and pepper. Place 4 sprigs each of thyme, rosemary, and (if desired) fresh lavender into cavity. Tuck 3 lemon slices, 1 strip lemon rind, and 1 sprig of each herb into each scored slit. Grill 7 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness. (Or place fish on a baking pan, and roast at 425° for about 25 minutes.)

Making incisions through the skin and flesh (called scoring) takes the guesswork out of cooking whole fish.

Choose the right fish. Round fish--which have an eye on each side of the head, such as bass, snapper, and trout--are ideal.

Make deep cuts. Use a chef's knife to cut through the flesh at a 45-degree angle, down to the bone. Score 1 1/2 inches apart between the pectoral fin and tail.

Fill with flavor. Deep, angled pockets provide a wide area to stuff herbs and thoroughly season the flesh and the skin.

Cook to perfection. Scoring deep cuts lets heat circulate around the flesh for quick, even cooking. Check doneness inside the cut, at the thickest part of the fish. The flesh should be firm and opaque and separate easily from the bone.

Recipe: Whole Grilled Branzino

It turns out the easiest part of making a whole fish is prepping and roasting it. The tricky part is finding a fish that doesn’t come with a whole lot of environmental baggage. It seems like the lists and apps telling us which fish to buy and which fish to snub are always shifting.

At the moment, there’s one type of fish that is fairly easy to find, moderately affordable, and won’t do too much damage to your karma: Branzino. This is the fish I used this week when we fired up the grill to kick off Memorial Day weekend.

This recipe is incredibly simple and will work with any whole fish (just adjust the cooking temperature for smaller or larger fish). Just promise me you’ll choose your fish wisely. To stay on top of the latest in seafood sustainability, use one of the online guides from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Blue Ocean Institute, or the Natural Resources Defense Council and make an informed choice but know that these lists often shift.

How to Grill a Whole Fish - Recipes

As the weather warms with hints of summer’s imminent arrival, you might find yourself itching for a reason to enjoy more of your meals outside. I’ve certainly found myself drawn to the grill more and more as of late, and in this case, I wanted a simple meal that felt more…provençal?

I prepared this meal with one of my absolute favorite fish dishes in mind. Preparation is wonderfully simple: start with a whole fish and stuff the belly cavity with as much in the way of aromatics as you can possibly fit in there, oil the fish generously, and grill it until cooked through. This is the kind of dinner that costs you at most 10 minutes of effortful time, and after that, all you need to do is wait. The flavors are clean and delightful–a clean brininess, smoke tinges from the grill, and perfume of lemon, thyme, and rosemary throughout, all intermingled on delicate, moist flakes of white fish.

I enjoyed this meal out on the deck alongside some grilled young carrots, asparagus, and a hearty salad. This is also one of those meals where I would consider a nice rosé (I’m always partial to those from Côtes du Rhône) an almost essential pairing.

    1 whole rockfish (mine was

Step one: acquire and clean your fish. This means you need to remove the scales, trim the fins, and gut the belly area. Ideally, you can convince your fish monger/grocery store to do this for you.

Next, very generously oil the fish inside and out. As you warm your grill up to a very high temperature, you should rub the grates with oil–fish can have a tendency to stick to your grill, but a little preparation can make all the difference.

With everything nice and slick, the next thing you should apply liberally to your fish (also inside and out): salt. This is one of those use-more-than-you-think situations–it brings out the briny flavor of the fish in a great way and makes that crisp skin all the more enjoyable in the finished dish. Add some black pepper inside the belly cavity.

Now, chop up your lemon(s) in slices and the onion into pieces. Stuff this along with the herbs into the belly cavity. Expect this to be slightly overflowing–this is fine.

Finally, its time to put the fish on the grill. You will want to cook this over indirect heat, so while you wanted the grill nice and hot, you don’t want the fish sitting directly over the flame as the skin will burn, things will stick, and it will get messy well before the meat is cooked through.

The fish will need approximately 10 minutes of grill time per inch of thickness (internal temperature should reach approximately 145°F) and the fish should only be flipped once. For me, this required approximately 30 minutes cooking time in total.

Once done grilled, I squeezed a bit more lemon juice on the fish and grated a bit more black pepper on the skin. After that, serve your guests and yourself table-side by simply sliding a spatula in under the gill area and working in a semi-circular motion (don’t plate the aromatics–they’ve served their purpose). A filet should somewhat cleanly present itself you will be able to serve the top half of the fish with ease. Also, don’t forget to pick through the posterior and the cheeks for some more good meat.

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Posted by mike on April 14th, 2012 in Main course, Seafood

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Try It: Grilled Rainbow Trout with Chimichurri

The trout has a nice smoky flavor that is cut by the freshness and acidity of the chimichurri. For a less smoky flavor, seek out thinner fillets (which will take less time to cook).

Eating seafood is one of the best ways to a healthier heart. Take the Healthy Heart Pledge to eat #seafood2xWKਊt seafoodnutritionpartnership.org.

Barton Seaver is chef and director of Harvard&aposs Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative

How you know when the fish is ready:

The best way to grill this fish is to get a great sear and color to start, then allow it to finish cooking gently until done. To tell when your fish is ready, you can use two indicators. First, keep an eye on the inside of the cavity, particularly at the thickest part. Since the fish is gutted, you will be able to visually see when the flesh turns from transluscent to a more opaque shade of doneness. To be completely sure, you can use a fast reading thermometer. When the fish reads 140f at the thickest part, it’s done.

How to grill whole fish


  • 1 x whole fish, gutted and scaled
  • 3 x slices of lemon
  • 1 x small bunch of fresh parsley
  • 1-2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Spray oil (preferably olive oil)


  1. Heat a grill for two zone cooking, where the coals are off to one side. This creates a hot and cool zone to cook with. The hot side should be about 400f.
  2. Pat the fish dry using a paper towel, both the skin and the cavity. Season the cavity with some salt, then stuff with the lemon and parsley.
  3. Pour the olive oil over the outside of the fish, ensuring both sides are well coated. Season both sides with generous amount of salt.
  4. Spray the hot side of the grill grates with oil, being careful not to hold the can too close. Place the fish directly onto the oiled grates directly over the hot coals to sear and crisp the skin. Cook for 2 minutes.
  5. Now, you will flip the fish over, but still onto the heat. Spray another section of the grates over the got coals where you intend to flip the fish, then using a fish spatula or rigid turned, gently turn it over. Cook for two minutes.
  6. If your fish is getting too blackened, you can move it to the middle zone halfway between the hot and cool areas to cook a little more gently.
  7. If you have not achieved the desired char/color on the outside yet, you can repeat the high hear sear process of spraying and flipping, but you will also apply spray oil to the surface of the fish itself. Spray directly onto the skin that is facing up right before you flip.
  8. After you have a decent char on the outside, it's time to move the fish to the indirect side to finish cooking. Spray the grill grates in the area you intend to move the fish to, over indirect heat. Gently move the fish and close the lid to the grill.
  9. To check when the fish is done: you can keep an eye on the meat in the cavity to see when it changes from translucent to a more opaque shade. Or for a more precise reading, the fish is done when it reads 140 on a thermometer.
  10. Once cooked, served immediately, and don't forget to enjoy that delicious nugget of cheek meat!

By Jess Pryles

Jess Pryles is a full fledged Hardcore Carnivore. She's a live fire cook, author, meat specialist and Meat Science grad student. She's also a respected authority on Texas style barbecue. Australian born and raised, she now lives in Texas.



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