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Whole Grilled Fish

Grilling a whole fish, as opposed to filets, adds a whole new dimension to outdoor cooking. And this simple recipe makes it easier than ever to take your grilling game to the next level.

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If you’re used to preparing fish that’s already been filleted, I highly recommend grilling a whole fish at least once. It will give you an immediate sense of your food’s animal origins, and the flavors and eating experience are somehow elevated. I can’t explain it, but you’ll know what I mean when you try it.

For this recipe, you can use almost any fish you like, but red snapper works particularly well. To learn more about grilling fish, see Cooking with Whole Fish.

Tips for choosing a good grilling fish:

  • Choose a mild fish and make sure it’s ultra-fresh. It should smell clean, not at all fishy, and the eyes should be clear, not heavily clouded over. Plan to buy it (or catch it) the same day you cook it.
  • Ask if the fish seller has any local catch in the back. Often these are the best fish, but they aren’t on display because people generally ask for the more expensive, imported choices.
  • To support more even grilling, choose a few smaller fish (2–2.5 pounds, at least 2 inches thick) rather than one large one.
  • Unless you know how to do it yourself, ask that your fish be gutted and scaled for you, with the head and tail left intact.
  • You can use any uncooked fins, tails, heads, and/or bones (cooked or uncooked) or seafood shells to make fragrant fish broth for excellent fish soups and stews. The easiest method is to place everything in your slow cooker, generously cover with cold water, bring to a boil on the high setting, then reduce to low without opening the cover and cook 8 hours to overnight. Strain out all solid matter and refrigerate or freeze the broth for future use.

Whole Grilled Fish recipe



  • 3 2-lb. whole fish, at least 2 inches thick in the middle, gutted and scaled
  • Heat-stable vegetable oil, neutral flavor
  • 3 tsp. sea salt
  • 1½ tsp. cracked black pepper
  • 6 cloves garlic or small shallots, smashed 
  • 1½ small lemons, cut into 9 wedges
  • Soaked toothpicks or small grill skewers
  • Chopped fresh herbs and additional lemon wedges, optional for garnish


1. Scrub grill grate clean to help prevent sticking, and preheat grill to medium high. If fish still has fins, remove with a sharp knife and set aside to make fish broth, or discard.

2. Make a series of 3–4 diagonal slits across fleshy part of each side of fish between tail and head. Cuts should be deep (to the bone) to aid in more even cooking.

3. Lightly oil entire fish, including inside the cuts and in the belly cavity. Coat each fish with 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper (or to taste), concentrating on cuts and cavities. Insert 2 garlic cloves or shallots deep into the belly cavities of each fish.

4. Squeeze lemon wedges into belly cavities, and line them up along the opening, skin sides out, about 3 per fish, to plug the cavity opening. Use soaked barbecue skewers or toothpicks to “pin” opening flaps together to keep pungents and lemon securely inside.

5. Reduce grill temp to medium, and oil grate. Generously recoat fish with oil and place on grill, belly side toward you, leaving enough room behind it to roll over. Cover grill, and cook, undisturbed, about 10 minutes (if fish is 2 inches thick in the middle).

6. Gently roll fish backward with spatula to flip, close grill, and cook 10 minutes more, until flesh flakes easily.

7. Use spatula to carefully work fish skin away from grill, and lift whole fish onto plate. Garnish with fresh herbs, if using, and generous lemon wedges to squeeze over all just before serving. Be mindful of small bones when enjoying.

Nutrition Information

  • Calories 510
  • Carbohydrate Content 3 g
  • Cholesterol Content 170 mg
  • Fat Content 11 g
  • Fiber Content 1 g
  • Protein Content 94 g
  • Saturated Fat Content 2 g
  • Sodium Content 1450 mg
  • Sugar Content 1 g