There are many good reasons for grilling whole fish. The skin and bones keep the flesh moist and flavorful; the skin itself, when cooked well, is life-changingly delicious; whole fish stands up better to grilling heat than a fillet or fish steak will; whole fish usually costs less by weight than the portioned stuff; it’s fresh and fun and makes for a spectacular presentation; it’s profoundly satisfying both as a thing to eat and as a thing to do. And so on.
More importantly, though, there’s only one reason not to grill whole fish: cowardice. Dirty, stinking, shameful cowardice. Or a life-threatening seafood allergy or whatever. But, really, what is life, if not the period of time during which you grill whole fish and eat it? The answer is: nothing. So you might as well do it anyway.
So let’s cook some whole fish on the damn grill! It’s just the best damn thing to do on a bright, warm day in the spring or summer. Invite friends and family and make an Event out of it. If by the end of the day it has not become a tradition in your social circle, I will eat my sock and go to my grave insisting you fucked it up somehow and/or need new friends.
The preparation below is for branzino—a firm white fish also known as European bass, Mediterranean sea bass, bronzino, loup de mer, spigola, and a dozen or so other names, as if it is some kind of fugitive from justice or something—but will work just fine with a broad variety of white fish, almost certainly including whatever you can find in your corner of the world. This is a way of saying that oh, I couldn’t find branzino, so I just made a canned tuna sandwich is not an acceptable excuse for opting out of this. You are grilling a whole goddamn fish, damn you, and that is just all there is to that.
Ready? C’mon. It’s gonna be a blast. Let’s do it.
First you’ll need to acquire some fresh whole branzini* (the plural of branzino) from the fancy supermarket, or the intimidating international grocer, or the reeking wharf seafood market, or the end of your own fishing line, or, in extreme cases, by quitting your job and relocating to one of the coasts. A branzino will usually come in around a pound or so; a one-pound branzino will theoretically feed two adults, but they’ll probably want more, which is a thing to keep in mind when deciding how many fish to buy.
Freshness is important whenever you’re buying seafood, of course; the cool thing about buying whole fish is that you can select for maximum freshness without having to ask the mumbly teen behind the seafood counter, “Uh, do you know how fresh this is?” because you can judge for yourself. A fresh whole fish will smell fresh (and really get your nose up close to it, ya big ninny, it’s already dead); its eyes will be bright and lifelike, not cloudy or dull or sunken in their sockets; its body will feel firm and springy when you prod it with your fingers and try not to pull an Ew I’m prodding a dead fish face; it will not sing “Take Me to the River” when you snap your fingers next to it.
Buy your fish the same day you intend to grill it, if you can. Otherwise, pack some crushed ice into a large bowl, press the fish into the ice so it’s not just sitting on top of it, stick it in the fridge, and cook it within the next 24 hours or so.
*If you can’t get branzino, don’t sweat it. Many, many fish are fine for grilling and can be prepared the way we’re doing it today. Stay away from the size extremes, if you can; a whole halibut, though tempting, will cook for a decade and require a forklift to maneuver on the grill, while a double-fistful of guppies will be really sad to look at, and also will overcook instantaneously over anything hotter than the beam of a flashlight. Rockfish, snapper, and trout are lovely.
Once you’ve got your fish, you’ll need to have its guts, gills, and scales removed by someone who knows how to do that and isn’t just a big-talking asshole. You can do this yourself if you want; you’ll need a sharp knife for gutting, a butter knife for scaling, endless patience, a fairly strong stomach for gross shit, and, most crucially, instructions from somewhere else on the internet. If you are into the whole grilling-a-whole-fish thing more as a way to get some tasty food than as a way to audition for a Discovery Channel survivalism reality series, just ask the damn fishmonger dude to do it for you, if it hasn’t been done already.
Now, prepare your fish for grilling. The first step is removing it from the fridge and letting it come to room temperature, so it’ll cook evenly. Pat it dry with paper towels, inside and out, then sprinkle it with salt, inside and out. Cram some good-smelling stuff—parsley or cilantro or marjoram sprigs, thin slices of lemon or lime or orange—into its body cavity. Rub the outside of the fish down with a little canola or peanut oil to help prevent it from sticking to the grill. Sneak up behind your unsuspecting elderly neighbor, hold the fish’s face next to his, mumble, “Hey, buddy, got a light?” into his ear, and take advantage of the opportunity to practice your CPR skills.
Also, cut some nice, deep vertical scores into the fish’s sides, every inch-and-a-half or so from just behind its head back to the tail. This’ll really help the fish cook evenly, so that you can get it off the grill before the thinner parts of its body overcook.
When that’s done, and you’ve given your statement to the police (“I don’t know where the fish came from, officer—it just swam up and attacked ol’ Harold for no reason”), prepare your shitty charcoal grill for grilling a whole fish on it. This means scrubbing and oiling the grate and building a medium-heat fire under it. Typically you may kinda roll your eyes and make a wanking motion when grilling instructions intone solemnly about the importance of cleaning and oiling the grate, but a whole fish really benefits from a clean, well-oiled grate. Crispy, un-mangled skin is one of the key attractions of a grilled whole fish; a gnarly, crusty grate will attach to the skin and shred it during cooking, and the end result will be a beat-looking bummer that nevertheless will taste pretty good.
You can also keep the skin from attaching to the hot grill by using a specialized fish basket for grilling your fish. That’s really not necessary, though, and it’s especially silly if you’re short on money or space for buying and storing single-use tools you’ll only haul out once or twice a year. Just clean and oil your grilling grate, okay? You can do it. If you don’t have a sturdy brush, use a few big wads of crumpled aluminum foil. Rub it down with canola or peanut oil when you’re done scrubbing.
When your grill is ready, brush it with oil one more time. Lay the fish down so that the bars of the grill are running perpendicular to the length of its body, and grill one side of the fish for six to eight minutes (for branzini), uncovered and unmolested. The “unmolested” part is important: The skin of the fish will stick to the grill at first, and if you mess with it before it has seared and separated from the hot metal, you’ll mangle it. Let it cook! Do nothing! You’re good at doing nothing, as your annual work-performance review will remind you.
After those six to eight minutes, gently explore flipping the fish and/or flip it. A large grilling fork is ideal for this; stand facing the open side of the fish (the one with fruit and herbs sticking out of it), hold the fork so that its tines line up with the gaps between the bars of the grill, lower the tines into the empty space under the thickest part of the fish, and lift, gently. If the fish resists because it’s still sticking to the grill, back off and give it another minute or two. If the fish doesn’t resist, press down on it gently with your fingertips so it won’t slide off the fork, and gently flip it over. If you do this right, the open cavity will rotate over the top and not discharge its contents into the fire; if you do it wrong, you do not know how to read.
If you don’t have a large grilling fork, that’s cool. A slim, articulate fish-turner spatula is the next-best thing (and also just a great all-around kitchen implement); slide it under a part of the fish that isn’t in direct contact with the grill, lift gently, and if the skin’s not sticking, go ahead and flip it. If all you’ve got is a big dumb spatula the size of a snowplow, or a pair of tongs, or a pair of plastic primary-school scissors you’re calling “tongs,” that’s okay! You can still do this. Just do it carefully. Be gentle and slow enough that you’ll be able to tell if the skin of the fish is sticking to the grill, and maneuver the fish delicately.
Hey, look at that! Crispy fish skin, attractively charred here and there! Truly, you are Prometheus, Conqueror of Fire But Without the Eternal Punishment Part. Now, cook the flip side of the fish for another six to eight minutes.
When that’s done, gently get your fish gently off the grill gently (gently), as gently as you can, gent. If you fuck up here at the end and wind up frantically scooping hunks of broken fish off the grill and serving them in a sad heap, you will never forgive yourself for it, and neither will God. Move the fish to an attractive serving plate, drizzle it with some fruity extra-virgin olive oil, spritz it with a wedge of whatever variety of citrus fruit you stashed inside it, garnish it with some more of whatever herb(s) you used, and hie thee tableward, pronto, to be received as a national hero.
Listen. It’s your fish and you can do what you want with it, short of beating an innocent bystander about the head with it. However, it is the studied opinion of this internet food person that portioning your whole fish into single-serving hunks on individual plates is a buster-ass move that immediately takes nearly all the fun and excitement out of grilling whole fish. Don’t do that.
The cool thing to do is to serve your fish whole, scary head and all, one fish on one plate per pair of adults, outside in the late-afternoon sunshine. Give each person a small plate for any bones they happen across, another wedge of citrus for their own use, a small fork, and a glass of some good cheap-shit wine (white’s the standard for fish, but rosé and red are fine too) or cold beer, and maybe access to some crusty bread for mopping up the juices that will collect on the plate. This is the most satisfying possible experience of eating.
Share the fish, look out for bones, spritz citrus around, try bites from different areas of its body (on a branzino, the collar is the best) and recommend them to each other. Roll your eyes and kiss your fingertips and have a bit too much to drink and get teary over the picked-over remains (“He was a good fish, and I’ll miss him!”), and then pretend to have been joking. Make some housecat’s year by giving it the head, spine, and tail. Forget why you ever prepared fish some other way. Fantasize about it until the next time.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.