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Prime Cuts: Grilling Freshwater Fish

Sponsored by Exmark

April 2020

View this Exmark Original video from their Prime Cuts series to learn how to prepare and grill fish from your local lakes and rivers.

I thoroughly enjoy seafood – especially fresh ocean fish – but my love of seafood didn’t develop at an early age. I was born and raised in Northern Minnesota and I didn’t see an ocean until I was in my early twenties. In the house where I grew up, the only menu item that would even approach a seafood classification was creamed salmon and peas on toast. The salmon that my mother used was canned and not of high quality, and I spent more time searching for and picking out bones than I did eating.

Over the years, as I traveled to the coasts for either work or pleasure, I was able to experience fresh seafood prepared in so many different ways. I love grilled ocean fish like seabass, grouper and snapper, but because of a lack of good fresh seafood back home, I started experimenting by using local freshwater fish on the grill. I have found that freshwater fish in many cases equals and may even surpass the flavor of ocean fish with the right recipe and grilling techniques.

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I live in the land of 10,000 lakes where the ability to fish for a variety of freshwater fish is usually only a short drive away for any resident. Panfish, crappies, walleyes, bass, trout and even catfish make great grilling alternatives. Preparing fish from our local lakes and rivers is a year-round pleasure but grilling fish – especially in the summer – adds a healthy alternative to frying or deep-frying fish that are north woods traditions.

Preparing freshwater fish for the grill depends on whether you are grilling either the whole fish or just the fileted portions without the skin. When grilling the whole fish, most freshwater fish – with the exception of trout – will need to have the scales removed in order to cook on the grill. The fish will also need to be gutted and have the gills removed. It is important to not overlook removing the gills as they will impart an undesirable flavor to the fish if left on during grilling. If you choose to grill only the filleted parts of the fish, the flesh and the majority of the bones are removed from the fish during the process.

several whole fish cooking on grill

Grilling Whole Fish

To grill a whole fish, as mentioned earlier, you will need to gut, scale and remove the gills from the fish. Also, at this time, use a sharp knife to score the fish horizontally to the spine making three to five cuts along the length of the fish. This will allow the fish to heat more evenly and is especially effective for larger fish.

I like to season the inside of the fish cavity with salt, pepper and a little lemon juice. I may put a pad or two of butter in the cavity and also some fresh herb from the garden like thyme or rosemary. Seasoning your fish is a personal choice; keep it plain or experiment with seasonings that appeal to you. To prepare the grill, rub vegetable oil on the grill grates using a paper towel and a pair of tongs. The grill – either charcoal or gas – should be heated to a medium heat. Rub an oil like olive oil on the outside of the fish and lay it on the grill when it has attained medium heat. You will want to cook the fish for about 10 minutes per inch of thickness flipping the fish once during the cooking time.

A note on flipping whole fish on the grill: regardless of the type of fish, it’s important to allow the fish to form a crust before you attempt to flip it. Depending on the thickness of the fish, if you’ve determined that about 10 minutes of cooking time is necessary, you may want to let the fish cook on the first side for 7 minutes or so to make sure the flesh is crusting. You can periodically test if a crust has formed on the fish by slightly sliding a spatula under an edge to see if it is releasing from the grill. When it’s time to flip the fish, try using the spatula and a pair of tongs to ease the fish over on the other side. You will know the fish is done when the flesh turns opaque and flakes easily with a fork. The internal temperature should be 145 degrees.

Grilling Filleted Fish

Filleting fish removes the flesh from the bones and skin leaving just the fillet to grill. Filleted fish lose the protection of the skin on the grill so they can be more fragile when cooking. Once you have filleted your fish, make sure they are room temperature and dry. You can coat the fillet with olive oil and season with salt, pepper or a season salt. The grill should be heated to medium and the grill grates rubbed with vegetable oil using a tongs and paper towel.

When grilling fillets directly on the grill try to keep the size of the fillets fairly uniform. This will guarantee that all of the fillets are done at the same time. The same grilling times apply for fish fillets on the grill with about 10 minutes per inch flipping once. When grilling fillets instead of the whole fish, it can be a lot more difficult to flip the fish without them breaking apart especially if the fish is not thick.

Panfish and crappies make excellent grilled fish but by virtue of their size tend to be much thinner than bass or walleyes. Using a wire fish basket to hold the fish can be a great asset when cooking any filleted fish. You can also wrap the filleted fish in tinfoil or parchment paper adding olive oil, butter, seasonings or even a little white wine and then place on the grill for half the cooking time, then opening up the foil or parchment for the last half of the cooking. Internal temperature of the fish should be 145 degrees and the flesh should be white not opaque and flake easily with a fork.

Use Your Favorite Recipes

Grilling freshwater fish doesn’t have to bland. If you have a favorite ocean fish recipe or a spicy Caribbean inspired recipe that you’ve used on fish in your oven, don’t be afraid to apply it to your grilling. Mild-tasting freshwater fish easily adapt to take on even the most exotic flavors when prepared on the grill.

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