How to Grill a Whole Fish

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

4. Coat the outside of the fish liberally with olive or coconut oil, to help prevent sticking to the grill. Lightly salt for flavor.

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.

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56 thoughts on “How to Grill a Whole Fish”

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  1. Tasty… gotta love the feeling of catching your own dinner.

    1. Why don’t you eat seafood? I used to hate, hate, hate with a passion. It was like my favorite hobby to avoid all seafood.

      I did this for 21 years but now LOVE it. I’m now 24 and continue to expand my choices.

      My new favorite is Octopus!

      1. I also had an aversion to sea food as a kid. I only liked salmon, fish and chips, and what my mom generally packed me for lunch: tampered tuna (mayo celery chunk mash in bread) until I got sick of it and demanded no more tuna sandwhiches. Now I’m curious about sushi. I’ve never tried it, unless a little nibble off a raw salmon steak and a raw river oyster count. I think a while ago I ate some cooked squid – fuzzy memories. I think I can imagine what eating octopus is like though. A greeny chewy soft crunch? That’s the sensation I depict when thinking of chewing tentacles.

  2. We love to grill whole fish! Red snapper and trout are perfect for grilling whole. Good article for this weekend’s grilling festivities!

  3. Living in the Caribbean I never realized I took this entire post for granted… so funny to read about people who might react to seeing eyes and head on fish LOL

  4. Great “how to” Mark. Fish usually isn’t as appetizing as a big steak for me, but your fish is already making me hungry for lunch.

    Ever think of opening up your own Primal restaurant? Maybe a healthy fast-food joint, Primal Popeyes, perhaps? 😉

  5. Another good method, is to bake or grill the fish whole, bones and all. Then when it is served, you use your knife to cut a line from head to tail down the middle of the side of the fish. Flip the top portion over, and the bottom portion down. Grand the lower jaw of the fish and remove the spine, and 1/2 the ribs.

    Squeeze lemon juice over the meat. The top half will still have tiny bones, but these can be separated with your tongue.


  6. That looks SO good! I grew up eating whole fish (in the Philippines) and loved popping out the eye balls. I was really pleased to get my daughter to eat one earlier this year. 🙂 I highly recommend the combination of lemongrass, ginger and garlic for stuffing the cavity. Having a coconut vinegar, tamari and chili dipping sauce on the side will take it even further!

    1. Yes, gut and scale – most fish stores should do it for you. The guts are an acquired taste – and most of the time they are bitter and spoil the surrounding meat. I usually cut the heads off too.

  7. my 4 year old daughter has now got a ‘tude – after i brought home a whole fish to fry a couple months ago, she will now only eat fish “if it has eyes, a tail and fins, yum yum!”

    nothin’ squeamish about her i reckon…

    1. I got jealous of a girl who looked to be around 10 years old yesterday evening. I was waiting for my mom to finish teaching her yoga class because we were going to get groceries after. From where I was sitting and waiting I watched the young girl do amazing cartwheels with supreme flexibility.

  8. This is awesome and exactly the kind of stuff I’d like to learn more about. I’ve always wanted to be able to hike and camp without bringing food along and learning how to fish (and clean,gut,scale,cook) is next on my Primal to-do list 😀

    1. Yes! This is what I would like to see on MDA (or heck, I’d take a whole book about it) – Primal hunting & fishing & preparation to eat. I’m really intrigued by the idea but a little scared of the magnitude of the task.

  9. Funny, never had the idea to put a fish fillet on the barbecue. 🙂

    If you grill fish more often, there is a utensil I really like: Two fish shaped pieces of wire with some cross wires. You can put the fish between these two meshes, close it and easily manipulate and especially rotate the fish.

  10. in some asian cultures, the fish head is reserved for the eldest person at the table because it is the tastiest part of the fish. especially the cheeks and eyes… sometimes if the tail is cooked well enough, you can eat the tail too. its nice and crunchy!

  11. Last night I visited with some old friends and invited them for a primal feast at our home. While I don’t make a habit of entertaining vegetarians, these guys are dear old friends so an exception to my rule is warranted.

    I was just (not 5 minutes ago) laying in bed waiting for the sun to rise, thinking of the lovely whole fish I could grill on my wood fired chargrill (they are not “proper” vegetarians as they do eat seafood). First thing I checked MDA and here it is!

    Thanks Mark!

  12. The cheek meat and eye ball are the tastiest parts of the fish, IMHO.

  13. What a great how-to! May have to try this out soon… Or pass it along to my fisherman father 🙂

  14. How safe is seafood today? Many of my friends and I are ready to give up all seafoods because of safety concerns. I would love to have more seafood.

  15. Great recipe and directions. We love eating whole grilled fish. I recommend using orange segments (minus the rind) instead of lemon. It was a more subtle flavor, without any bitterness. The juice helps keep the fish moist, almost steaming it from the inside.

  16. What do fish eyeballs taste like, and what is the texture?? And do they have particular nutritional benefits?? And do they just pop out easily from a cooked fish, or do I have to dig around, or what? I’m curious about trying them, but not sure I could work up the nerve…

  17. my dad convinced me to try the eyeball of the fish one time 😐 overrated, I say!

  18. Chinese regularly eat fish whole, in fact, it wasn’t until I was older that I realised that many people struggle with the visual of a whole fish and with fish bones. I’ve never put one on the griller though, almost always steamed at home.

    Anyway, that fish died for you to get sustenance, the least you can do is look at it in the eye as you eat it!

  19. Great recipe, but I will say that it’s kind of a waste of time to season the inside of the fish. The lining of the abdominal cavity will not let any seasoning into the actual meat of the fish. I understand packing it with lemon or whatever can be done for aesthetics, but the flavor won’t make it past the tough inner lining of the abdominal cavity.

    1. Gotta agree with you, i mortar & pestled an epic blend of spices & oil into a paste & tried rubbing it into the fish cavity only to find it all just balling up into lumps, it contained tumeric & it didn’t even stain the cavity! …Has anyone got any tips for removing bones please? It’s the smaller ones that i have trouble with, i remove the larger ones by cutting the fish & removing the spine. one of my children had to have one removed at hospital so its a bit of an issue. My children still enjoy whole fish but it would be a bit easier if there was a technique to remove all bones. By the way, thank you Mark for another great post.

      1. Here’s a link to a chef deboning a trout. When you remove the “ribs” it takes the abdominal cavity lining with it. Then you can stuff it, and fry it up! I use fish boning tweezers to get my bones out, but I’m fancy like that. I’ve also done it with my bare hands. Yes, it’s a labour of love.

  20. This looks great! But I live in a city and do not have a grill, only a gas stove top indoors. Does anyone have directions for baking a whole fish? Is that even possible?

    1. I’d suggest Googleing “baked whole fish” and start following links.

    2. I got a grill this morning. Before I had it, it was somewhere around the provincial campgrounds.

    3. On Memorial Day I caught a nice brown trout and baked it. Here’s how I do it:

      I usually chop of the head when I’m cleaning, but it’s not a big deal either for me.

      I lined a 13 x 9 glass casserole dish with aluminum foil. Then I sprinkled the fish with salt and pepper all over, inside and out. I put some garlic, a few tablespoons of butter, and some lemon juice in the foil with the fish, and then curled the edges of the foil up around the fish, so it was mostly covered, but open at the top. I baked it for 40 minutes at 300 degrees, and then another 20 minutes at 350.

      My wife and I then ate it communal style, just picking at it. It was perfect. You could also do more of an oven roast if you put it on a rack in the oven, but we like it better in the foil so it’s cooking in the butter.

  21. It is a totally different flavor. For years my grandpa would cajole me into trying unboned whole lake perch instead of filets. Way better flavor. Freshness is the key like Mark says. Learning to cultivate the ability to discern freshness is a great skill because you’ll avoid the fishy flavor that people often hate.

  22. Great post Mark! I always stop and look at the whole fish at the grocery store with longing, wishing I knew how to properly cook them. Unfortunately I do not own a grill. Could you post instructions on how to cook a whole fish in the oven?

    Also I didn’t see a recommendation for what type of fish is best cooked whole. Is a fatty fish like salmon better or does it matter?

  23. I live in Thailand and can get whole, grilled fish right outside my door at the food stalls on my street. SO GOOD!!

  24. Do note that gutting and scaling a fish requires some skill, and if done improperly may result in fatal injury with some fish.

  25. “4. Coat the outside of the fish liberally with olive or coconut oil, to help prevent sticking to the grill.”

    I thought there were concerns about using olive oil on the stove top because of it’s low oxidation point. Wouldn’t this apply to the high heat of grilling as well? I’m also curious about this when grilling vegetables.

  26. Grilled whole fish is very good! For our memorial day bbq, my father-in-law grilled up a brook trout that he caught. It was mighty fine! He was so proud of himself and made everyone try it! It was cooked perfectly and the skeleton lifted right out in one piece. I’m pretty sure he removed the head first, though! 🙂

  27. My reason for coming home with a whole fish is my 4 year old.

    “I want the one with eyes, mommy.” Are you sure? You’ll eat the one with eyes? “Yes, yes, get the one with eyes!” And sure enough he ate it… didn’t eat the head though, made stock from that.

  28. I found an egg in a river today: my first wild eaten egg. I startled a pair of ducks when I walked down the bank to find a spot to cross. What I think happened is that the ducks didn’t think they would be disturbed, the female was pregnant with an egg and planned on nesting, and when I startled them she prematurely gave birth to the egg out of shock. When I got to the riverside and was looking for a place to cross the egg on the bottom of the river caught my eye. I debated whether or not to investigate because I thought it might be a synthetic toy ball but I retrieved it. It was firm but not solid – I pushed in one side a little bit only to make a bubble on the other. Then I tore it open and saw the yolk so I smelled it then ate it. It tasted healthy. After sucking the yolk out of the shell I saw a small gelatinous formation that I presumed to be a fetus and I slurped that as well. The egg shell was soft enough to chew so I chewed it and ate it after.

    1. Interesting. How was the egg shaped? Was it more oblong than usual? I ask because oblong eggs with soft squishy shells (almost a crumpled look to them) are usually more typical of reptiles. Still delicious though. I don’t know where you are so this is all just speculation, fun speculation though. =)


      1. Cool, I just came back here to say that I looked at pictures of duck eggs and the shape didn’t match. The egg that I ate was spherical.

  29. I eat the bones in fish too… mackerel and skate are my faves x)

  30. I love whole fish. Many years ago I met a gentleman from Malasia who told me that we Americans wasted the tastiest parts of the fish (The eyes and brain). The next time I had grilled whole fish, I gave them a try. He was right, the eyes and brain are indeed tasty! If you can get over your sqeemishness, give them a try.

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