Technique 101: Grilling Fish

An expert guide to managing fins and fire

Mastered steaks and burgers but afraid to grill fish? We're here to assuage your fears. Read on for Tasting Table's no-fail method.

Choose: Avoid flaky fish like sole and cod, which stick and fall apart on the grill. Opt for skin-on fillets of meaty fish like salmon or sea bass, or thick steaks of tuna or halibut. Jeremy Sewall, chef and co-owner of Boston's Island Creek Oyster Bar, favors whole fish, like small red snapper, mackerel and sardines, which, he says, "are a lot more forgiving than fillets."

Prepare: Prepare a gas or charcoal grill for medium-hot grilling, and preheat your grate for at least 10 minutes. When the grate is hot, clean it well with a grill brush, then oil the grate. Chef Francesco Torre of Fish in Sausalito, California, recommends cutting a potato in half, spearing it with a long fork, dipping the cut side in vegetable oil, and using that to oil the grate; Sewall removes the hot grates and quickly sprays them with nonstick cooking spray.

Season: Season the fish with salt and pepper and lightly coat with vegetable oil. "Lightly" is the watchword here; excess oil will drip, creating flare-ups and smoke.

Grill: Jason Schaan, chef de cuisine of Michy's in Miami, says, "Put the fish on the grill [skin side down for fillets] and don't mess with it." That means no prodding, poking or adjusting. To check for doneness, lift the corner of the fish with a long metal spatula. It should pull away from the grate easily. When you flip, flip decisively. "Once you've started, you have to commit," says Sewall. Turn the fish and grill on the second side until the fish flakes easily when poked with the tip of a knife.