How to Cook a Whole Fish

Winter came early in November of 2009 in Minnesota. It was my last fishing trip on the Mississippi River before moving to the Florida Keys. My fishing buddy and I pulled the boat onto the happy hour sandbar so his dog could stretch his legs, while we drank Old Style beer and cooked Wisconsin brats over a fire.
As we stood over the fire cooking the brats that day I said, “We should try cooking whole fish this way”.

The brats absorbed the smoky flavor of the fire with little risk of burning and the meat stayed moister than cooked over direct heat. So I applied this same cooking technique to whole fish. It takes a little bit more energy, but not much if you follow these instructions:

I have found that the best fish for grilling whole are flat saltwater fish, like Yellowtail Snapper, Mangrove Snappers, and Mahi-Mahi.

  1. First, gut and scale the fish. Rinse to get rid of any remaining blood or viscera, and pat it dry inside and out with paper towels.  
  2. With a sharp knife split the fish upward to the dorsal fin to separate the meat into halves still attached by skin. Run a sharp knife along one side of the backbone to the dorsal fin. Be careful not to cut through the skin. The bones will be easy enough to remove once the fish is cooked
  3. With your knife, splice three or four slits partially through each side of the fish to ensure even cooking (this step is unnecessary with small fish).
  4. Baste the fish inside and out with coarse sea salt and pepper then rub it with a bit of olive oil, peanut oil or butter (for both flavor and to prevent sticking). Flavor the meat, by lining cavity with thin slices of lemon, key limes, diced onions, peppers, butter, minced garlic, and basil.
  5. Sew the fish shut with wet kitchen twine.
  6. Lump the hardwood coals in the grill opposite side you will be cooking the fish directly over with about 6-8 quarts of hardwood coals. This will be your direct heat source. To prevent the fish from sticking to the grill, oil the grate.
  7. Preheat the grill on low heat. Place the fish on the grate on the opposite side of the lump of hot coals (away from the direct heat grill heat (hot coals piled up opposite the fish).
  8. Cover the grill. Grill until the fish turns dark and crisp, depending on the size of the fish, this may take 15-60 Minutes.
  9. Make sure the fish is fully cooked by pressing the fish with your finger. The area around where you pressed will break into firm flakes and it should pull away easily from the bones. (If you like a bit of charring, set the finished fish directly above the hot coals for a minute or two. )
  10. Use a spatula to slide the fish off the grate and onto a serving platter.


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