Grilling a Whole Fish

Cook, How-To, Learn

Dinner doesn’t get any more fresh and local than fish you catch and cook yourself. I’m planning on spending some lazy days at a lake this summer, where I’m hoping to take on a new grilling challenge: bringing wild freshwater trout from hook to grill to table.


I admit I’m usually the girl buying fish fillets from Whole Foods so this kind of rustic meal will be an adventure for me. I looked to Williams-Sonoma’s grilling expert Willie Cooper, author of our cookbook On the Grill, for some tips.


He promises that with a portable grill, a few grilling accessories and a cooler full of cold beverages, I’ll have everything I need for an alfresco meal with nature as my background. Here are Cooper’s instructions for grilling freshly caught whole fish.

How to Grill A Whole Fish

  1. Clean your catch
  2. Add more flavor
  3. Start the fire
  4. Grill your fish

How to Grill a Whole FishHow to clean a fish

If you caught your fish, the first step is to clean it. Using the blunt side of a knife, scrape off the scales on the outside. Insert the sharp end of the knife into the belly and make a shallow cut from head to tail. Remove the entrails and bones, if needed. Rinse the fish inside and out.

How to Grill a Whole FishAdd more flavor

Gently holding the back of the cleaned fish, stuff fresh herbs and slices of citrus into the cavity. As the fish cooks on the grill, the flesh will take on the essence of any flavors you add. Try variations of rosemary, thyme, oregano, verbena and bay leaves mixed with lemon, orange or lime.

How to Grill a Whole FishStart the fire
Ignite the coals using a chimney starter and then spread the coals two or three layers deep to form an even fire bed on the fire grate. Position the grill rack over the coals. If using a gas grill, light the grill following the manufacturer’s instructions 10 to 15 minutes in advance of cooking.


How to Grill a Whole FishGrilling your fish

Cook fresh fish such as trout and striped bass over direct or indirect heat. Make sure the grill rack is as clean as possible, and oiled, to prevent the fish from sticking to it. Lay the fish at a diagonal across the grill and cook, turning once, until opaque throughout, 4 to 5 minutes per side.


Grilled Rainbow Trout Recipe


Grilling a whole fish is the final frontier of mastering the modern grill. For the anglers among us, there is almost no greater culinary pleasure than a perfectly grilled fresh fish landed by the griller himself.


  • 4 rainbow steelhead or rainbow trout, each about 2 lb., cleaned
  • 2 Tbs. roughly chopped fresh rosemary, plus 12 sprigs
  • 2 Tbs. roughly chopped fresh thyme, plus 12 sprigs
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed into a paste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup dry vermouth or white wine
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 lemons, sliced into rounds


  1. With a very sharp knife, score the skin on both sides of the fish on the diagonal at 1-inch intervals. Place in a shallow dish.
  2. In a small bowl, stir together the chopped rosemary, chopped thyme and garlic paste. Rub the herb-garlic paste all over the outside and inside of the fish. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the vermouth and olive oil over the fish, turn to coat and let stand for 30 minutes.
  3. Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for direct grilling over medium-high heat. Brush and oil the grill grate and a fish-grilling basket, if desired.
  4. Remove the fish from the marinade; discard the marinade. Stuff the fish cavities with a few of the lemon slices and the rosemary and thyme sprigs.
  5. Arrange the fish on the grill rack or in the basket directly over medium-high heat. Grill, turning once, until nicely charred and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes per side. During the last few minutes of grilling, grill the remaining lemon slices over the hottest part of the fire, turning once, until lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes per side.
  6. Transfer the fish to individual plates or a serving platter, garnish with the grilled lemon slices and serve at once. Serves 6 to 8.

How to Grill Whole Fish

Best Whole Fish to Grill

Grilling whole fish comes with many added benefits besides just being plain delicious and great for you. The skin and bones keep the flesh moist and flavorful; the skin itself, when cooked well, brings out a unique and delicious flavor. Whole fish stands up better to heat that comes from the grill and whole fish usually costs less by weight than fish sold in portions. Grilling whole fish is fresh and fun and can be presented beautifully on a plate. Here are some of the best whole fish if you are planning a barbecue or just a regular dinner using your grill.

  • Trout
  • Salmon
  • Snapper
  • Tuna
  • Mahi Mahi
  • Swordfish

How Long Do You Cook a Whole Fish on The Grill?

Our recipe shows a fish being grilled for a total of 6-8 minutes. Once the fish hits the grill you should not move the fish after the first 3-4minutes because that will prevent the fish from sticking to the grill. After the first 3-4minutes, you want to flip the fish over and crisp the other side and that is how you grill a delicious whole fish.


For more great grilling adventures, check out Willie’s book On The Grill.

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