Nothing tastes quite as good as barbecued fish and seafood. And no other cooking method brings out the best flavor in a piscatorial repast like barbecuing. In this case, I am referring to the cooking method, as opposed to the entree, which is beef, pork, or less frequently, chicken, oftentimes drowned in smokey sauces. The actual meaning of 'Barbecue' comes from a Caribbean Native American word, barbacoa, and refers to cooking meat on a grill, and also smoking meat. Fish and most seafood can be easily cooked on a grill, and/or smoked, once you know how. And once you learn, you won't want your fish any other way.
Before we get into the actual cooking, as with any good culinary creation, the quality of your finished product depends on what happens long before the entree gets anywhere near the fire. How the catch is handled, from the minute it leaves the water, until it hits the fire, will determine the quality of your cooking. If you are catching your own fish, keep them alive until you get ready to clean them. Discard any dead fish. Also, examine each fish for anything that looks unusual, such as growths, spots or blemishes. Turn those fish loose. Fish that are kept in a floating fish basket, in the water, live longer, and stay in better shape than fish placed on a stringer, or live box.
How you clean the fish will depend on what type of fish it is, and how you plan to cook it. Small pan-fish, trout, and small catfish can be cooked whole. Simply scale them (I know, catfish have no scales but scaling them removes the unpleasant layer of mucous on their skin, so do it anyway), and remove the entrails and gills. Rinse the body cavity out well with clean fresh water, and get them on ice as soon as possible. Leaving the head on will help prevent drying out during cooking. You can always remove the head after cooking if you're squeamish. This is called market-ready, or whole fish. The next method is the same as the first, except you also cut off the head just behind the gills, tail and fins. This is called pan-dressed. Another method, especially suitable for large thick-bodied fish, is to dress it as a whole fish, then laterally cut the fish into 2” thick sections. These are called steaks. And the last method is to cut the sides of meat free from the bones on each side, giving you two long pieces of meat. This is called a fillet. All of these methods can be done with the skin on, or off, but leaving the skin on during cooking helps hold the fish together, and prevents drying out, except in the case of snook. Snook should always be skinned, otherwise the meat will taste like soap. A few other exceptions are that carp, striped bass, and dorado (Mahi Mahi) have a dark red strip of meat running along the lateral line. This must be removed, or it can make you sick. Also carp, pike and a few other fish have a unique bone structure that requires special handling. Be sure you know how to do this before serving them to someone who might choke on a bone. However you dress your fish, get them on ice or in the cooler as fast as possible. If you are not going to use them for a few hours, get them in the freezer (preferably a deep-freeze at 0°F) as quickly as possible. Once a fish is dead, every second counts if you want to preserve the optimum quality.
If you are selecting a fish from the market, for whole fish, look at the eyes and the gills. The eyes should be clear, not cloudy, and the gills bright red. If they are not, the fish is not fresh. Don't buy it. Frozen fish should still exhibit good coloration and markings.
The best way to barbecue fish is......gently and carefully. When you are ready to cook, there are just a few guidelines to follow.
- First, make sure your grills are absolutely clean, or the fish will stick to them and ruin. Spray the grates well with a non-stick cooking spray.
- Next, make sure your coals are white, and very hot. Don't rush putting the fish on.
- Use a fish grill basket to cook the fish so that there is no danger of the fish breaking apart when you turn it over. Alternately, you can wrap the fish in foil, but it won't be as good.
- Shrimp, shelled scallops and clams are best cooked on wooden skewers. Crabs, oysters, conks, and unshelled shellfish can be thrown on the grill whole.
- Fish cook very quickly on a grill. Usually, 2 or 3 minutes a side is plenty. Make sure one side is seared well before turning the fish. Only turn the fish once during cooking. The fish is done when the flesh is opaque and flakes. Shellfish are done when they firm up slightly. A little underdone is better than overdone.
- You can marinate, but don't salt any fish during cooking. It will dry it out.
- Don't be afraid to throw some hickory, mesquite, or pecan wood chips on the fire. You'll be amazed at how quick fish absorbs the flavor.
- Most fish do not require a lot of seasoning, Simply brush them with a little butter, wine and garlic, and that is usually plenty. Under-seasoning fish is better than over-doing it.
Just remember, fish do not respond well to rough-handling, poking and prodding. When grilling fish, less is more. Barbecuing fish may seem scary at first, but with a little practice, you will quickly join the ranks of Grillmiesters.