Although fish markets  are mostly filled with boneless, skinless fillets, there are many reasons to go home with a whole fish instead. The reaction of dinner guests is one. They’ll “ooh” and “ahh” at the dramatic presentation or shriek at the sight of a fish head with eyes staring back at them. Either way, it makes for a lively meal. The pleasure of cooking a whole animal, rather than an unidentifiable part, is another reason to buy a whole fish. It’s also easier to tell if a whole fish is fresh. Look for shiny scales, clear eyes and bright red gills. The most convincing reason, however, is that whole fish just tastes better.
A whole fish is much harder to overcook than a small fillet; the skin protects the delicate flesh from heat and keeps the moisture in. The bones add a little extra flavor, too. Throwing the fish over direct heat on a grill is a fast and easy cooking method that gives you moist, tender flesh, and crispy, salty skin every time.
The fisherman among us, or those who don’t mind a little extra work, might enjoy cleaning, gutting and scaling the fish themselves. The rest of us can ask to have it done at the fish counter so when we get home, the fish is ready to go. No matter what type of fish you buy, the preparation and grilling method is essentially the same:
1. First, clean your grill really well and thoroughly wipe the grates down with oil to prevent sticking.
2. Cut deep slits spaced 1 to 2 inches apart along each side of the fish, to help the flesh cook evenly.
3. Season the inside cavity. Sprinkle a light coating of salt pepper. There isn’t a whole lot of room to stuff smaller fish, but at the very least you can add few slices of lemon and sprigs of your favorite herb. Other seasoning combinations to try:
- Minced garlic with rosemary
- Orange slices and paprika
- Lime slices and cumin
- Sliced green onion and tamari
- Sliced red onion and basil
- Minced garlic mashed with butter
5. Heat the grill to medium-high heat. Wait until the grates are nice and hot before setting the fish down. Steady, medium heat is best, otherwise the skin will burn before the fish is done. If possible, set the tail farthest away from the flames, as the skinnier, tail-end of the fish cooks faster than the rest.
Generally, a fish that weighs 1/2 to 1 pound will take about 5 to 7 minutes per side. Larger fish, 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, can take around twice that amount of time. Another general guideline is 10 minutes of cooking per side, per inch of thickness.
6. Don’t move the fish too soon. If the skin is really sticking, it’s not ready to be flipped. When you think it’s ready, slide a long, wide spatula that’s been rubbed down in oil under the fish and flip the fish over.
7. If the skin does stick to the grill, which is hard to avoid entirely, don’t sweat it. The presentation might not be quite as pretty, but the fish will still taste just as good.
8. To test for doneness, insert a thin skewer or toothpick into the thickest part of the fish. It should slide all the way in easily. When fish is cooked the meat will flake easily with a fork and will appear opaque all the way through. The flesh should also pull easily away from the bones.
That’s it – slide the fish onto a platter, garnish with extra lemon or lime slices and have at it. The last, best reason for cooking a whole fish is that little meat is wasted. Suck the meat from the bones, eat the tender, juicy cheeks under each eye, and snack on the crispy skin. It’s all good.