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The 6 Best Fish for Grilling

Life is good with a grill: that satisfying sizzle, the smoky aroma wafting around the neighborhood, the joy of standing outside, perhaps barefoot, preparing a meal to share with friends and family.

For many people, seafood is a grilling go-to: much of it is in season, and therefore at peak freshness.

Grilled seafood also makes for a light meal and the perfect accompaniment to salads and grilled vegetables. And most importantly, because seafood is a lean source of protein loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, it's healthy.

With barbecue season in full swing, here are some of the top seafood picks along with tips for seasoning and grilling.

Fish That Can Take the Heat

A beautifully grilled fillet of fish is a sight, but as many home chefs know, it's also quite a feat.

Becky Selengut, chef and author of Good Fish: 100 Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast (Sasquatch Books), says the key is choosing the right kind of fish—one that stands up well to the grill—and using the right cooking method.

Fattier fish, such as coho, sockeye or king salmon, are the best picks for grilling.

Selengut says these varieties also have what she describes as an “ocean-forward” flavor. “High fat, like that in salmon, carries a lot of flavor,” she explains. “It's a more pronounced ocean flavor that sardines and mackerel also have.”

Somewhat leaner fish like halibut and tuna also work well on the grill, but with less fat and therefore less flavor, accompanying sauces can be used to jazz things up.

1. Salmon

Salmon has a bright, fresh flavor that's perfect for grilling. Full of healthy fats and rich in protein, it's a light, healthy fish. Salmon steaks, which are usually 1 to 2 inches thick, work best for grilling—thinner fillets tend to fall apart. Leaving the skin on will help hold the fish together and prevent it from sticking to the grill. Since salmon has a naturally rich flavor, a simple marinade of salt, pepper and olive oil is all you need for a delicious grilled salmon dinner.

2. Tuna

It's often overlooked, but tuna, high in both protein and healthy fat, is an excellent choice for grilling. The flavor is exceptional and the firm, meaty texture is appealing. When choosing tuna fillets for grilling, look for a deep red color free of dark patches. Like many fish, tuna is very lean and dries out quickly, so use a mild marinade to help it retain its natural juices. For 1” fillets, sear over high heat for 8 to 10 minutes to avoid overcooking. Since it's so lean, tuna is easy to overcook. If it turns out a little dry, serve it with some sauce, lemon juice, or salsa to give it some additional moisture.

3. Shrimp

When cooking shrimp (also known as prawns), Selengut uses what she calls the “C” rule. “When you see the shrimp curl, and still see the inside of the C, when the head is meeting the tail, take it off,” she says. Two to five minutes, depending on size, is all they need until there's some browning on the outside. If the shell is still intact even better, as this can act as a protective coating to prevent overcooking and seal in the flavor. What’s more, “shrimp are great to grill on a skewer as long as you don't crowd them,” says Judith Fertig, co-author of 25 Essentials: Techniques for Grilling Fish (Harvard Common). “I love grilled shrimp with a Cajun spice rub.”

4. Whole Trout

Fertig also steers people towards whole trout, a leaner fish that's best cooked in a lightly oiled grill basket to avoid having it break up when flipped. “Stuff the cleaned trout with fresh aromatic herbs, like tarragon, basil and Italian parsley, and a few thin slices of lemon,” she says. “Place the trout in the grill basket and brush the fish with olive oil. Grill, turning from time to time, for about 20 minutes or until the fish begins to flake when tested with a fork in the thickest part.”

5. Mahimahi

Mahimahi is a lean fish with a mild, sweet flavor, making it one of the best fish for grilling; its moderately firm texture helps it stay together. It's packed with protein and is rich in niacin, phosphorus and selenium. Like many fish, mahimahi tends to stick to the grill, but using the proper grilling technique will help you avoid this problem. For the best results, coat the fillet with olive oil and season it with salt and pepper. Then wait until the grill is searing hot before placing the fish on it. Don't flip the fish until it's completely seared on one side to prevent it from sticking to the grill.

6. Snapper

Snapper's lean, firm texture makes it another fish perfect for grilling. Not only is it full of protein and vitamin B12, but its sweet, nutty flavor makes it a versatile choice that pairs well with many different side dishes. To prevent your snapper fillet from drying out and sticking to the grill, cover it in oil. Place the fillet directly on the grill on high heat for a minute or two to sear, then move it away from the flame so that it gets indirect heat for about 10 minutes. Keep the grill closed during this time to contain the heat.

Healthy Seafood Options

When you're buying seafood, there's a lot to consider besides flavor; issues such as possible toxin contamination and sustainable fisheries come into play. Selengut aims to educate chefs and home cooks about healthy seafood—and the health of the ocean—by offering the following simple guidelines.

Wild Over Farmed

As a general rule, Selengut says, farmed fish doesn't have the omega-3 profile that wild fish has, and it is at risk for greater contamination because the fish are crammed together as opposed to swimming freely. “It's kind of like eating lean, wild game versus a factory-farmed cow,” she says. “Fat, antibiotic-laden farmed salmon…It's a different beast.”

Buy Domestic

By doing so, Selengut says that consumers can eliminate 90% of the issues that pertain to healthy seafood and oceans. “Most of the unsustainably farmed fish is coming from Southeast Asia,” she says. “Even for farmed salmon, tuna and shrimp, the US has better fisheries management and guidelines.”

Diversify

Just eating a few types of fish puts more pressure on those species, and more pressure on the farming of those species. When you consume a diversity of fish, there's a more stable market for each one, which leads to more sustainable fishing practices.

Smaller Is Better

When it comes to mercury levels, you want to eat fish that are lower on the food chain. Because bigger fish eat smaller fish, they absorb the mercury contamination in their prey, meaning the levels exponentially increase as you go up the food chain. Examples of fish you want to either buy or avoid include:

Buy:Smaller forage creatures, such as sardines, scallops, clams, crabs, catfish, shrimp and flounder

Avoid: Shark, mackerel (king), bluefin tuna, swordfish and marlin

Along with wild salmon, Fertig also recommends US-farmed catfish for beginning seafood grillers. “It's sustainable, mild-flavored, holds together well on the grill, you know where it's from and it's readily available,” she says. “Farm-raised catfish also can take on almost any kind of seasoning or sauce and tastes great.”

Making Fish Tasty

For seasoning fish, Selengut tends to lean on fresh herbs and spices, and she likes complementary sauces.

“I use dry rubs, chopped-up herbs or ground spices mixed with salt, and sprinkle it on fish,” she says. “Then you can spend more energy on the side dishes or sauces to serve it with.” When it comes to sauces, she likes salsa verde, fresh pesto romesco and a teriyaki soy caramel sauce.

Grilling all types of seafood means starting with an exceptionally clean grill.

Selengut recommends preheating it to as high as it will go, applying a high-heat oil that won't flare up—such as avocado, safflower or rice bran oil—with a paper towel, filling in the pores of the grill grates and placing the fish on when it's fully heated. When it's ready to flip, Selengut uses an upside-down spatula to gently pry the fillet away from the grate; if it doesn't come up, it's not ready to be flipped.

To measure cooking times, Selengut uses a digital thermometer . “If you want it cooked through, pull it off when it's 135 degrees in the middle of the fish, and it will continue to cook to 140,” she says. For medium-rare salmon, she pulls the fish off at 125; for tuna, many people just sear the outside and leave the inside more translucent, depending on preference.

Fertig says the overall rule is 10 minutes over a hot fire per inch of thickness. “A salmon fillet, for instance, is about 3/4-inch thick, so it would take about 7 to 8 minutes total to grill, turning it over once,” she says. “You want a hot fire because you want the fish to cook fast and not dry out.”

Cooking Crustaceans

Selengut recommends steaming or boiling crab and lobster before throwing them on the grill.

“The most ideal way is to steam it and then put it on a hot grill and finish it there,” she says. She describes crab and lobster as having a buttery flavor, and the grill can give it a complementary smoky finish. After boiling for two to four minutes, depending on the size, crack the shells down the middle, brush the exposed meat with oil, and place the crab or lobster, meat side down, on the grill for about 10 minutes, flipping once, until the meat has a caramelized finish.

Grilled Salmon with Watercress

1/2 cup buttermilk

3 tbsp mayonnaise

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 tsp Dijon mustard

1 tsp chopped fresh dill

1 small clove garlic, minced

2–3 shakes of your favorite hot sauce

1 pound coho or Chinook salmon fillet, skin on, pin bones removed, cut into 4 equal portions

Fine sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 bunches watercress

2 cups rye croutons*

1/4 cup purple sauerkraut (or use any favorite sauerkraut)

1. Preheat a grill over high heat. (Make sure the grates are clean and oiled.)
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, mustard, dill, garlic and hot sauce. Set aside.
3. Season the salmon with salt and pepper and grill (with the lid down), skin side down, for 7–10 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 120°F for medium-rare. Transfer to a plate and keep warm.
4. Toss the watercress with half of the dressing. Mound the salad onto plates or a platter and top with the salmon. Garnish with the rye croutons and sauerkraut. Serve with extra dressing on the side.

    *Make rye croutons by tossing 1/2" cubes of rye bread with 1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil and a pinch of sea salt; bake in a 350° oven for 10–15 minutes, or until crisp.

    Yields 4 servings

    Source: ©2018 by Becky Selengut. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Good Fish by permission of Sasquatch Books.

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    **These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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