Why It Pays To Grill Whole Fresh Fish Instead Of Only Fillets

Grilling is a beautiful way to prepare meats. At its best, grilling yields smoky, delectable foods with a crisp exterior and meltingly tender interior. On the downside, it can turn things like fish fillets into leather or, at worst, quickly reduce them to charcoal. We're not saying that grilling a good fish fillet is impossible, mind you — just difficult. This pitfall is easily avoided if you grill small, whole fish instead of fillets.

Any cut of meat that has been skinned and deboned is subject to drying out during a high-heat cooking application like grilling for the simple fact that it is no longer insulated by the self-basting mechanisms of skin and fat. This is especially true of filleted fish, which tend to be much smaller and delicate than cuts of chicken or beef.

Happily, small cleaned fish like branzino, trout, or gilt-head bream grill up beautifully, and not just because you've preserved the skin and fat. Branzino, for example, doesn't have many bones, and the ones it has can be easily removed. There are some real flavor opportunities to be had in grilling a whole fish instead of fillets and doing so only involves a couple of extra steps.

Leave the head on for more flavor or stuff the inside with aromatics

You may not know that you're a fan of salty, crispy fish skin, but grilling a whole fish is a good way to find out. Another upside of using a whole cleaned fish is that it has a cavity into which you can stuff a manner of yummy aromatics, similar to a roasted chicken. Lemon slices, fresh parsley, chopped lemongrass, cilantro stems, thinly-sliced shallots, shredded fresh basil, sliced ginger, and Thai chilies are just several ingredients that can go inside a whole fish to enhance its flavor and help keep it moist.

Before grilling, make a few diagonal slices across the body of the fish and cover the skin with salt and oil. A grill basket will prevent your dinner from sticking, but it's not an absolute necessity — a good hot grill will cauterize the skin and prevent this mishap. A grilled fish head contains many delicious tidbits that have a stronger flavor profile than the body, but for cooks and guests who might not want their dinner looking back at them, it's easy enough to remove the head as well as the tail and skin with a knife before serving.  

The grilled fish can then be filleted by cutting it in half along the top side and removing the bones. Once done, you have a small, whole-grilled fish that is the perfect single serving for dinner on a summer's day.