Fish on the Grill: We talk to an expert on how best to go about it

No need to shy away from cooking freshwater fish, shellfish and other seafood on the grill -- hear from an expert for some tips, techniques and surefire gadgets to get the job done

  • Soaking a plank of food-safe cedar is an ideal way to grill salmon. It's as easy as soaking the plank overnight and cooking on indirect heat with the cover closed.

    Soaking a plank of food-safe cedar is an ideal way to grill salmon. It's as easy as soaking the plank overnight and cooking on indirect heat with the cover closed. Courtesy of Weber Grill Restaurants

 
 
Updated 7/1/2019 12:35 PM

A vivid childhood summer memory of visiting Fishtown in Leland, Michigan, left me with a deep aversion to all things fish.

A day trip to the charming lakeside marina wasn't complete without a stop by the smoke shop for my mom and aunt's favorite fish, Lake Michigan chub. It's an oily fish, perfect for smoking. I can still smell the wooden walls imbued with the smoke of a million stinky fish, which was torture to my brothers and me.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Thank goodness I grew up and developed a healthy love of all things seafood, salt water and fresh. I'm just not confident of cooking -- never smoking -- it at home. So I sought the advice of an expert and I'm sharing the results with you today.

Weber Grill's Corporate Chef Matt McCormick first offers crucial tips in grilling fish as he says he's asked about fish and seafood often during classes at Weber's Grilling Academy in Schaumburg and St. Louis. "I think people can be a bit intimidated about fish. Maybe because they don't know how to tell when it's done or how to go about grilling it, but everyone can learn," he said.

"Two techniques that I find critical for grilling fish at home is a two-zone cooking method and being sure to oil the fish and not the grill grates," he said.

For the two-zone cooking, he says, "Set up your grill with a medium-high heat cooking zone and an indirect zone with no charcoal or gas burner underneath. Sear the fish over the direct zone of the grill and then move the fish to the indirect zone to finish cooking without over-charring your food (remember to keep the cover closed)."

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Also, in prepping for grilling, he recommends making sure the fish is dry as "moisture is the enemy of caramelization." Then, add a small amount of oil to the fish before cooking in the direct zone. This will help prevent sticking and conduct heat for perfect grill marks.

McCormick says to skewer shrimp before grilling to maintain proper control, and shellfish, with the help of a good set of tongs, are best grilled as simply as possible.

"I love grilling fresh oysters right in the half-shell over high direct heat and finishing them with some slightly spicy chili butter," he says. "Cook crab legs in an indirect medium-high grill just until hot and serve with lemon and clarified butter."

For mussels, McCormick says he cooks them in a cast iron skillet over direct heat with white wine, garlic and some chili flakes.

Using damp wood chips or a plank of cedar on the grill is another method that has gained fans, and he says he likes using a cedar plank to cook lobster especially.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I like cooking lobster tail on a cedar plank in an indirect zone on my grill," McCormick says. "It adds some complexity, and allows the lobster to cook a little more gently to avoid becoming rubbery."

Salmon grilled on a cedar plank happens to be a favorite on the Weber Grill restaurants' Classics Menu -- and McCormick says it's not difficult to put in play on your backyard grill.

"I highly recommend cooking on a cedar plank at home. The prep is as simple as soaking the wood overnight," McCormick says. "The smoke is a bit more delicate than that produced by using wood chips, and the wood can protect the fish from getting over charred."

Besides, the aroma of cooking on a cedar plank will make your neighbors jealous, he said.

With a plethora of grill and smoking equipment available to the home cook, McCormick says an instant-read thermometer is a must-have.

"Being scientific with internal temperature ensures a juicy cut of grilled meat or fish," he says. "The iGrill unit that pairs perfectly with Weber Grills is an amazing piece of equipment that truly takes the guesswork out of cooking." He also adds, "a fish turner is a great tool for flipping more delicate pieces of fish."

I asked McCormick two questions on cooking at home; Whether he is Team Grill or Team Smoker in regards to fish, and is he Team Charcoal or Team Gas?

"While I am an avid smoker, I typically prefer grilling as it allows the subtle flavors in a great, fresh piece of fish to speak for themselves," he said. "If I am going to smoke fish, it is usually a species with a high-fat content that pairs well with the smoke."

As for using charcoal or a gas grill, he says it depends on his mood. "I cook on both at the restaurants and home. When I'm cooking fish on my gas grill, I often put some wood chips in a smoke box to add another level of flavor."

Whether you're grilling fish or meat, McCormick advises paying attention to entertaining extras. "Fresh, seasonal sides are a must to round out a great meal," he says. "I am working corn, tomatoes and fresh berries into as many side dishes as I can.

"Grilling a great outdoor meal for a group is about sharing. Plate food up on big platters and make cocktails in pitchers so everyone can help themselves. Have fun with it," he says.

And if you're really into smoked fish, you can take a trip to Fishtown, learn all about smoking at one of Weber's Grilling Academy classes, or smoke it with one of the many smokers on the market. But please, don't invite me over.

• Contact Food Editor Susan Stark at sstark@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4586. Be her friend on Facebook.com/Susan Stark DailyHerald or follow her on Twitter.

(links to DH story on grill academy: https://www.dailyherald.com/entlife/20190601/weber-believes-grilling-skills-can-be-taught)

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