OPEN AND COVERED GRILLING
Most fish should be grilled on an open grill. Only when a whole fish or a chunk of a fish is more than 4 inches thick should the grill be covered. Covering the grill lowers the heat of the fire and helps ensure that the fish will be juicy, not dried out. If you are adding smoking woods or other flavor-enhancers to the coals when cooking large fish or pieces of fish, you should partially close the vents on the hood. You also may cover the grill and partially close the upper vents if you are trying to lower the heat of the fire before adding food to the cooking rack.
Indirect grilling simply means that the food is not directly over the coals as it cooks in a covered grill. This technique makes your grill, in essence, a grill-roaster, and should be used for large whole fish or chunks of fish that need a longer time to cook, or for smoking fish.
Our favorite method of indirect grilling uses charcoal baskets, two curved metal charcoal containers that fit against the sides of kettle grills and are included with one of the deluxe models. These baskets cannot be purchased separately, but charcoal rails that serve the same function may be. These inexpensive metal rails are designed to fit on either side of a drip pan, although they may be used without one. They keep the coals stacked up, maintaining the heat level needed to keep the coals from going out. With baskets or rails, use about half again as many coals as you would use for direct cooking. Light a charcoal chimney filled with coals and, when they are fully lighted, divide them between the baskets or rails, then place unlighted coals on top.
An alternate method is simply to push fully lighted coals to either side of the grill; in this case, use about twice as many coals as You would for direct grilling, to keep the fire from dying. We prefer to make two banks of coals rather than pushing the coals into a circle, as the coals are less likely to die out.
ADDING FLAVORS TO THE FIRE
Fish cooks quickly over a direct, open fire, but smoking woods, herbs, and citrus peels can add a subtle taste to the relatively delicate flesh of fish and shellfish in only a few minutes of cooking on an uncovered grill. Smoking woods are available in bits, chips, and chunks. The most common types are hickory and mesquite, but you also will find alder, olive wood, apple, and other fruit woods. Wood bits and chips should be soaked in water to cover for about 30 minutes, then drained and sprinkled over the coals, anytime you want to add a light smoke touch to foods. Wood chunks will need to soak for about 1 hour and should be reserved for smoking fish rather than for simple grilling.
Other flavor-enhancers for the grill are grapevine cuttings, fresh or dried herb sprigs and twigs, dried fennel branches, bay leaves and branches, and fresh or dried citrus peels. All of these, like smoking woods, should be soaked in water before being added to the fire. Use citrus peels to complement fish with a citrus marinade or sauce, and herbs to complement fish whose marinade or sauce uses the same herb or herbs. Dried fennel branches, the dried leaves and branches of bay trees (also known as laurel trees), and fresh or dried sprigs and/or branches of rosemary, sage, oregano, and thyme are among the best choices of herbal flavorings to add to your coals.
If you are careful not to use too hot a fire, you will avoid most flare-ups. If flare-ups do occur, move the fish to the side of the grill and wait until the fire has burned down. Partially closing the vents and covering the grill also will dampen most flames, as will moving the coals apart. Always keep a spray bottle of water handy to douse any flare-ups that don’t respond to these tactics.
Almost any fish or shellfish can be cooked on a grill. The glossary below discusses these and other fish and shellfish, and gives suggestions for grilling. Because the best fish is the freshest fish, and because of the variations in availability in different parts of the country at different times of the year.
Some species of saltwater fish may grow much larger than most freshwater fish, and contain more of the dark muscles that enable them to swim in the ocean. For these two reasons, most firm-fleshed, meaty fish, such as tuna and swordfish, are sea creatures. Fresh uncooked saltwater fish, unlike their freshwater cousins, have a faint briny smell of the sea, while some freshwater fish may have an earthy taste. But the real distinctions among fish are based on shape, texture, and flavor. Fresh- and salt-water fish (and those, such as salmon and steelhead, that live in both watery worlds) can be divided into two simple categories: round and flat. Small round fish may be sold whole, cut into steaks, or filleted, while flatfish are sold whole or filleted.
Table fish are divided into categories according to texture, taste, and oil content. Their texture ranges from delicate to medium firm to firm, their flavor ranges from mild to moderate to full, and their oil content ranges from low to moderate to high. Medium-firm and firm fleshed round fish are the easiest to cook directly on the grill, because they are sturdier, while fish with a moderate to high oil content are less likely to dry out on the grill. But even flatfish and fish with delicate or relatively dry flesh can be grilled successfully.
The variety of fish in the waters of our planet is huge compared with the number of domesticated animals and wiId game, and the subject of fish can be a confusing one. The vagaries of availability due to seasonal variations and marketing limitations and a notoriously unfixed nomenclature add to the confusion, as does the wide variety in size among members of the same species.
The cuts of fish are simple, however: steaks, fillets, chunks, and whole fish. Some fish, especially whole, may be sold whole but boned, which makes them pricey, but easy to serve (and nice for stuffing); chunks or whole fish may be butterflied for more even grilling and easier serving.
You can learn to cut up fish yourself; buying a whole fish or chunk of fish and cutting your own steaks or fillets is a good way to make sure your fish is fresh. You also can save money by learning to bone whole fish yourself, although you should keep in mind that the bone acts as a heat conductor to help the fish cook evenly, and many people think that bone-in fish stays juicier. Fish from which the skin has not been removed stays juicier because the fatty skin is a natural baster, and any skin should be left on fillets for grilling for that reason, and because the skin helps keep the flesh intact.