Grilled Bronzini, photos by Donna

A confession: I’m not a great cooker of fish.  In fact, Donna hates it when I cook fish, because I usually want to put some kind of fancy sauce on it.  She wants it sauteed with plain lemon, a little butter maybe.  (Yawn.) But she’s usually right—I don’t cook it enough to get good at it.  But another part of the reason I’m fish challenged is that I grew up in Cleveland in the 1970s where fish came into the grocery store on Monday (trucked in, no doubt) and sat around through Saturday, which was the only time in Cleveland you could get a good sense of what low tide smells like.  The only fish I ate, and ate grudgingly, was breaded, fried, frozen, and reheated in a toaster oven, and I was able to get it down only with a stiff shot of tartar sauce.

Fish was never part of my life.

When I found myself working grill station in St. Andrews I grilled salmon, and at the first pickup the chef made sure I served the gray, fatty sided down the next time.  Grill station at Sans Souci a couple years later, I grilled steaks, lamb chops, salmon and halibut.  Salmon is a decent fish to grill, but the halibut was a bitch because if you weren’t constantly throwing logs into the fire, which, frequently in the weeds, I would neglect to do, the fish would stick and really screw up my night. You can grill cod, and it’s very tasty, but it really wants to stick, too, and it gets so flaky that it’s really hard to grill without it falling apart and becoming a mess.

But: whole fish—whole, single-portion, skin-on, bone-in fish—are awesome on the grill, and very very easy to cook.  Most important, they give the fish-challenged cook such as myself, a big window for doneness.  Fish fillets have to be cooked on the money—they go from perfect to over cooked very quickly.  Whole, skin-on fish have their bones to flavor the meat and keep it moist, and the skin protects the delicate flesh.  This is what makes trout a great fish to grill.

Branzini may be the best.  Why? Because of its bones.  They’re high in cartilage, meaning, that when the flesh gets hot, instead of over heating and drying out, it melts the cartilage so that the flesh stays succulent long after the fish has hit the right temperature. (The fish may be more universally known as European sea bass, but with all the different bass out there, I favor a distinctive name, so branzini it is.  Ours were from Whole Foods, farm-raised to WF standards in Greece, and cost less than $9 each.)

The fish above sat around for many minutes (a maddening length of time to hungry me) while Donna made sure she got shots she liked.  By the time we finally sat down to lunch (sauteed fennel and zucchini, kept warm in a saute pan on the grill, grilled sourdough and cold white wine), the flesh had stayed amazingly juicy.

Donna, who usually simply says while eating such a meal, “Michael, just admit it, you can’t cook fish,” actually swooned.  She could not believe it.  Even the skin, charred and crispy, was delicious.  “I told you you were going to like this,” I said.  She shook her head and swooned some more.  God, it makes me happy when she loves something so much.

The basics: have your fish monger remove guts and gills, scale it, and snip off the pectoral fins (or do it yourself). Stuff the fish with flavorful aromatics.  Build a super hot fire and make sure you let the grate itself get really hot.  Rub your fish with oil, oil your grill, and press the fish gently down on the grate so it sears (don’t move it, let cook so that it doesn’t stick).  I did these about four minutes a side, covering the grill for half the time to make sure the aromats heated through (they flavor the meat and their moisture also helps to keep the fish from overcooking).

So, in the end the first lesson in how to grill fish is how to choose which fish to grill.

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41 Wonderful responses to “How to Grill Fish: Grilled Branzini”

  • The Italian Dish

    I hope this post gets people cooking whole fish – this is our preferred way to prepare fish. By far the most flavorful and helps keep the fish moist by not filleting it or removing the head. Donna was right, too, about the method – if you have a great fish, keep it simple. Donna’s photos, as usual, are beautiful.

  • Mantonat

    Good tips – especially the part about high heat. My gut instinct would be low temp, but your suggestion definitely agrees with the method used by Mexican cooks at the beach-front palapas of Isla de Mujeres. Some of the best fish I’ve ever eaten was red snapper rubbed with achiote and grilled over high heat so that the meat was moist and tender on the inside but the skin was crispy and lightly charred on the outside. Perfect served with tender little corn tortillas, lime juice and blazingly hot salsa (a thin vinegar-based sauce in this case). I’ve tried to replicate this at home with moderate success, but what I’ve been missing was a super-hot grill. Next time should hit the mark!

  • Natalie Sztern

    I hate making fish at home and the odd time I do, I must say I do it well. Problem for me: I cannot stand the smell that cooked fish leaves in the house…super sensitive to that. So a friend told me to soak the fish in milk for a few hours or overnight. It does help so what is it in milk that takes that ‘fishy’ smell away? BTW the first time my hubby opened a can of salmon I told him it’s the salmon or me…not both of us in the same house EVER…
    On the bright side when we go out to eat Fish is the first thing I go for, and believe it or not that is the one type of food that Montreal sorely lacks in: A great seafood restaurant.

  • Richard

    The only whole fish I’ve ever cooked is flounder. I opened up the top fillets, and stuffed it with some green onion, red bell pepper, parsley, some small shrimp, crushed up Ritz crackers, and copious amounts of butter. Hard to mess up, and it’s about the only saltwater fish my wife will eat. Now I just need to head to the coast and catch some more.

  • Maven

    My husband and I eat a lot of fish, mostly salmon and trout because we live on the west coast. I haven’t done a whole fish in awhile, though, and am feeling inspired to do one over the weekend perhaps. Thanks for the great information. And I concur with the group :-) Beautiful photos!

  • Earl Schiffke

    Hi Mr. Ruhlman,

    Are you a fan of imported seafood from Asia ? Seems like much of the fish and seafood available in supermarkets other than Whole Paycheck is Product of China, or Viet Nam or Malaysia or Indonesia etc…

    Not all of us have the bucks to drop $9.00 on a fish.

    • Kelleigh kaplan

      A lot of the Fish at other grocery stores come from fisheries that are over fishing the waters and relying on underpaid employees. There is a real danger in cheap food… Farmers and producers being underpaid, slave labor, unsustainable practices, etc.

      Having said that, there are options that are sustainable and less expensive. Try black bass or trout.

    • Cali

      If you have a Trader Joe’s in your area you can get reasonably priced and *sustainable* fish there. It’s really important to only eat sustainable varieties of fish so as not to contribute to the overfishing of preferred species and the eventual death of our oceans. One can download and print wallet-sized sustainable fish guides for all regions of the U.S. at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium website.

  • Eric Van de Velde

    Ruhlman uses thongs?!

    If memory serves me right, you ranted against them not too long ago…

      • Eric Van de Velde

        Now, that’s a picture that’s etched into my brain…

        For penance, I will walk on my knees to the Cathedral of Holy Homonyms.

      • Cali

        Oh, Ruhlman. *slowly shakes head and looks at the floor.*

        To those of us OVER 40, “thongs” are sandals. To the UNDER 40 crowd they are that strange sort of underwear (or bathing suit bottoms) that are sometimes also known as “butt floss.” I’m afraid you have given people a mental image you may not have really wanted to project.

  • Nancy Singleton Hachisu

    So funny about Donna and the sauces. Me, I propose fish a lot to my husband and when queried “how?” my typical response of “meunière,” is met with a look from husband, Tadaaki, that means “boring.”

    But I’ve been branching out and doing a lot of foil style “mushi yaki” and today did a miso broiled ling cod. I used a Vietnamese cook & flip style grate grill that helped out with the stick factor of cod. It was still a bitch getting the filets of the grill…especially since the fish was for a photo shoot.

    The thing I love about food and cooking and photo shoots is that we shouldn’t be afraid of a little imperfection (eyeball wise–especially if its got the intrinsic heart going for it). I think we should embrace it. Though not sure if restaurant goers or publishers would agree.

  • Ice Cube

    The dreaded ‘fish smell’. Growing up my dad and brother were both vegetarians and hated the fish smell. If you are worried about it I really suggest avoiding sauteing the fish as the high heat sends smellyness into the air. Baking the fish in the oven while you have a pot of water gently simmering with some cloves or cinnamon in it will pretty much cover the whole house.

    • ruhlman

      it’s the high heat and over cooking that transforms the oils into that fishy smell. i hate it too. best to cook fish in house at low temps, shallow poach, deep poach, etc.

  • Karen Downie Makley

    I like the idea of the whole fish, but talk to me about serving whole fish and the dreaded pin bones (I’ve suffered through some Mediterranean sardines that were otherwise delicious). Picking pin bones out of my mouth ruins even the tastiest meal, so I just wind up filleting everything. But I’m somewhat autodidactic in both the culinary and table etiquette worlds, so maybe there’s another way to make whole fish easier once it reaches the plate..???

  • Rene

    another awesome way to do whole fish is in a salt crust. in france we usually use “bar”, but i read somewhere branzino is just the italian name?
    anyhow, similar process, remove guts/gills/fins, stuff w/aromats (i like thyme or rosemary as the herb plus usually lemon & a bay leaf) but **keep** the scales. this will keep the sucker from getting too salty. lay the fish on a bed of kosher salt mixed w/ some egg white, cover w/more kosher salt/egg white mix. the salt base/covering for me should be at least 1 cm. fish should be completely sealed in salt. Bake @ 425F for 20-40 min… depends on the size of fish. i know when it is done when i smell the aromats. it stays ridiculously moist forever; tough to overcook w/ this method. allow to rest, break crust and serve with a sauce vierge (fine dice tom & lemon pulp mixed w/ garlic, lemon juice & olive oil w/ chiffonnade basil).
    simple dish, really tasty… very similar to how they were serving “bar” @ famous bacon resto in antibes several years ago .

    • ruhlman

      agree, the mixing salt with eggwhite for salt crust works great. we did this in the ad hoc cookbook.

  • dan

    salt the fish, about 6 hours before grilling. best fish cooking tip, I learned it from my mother in law…

  • John Schwarz

    If you can get ‘em at WF try grilling some sardines. A quick marinade in olive oil, garlic, salt & pepper. Just watch out for the flare ups.

  • Rhonda

    Ruhlman,

    I too suck at cooking fish. I cook it for myself and better than my mother, so that is good enough for me. Not on my menu.

    However, the little I do know is that TONGS ARE BAD. BAD! VERY VERY BAD!

    My God, Brother, you wrote a book with Eric Ripert!

    You Forrest Gumped your way through this which is impressive. Donna ate it which is more impressive.

    Tongs — Bad. Eric Ripert….

    - R

    xxx

  • bunkycooks

    We smoked some salmon tonight and then then put halibut right on the grill after it with a spicy seafood seasoning and basically smoked it, too. I thought it would be dry, but it was quite moist. We weren’t up for cooking the fish inside with the smell and the mess, so this worked in a pinch. Shockingly tasty with a spritz of lemon and I’m not much of a fish fan either.

  • Jessika

    Skip the bbq until you feel more comfy cooking fish. I mean, really. Cook under low temperature in the oven. There are specified times based on height of fish (when it’s laying flat). LOW temperature. You can fill it with whatever but just start off with not overcooking. I used to suck doing fish until I managed to develop some patience with the poor fish AND not overcooking it. A minute can turn a delicious fish into chewing gum. Leave fins and tail on, remove head, fill with nothing more than a dab of butter and lemon — listen to Donna :)

  • chef4cook

    Branzini is a fish I serve a lot in restaurants. It’s my favorite to grill whole, on the bone. It has a great presentation and eats beautifully. Sure, some guests request the head be removed but, hey, at least they are learning how to eat a good fish that isn’t a fillet!

  • Barbara | VinoLuciStyle

    I can’t remember when I cooked a fish except on the grill; best way in my book to not have the house smell fishy. Got to watch those thongs though if cooking outside; neighbors might object!

    I love salmon on the grill and would love to try more types of fish but I’m in Colorado and unless I head to a mountain stream and catch some trout (like that will ever happen), our choices are all flown in from afar and pretty doggone pricey…if not also flash frozen. Means I eat a lot of chicken!

  • Erik @ Food Night

    Was just reading “Ad Hoc at Home” last night, and came across this beauty….. “How well you cook fish depends on how well you buy fish”.

    Soooooo true.

  • Marc C.

    My wonderful fishmonger gets branzino flown in several times a week and he’s taught me much about grilling fish. One of his first lessons was: When you have a roarin’ hot fire you don’t need to scale branzino. The little scales on this fish are quickly burned away, but help crisp up the skin!

  • Kevin

    Great lesson Michael – thanks! Last night I pan seared fresh King salmon with a “rub” on the cooked side of almonds, parsley, granulated garlic, curry, paprika, thyme, parsley, and chili powder. Deglased the pan with fresh lemon juice and some sherry and a spot of cream at the end to give it some mouthfeel. It’s a recipe from a restaurant on the Washington coast that closed some time ago. Great cooking tips and pics – always enjoy your site. For the folks who don’t like the smell of cooked fish in the house – find someone who sells fresh fish – it should not smell fishy! I always use my fan when I cook – that helps a lot too (with many cooking odors!)
    Cheers,

  • Carri

    Living and cooking by the coast and ultimately marrying a commercial fisherman has given me a definite appreciation of the finer points of cooking all kinds of seafood. In fact at a recent local chef challenge I participated in, I thought ‘what could I get that I am not familiar with?’ Sure enough, it was Mako Shark. Shit.

  • jti

    Along with grilling, I like rubbing down the skin with olive oil, then salt & pepper and cook under the broiler, typically 10 minutes per side. When the skin looks crispy, it’s done. Heinen’s Rocky River has excellent quality Rainbow and Golden Trout, head and tail fin on.

  • melissa

    There is a lovely Greek man at our farmer’s market that gets fresh fish in from the Gulf of Mexico the night before the market (this is one of the few things I LOVE about living on the Gulf Coast). When my boyfriend is in town I’ll buy a whole fish instead of fillets (I can’t eat a whole fish myself, those snapper he gets are huge). We grill or bake them in the oven and oh, they are so delicious.

  • amber

    I am going to expose my ignorance here and ask a stupid, stupid question…..

    I had two for dinner last night. I made them al cartoccio with julienned veg (potatoes, zucchini, carrots and a just a bit of onion) a splash of white wine and a bunch of good olive oil, s and p.

    I thought it came out very good. Something about steaming ( if that’s even right?) in the parchment seemed to lock in all that good flavour. The veg were awesome too.

    However, my husband said that he could tell they were farm raised.

    Is he being a snot?

    They were farm raised in fact, in the sea not too, too far away from where we live. I thought about doing a taste test, side by side. But who knows when I’ll get to that.

    So besides wondering if hubby is a snot, here is the stupid question. Is it really all that bad to eat farm raised fish? Your post seems to indicate that there are better and worse conditions in which to do it. So what are the bad factors? We buy it all the time. Should I stop? (We are big fish eaters!) Yes, I know I could consult Chef Internet, but sometimes a real chef’s opinion is best.

    • luis

      I am not sure how you can tell farm raised from wild. At least for the average joe. Last night I stopped at a gas station convenience mega store here and asked… Where is the “Clamato” “tomato juice” or any other juice section…. Long story short they pointed to a freezer chuck full of chemically flavored crap….I took a look around and looked at the counter and there were all these chemistry spawned caffeine drinks…and I felt like the teary eyed Indian in the old old… pollution comercials…
      I just hope they don’t abuse the critters in the process like the factory farmers….that gave the country salmonella eggs recently.

  • Tags

    When I first saw this post, I had just come home from the library with a copy of “The Italians,” a book that disappears every time I buy it.

    Imagine my surprise when I saw the word “Barzini” as soon as I went to your site. Of course, there is no Luigi Branzini, but it was close enough to fool me. Excellent book, btw, as much as I’ve been able to read, but then again, I’m Italian.

  • Jeff Forward

    I find it very, very hard to believe you did not eat fresh fish growing up in Cleveland – IT’S ON LAKE ERIE!
    I grew up on the lake and like most other lake people, we fished and ate fish. Perch, Walley, Bass, etc…Not to mention as a grill cook on PIB, I was cooking stuff from all over the fish map. So, don’t say you can’t get good fish.
    Don’t tell people there is no fresh fish in cleveland. There was and has been for a long time.
    Otherwise, cool post.