Summertime means evenings and weekends spent at the grill, where everything is fair game for the menu: meat, veggies, fruit, and seafood. However, for even the most experienced grillers fish and seafood can often be difficult to work with, resulting in a less-than-ideal meal. Andy Baraghani wants to help. He is the Senior Food Editor at Bon Appétit, and recently contributed recipes to the article "6 Recipes That Prove Grilling Seafood is Much Easier Than You Think." He talked with Francis Lam about some tips and tricks for grilling fish and squid. Fire up your grill and try Andy's recipes for Garlicky Grilled Squid with Marinated Peppers and Grilled Crispy-Skinned Salmon with Whole Lemon-Sesame Sauce.
Francis Lam: I am about to go visit a friend's beach house where all we do is grill fish. I feel like I do it okay. But mostly, I get the grill ripping hot and I throw on the fish and just pray it comes out, but you actually know how to grill fish. What is rule number one?
Andy Baraghani: I guess it depends on what type of seafood you're cooking. If you're going to go with fish, rarely do you want to go with high heat. Actually, I never go with high heat. And for that matter, I rarely go with medium high heat. A lot of the recipes that you'll see in our grilled seafood story in our June/July issue of Bon Appétit, I call for medium heat on the grill. I'm more of a medium heat type of guy, so that the skin gets crisp but doesn't char to the point where it's just almost inedible.
FL: I love that you're a medium heat kind of guy. I feel like I'm a medium heat kind of guy generally.
AB: Moderate. Gentle.
FL: Yeah, gentle. I'm a gentle guy. But for fish, fear number one with grilling fish is sticking.
Andy Baraghani Photo: Alex Lau / Bon Appétit
FL: I was always trained that if the grill is super-hot, and you oil the grates, then that's what prevents the sticking.
AB: I would say that's part one. I definitely think you need to get your grill pretty hot. Make sure you it's very clean as well. It's easiest to clean a grill when it's hot – I don't know if people are aware of that. So, once you clean the grill, and it's hot, then you want to slick it with oil. As soon as you slick it with oil, that's when you want to put your seafood on – immediately. You've just created a nonstick surface. But what I do is I not only oil the grate, I oil the fish. It's kind of like an insurance policy – like double duty – in that regard. That keeps the skin from sticking to the grates. I would rather go a little bit longer on medium heat than go medium-high or high heat and get the tail and the head – especially if you're doing whole fish – burned before you have everything cooked through in the center. I tend to go with medium heat; it's just safer that way.
FL: Do you have any rules? Always skin on? Sometimes skin off is okay?
AB: I think you should always go skin on. One, because who doesn't like crispy skinned fish? That's like one of my favorite things on the planet. But also, it's a barrier between the flesh and the grates. I always go with skin-on fish.
FL: Even if you do burn the skin a little bit or if you do get the skin to stick a little bit –
AB: You've still got the flesh, it's still protected. It’s still going to be come out tender, opaque, cooked through, and you don't have to risk overcooking the flesh when you have the skin on.
FL: Do you cover the grill or not?
AB: It depends. With whole fish, I usually don't cover it. I'll just flip it once. I have a particular method of flipping. But when it comes to a skin-on fillet of salmon, I actually leave it skin side on the grates the whole time, and I cover it. This ensures that the skin gets crisp, the flesh is cooked through, and then I can pick it up without having to flip the fish at all.
Recipe: Grilled Crispy-Skinned Salmon with Whole Lemon-Sesame Sauce Photo: Alex Lau / Bon Appétit
FL: Tell me about flipping.
AB: It depends on the size of the fish. I really don't like to deal with too big of a fish when grilling, because it's too heavy, it's too hard to pick up. Doesn't matter how strong you are, it just gets a little bit tricky. We have the salt and pepper grilled black bass in our June/July issue, and I think they are about two pounds each, so pretty small. What I do is I lay the whole fish facing you – you want to go against grates crosswise – and then I use two large, metal spatulas. That's the tricky part. I pick the fish up starting from the tail and head and scoot forward with the metal spatula and then kind of roll it away from you. You're not actually lifting the fish up from the grates entirely; you're rolling it away and flipping it that way.
FL: Okay. Like letting the roundness of the fish help you out.
FL: Roll it over rather than trying to do the big flip thing which--
AB: Never seems to work.
FL: It ends up tearing the fish.
AB: It's a little bit technical, but once you get the movement down it ends up making a lot more sense.
FL: If you’re in a fish market, what would you look at and be say, “Let's grill that.” Or, “Let's not grill that?”
AB: I would go for a round fish. This is kind of a weird way to describe it, but on round fish heads you'll see the two eyes on either side. I go with snapper and black bass. Those are the two fish you'll find that are really easy to grill. I am not grilling flounder, for example, it's just too thin. There's too much risk involved.
FL: They're really delicate.
AB: Too delicate. I'd feel safer dealing with whole fish like black bass or snapper. Those are the easy ones.
FL: And with fillets?
AB: I think salmon's a good one. You're rarely going to cook a whole salmon, they're just so big and very hard to deal with. That's my favorite, especially because like I love salmon skin. You could do halibut, but I don't really care for halibut skin; I don't think anybody really does. And cod, it's really tricky to find it with the skin on. Salmon's my go-to for when you're doing fillets.
FL: Especially in the summer. You have all the beautiful King salmon and Sockeye salmon coming from Alaska.
AB: I love Sockeye salmon.
FL: It's my favorite. It's lean but has such a beautiful briny, minerally flavor.
AB: Some people either love or hate Sockeye because it's so lean. But I love that. It’s like you really taste the fish.
Recipe: Garlicky Grilled Squid with Marinated Peppers Photo: Alex Lau / Bon Appétit
FL: There's one more question I have to ask you because Sally my producer was like, “Ask him this. I've been dying to know this.”
AB: Does it have to do with seafood? [both laugh] Oh, here we go.
FL: It’s about squid, and I actually feel her on this. I love beautiful chargrilled squid. But I've never gotten a good color on squid without overcooking it.
AB: I've heard that many times. I did try to solve that problem, and it's something that I picked up when I was working in restaurants. I place a wire rack like a resting rack you would use or put in a rimmed baking sheet; I put that directly on the grill. The wire rack is a lot finer than the grates of a grill.
AB: So, I use that to grill the squid. I don't grill the squid directly on the grates, whether gas or charcoal. I do it on a wire rack.
FL: Why does that get more color for you?
AB: You don't get the grill marks, but it does get lightly charred. It's something you'll see in a lot of Yakitori spots with the way they grill the squid. What I do is, I don't oil the rack, but I do toss the squid with a little bit of oil. And my trick, always a little bit of garlic. Because even when you're dealing with good squid, I want a little bit of the scent of garlic with it. And then I go roaring high heat. I mean, this is not the time for medium heat, or medium-high. I put the wire rack on the grill, and I let it preheat on high heat for at least 10 minutes. I want it to be very, very hot.
FL: White hot.
AB: You're definitely going to get a color. It's also one of those things where you don't need to be so delicate with it. You can move the tentacles around, you can move the bodies around. I also keep the bodies intact; I don't cut the bodies up. If people are not aware, squids have tubular shape bodies. And then the tentacles, I don't cut them, I leave them whole. I just flip them around and then I wait until the bodies get a little bit of color and tentacles get lacy and crisp at the ends. And you're good to go.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.