Learn How to Grill Salmon perfectly every time, from choosing the best piece of fish to preparing the grill.
There’s some kind of special affinity between fresh fish and a grill. One of my favorite ways to prepare salmon is over charcoal, but the gas grill does a pretty good job as well. If you’ve never tried this method, I hope that the following steps will be an incentive to try it out. I’m pretty confident it will become your favorite way cook salmon.
How to Choose Salmon for Grilling
First things first. Let’s talk about how to choose your salmon. You’ll generally find four types of salmon readily available.
The first is King or Chinook Salmon. As the name infers this is considered the best of the best. It tends to have a high fat content and the flesh has a very rich taste. This is the most expensive of the salmon varieties. But, if you have the budget, it’s worth every penny.
The next type is the Coho or Silver Salmon. The fish gets its name from its silver skin. The flesh is bright red and has a delicate texture and a subtle flavor. These fish are smaller than the Kings.
Third on the list is the Sockeye or Red Salmon. The flesh of this fish is a bright reddish orange. The flavor of this fish is richer than the King/Chinook and could be described as fishier.
The final fish on the list is the Atlantic or Salmo Salar. All commercially available Atlantic salmon is farmed because of the small populations in the wild. They tend to be fairly mild in flavor and get pretty big because of the diet they are fed. This variety is usually less expensive than the wild salmon.
Farm-raised vs. Wild-caught Salmon
Based on your tastes, any of these fish work well on the grill. A note about farm-raised versus wild-caught. The farm raised are generally milder in flavor than their wild-caught counterparts. They also tend to be fattier, which works well with high-heat cooking.
If you choose the wild-caught salmon, choose fillets that are a little thicker.
I like to choose center-cut fillets rather than those from the tail-end. This is true for both farm-raised and wild-caught. The center-cut is thicker allowing more time for the skin to get crispy and crackly.
Skin-on vs. Skinless Salmon
If you’re in the I-don’t-eat-fish-skin camp, then I’m pretty sure you haven’t had it cooked properly. Trust me on this point – it’s important to buy salmon fillets with skin-on for this recipe. The skin acts an insulator as the salmon is cooked. It protects the flesh from getting over-cooked, while the skin gets crispy, crackly, and crunchy. I think you might even change your mind after tasting this fish skin. And if you still don’t like it, at least you tried it and your salmon was well insulated :)
The one exception for using skinless salmon is when you are poaching.
How To Grill Salmon
Grilling salmon demands your full attention. So make sure that you have all of your ingredients and implements in place. Here’s a list of what you’ll need:
- Salmon fillets
- High-smoke oil – vegetable or grape seed
- Pastry or Basting Brush
- Grill – charcoal or gas (my charcoal grill is a Weber Little Smoky portable grill)
- Charcoal chimney, if using a charcoal grill
- Charcoal, if using charcoal grill
- Thin metal spatula
- Carving fork
- Instant Read Thermometer
- Serving platter
Preparing the Grill
Fill a chimney starter with charcoal and light according the manufacture’s instructions. (Please don’t use starter fluid. This will destroy the delicate flavor of the fish.) When the edges of the charcoal is grey and ashy, it’s ready.
Pour the charcoal evenly over half of the the charcoal grate and put the cooking grill in place. This creates two cooking zones. One for direct cooking and one with indirect heat. The indirect zone is only used if the skin starts to burn before it gets blistered.
If you’re using a gas grill, turn on half the burners to create a direct and an indirect cooking zone.
Preheat the grill to 450˚ – 500˚F.
Preparing the Salmon
While the grill is pre-heating, remove the salmon from the packaging. Pat it dry with a paper towel on all sides.
Removing the moisture from the exterior of the salmon helps to reduce the risk of sticking as well as to speed up the searing process.
At this point, I like to take the fish, all ingredients, and the cooking implements out to the grill. Brush the fillets with the oil.
When the grill has reached the pre-heat temperature, I clean and oil the grill. This step helps to ensure that the fish won’t stick to the grates.
Season the salmon with salt and pepper. It’s important to do this just before placing the fish on the grill and not before since the salt starts to break down the proteins in the fish and pulls moisture out.
Place the salmon on the grill skin side down. I’ve seen some instructions that indicate starting flesh side down, however, I’ve never had any luck with this process. The skin doesn’t ever get crispy and more often that not, the flesh sticks to the grate.
Cover the grill and cook for 6 – 8 minutes. I like to check after about 5 minutes. Using a carving fork placed between the grates of the grill, carefully lift the fillet. If there is any resistance, replace the cover and check in another minute.
Loosen the fillets with the carving fork and flip the fillets with a thin metal spatula and cook for another 2 – 3 minutes. The skin should be blistery and nicely browned.
The USDA recommends an internal temperature of 145˚F. For my taste, this is little overdone so I pull the fillets when the instant read thermometer reaches 125˚F as carry-over cooking will generally raise the temperature between five and ten degrees. Doneness is definitely a personal preference. Do what makes you the most comfortable, but please don’t let it go over 145˚F before pulling the fillets from the grill or your fish will be dry, super fishy tasting, and the white albumen will seep all over the fillets. Visually, the exterior should be opaque with a touch of translucence in the interior.
Remove to a platter and serve immediately. A word of caution, DON’T start nibbling before you get to the table, you may not end up with anything to serve your family or guests ;)
I tend to be a purist when it comes to my salmon, however, if you lean toward sauces with your fish, here are some great options:
From choosing the best piece of fish to preparing the grill, learn How to Grill Salmon perfectly every time.
- 4 skin-on fillets, 6 to 8 ounces each, 1 1/2 – 2-inches
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable or grape see oil
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. ground black
- Prepare the grill for direct cooking. For charcoal grilling, fill a chimney starter with charcoal and light. Once the coals are ready, pour them evenly over half of the charcoal grate. Set the cooking grate over the coals. For a gas grill, set half of the burners to high heat. Preheat for 5 minutes and then clean and oil the cooking grate.
- Remove the fillets from the packaging and pat dry with paper towels. Brush both sides of the fillets with oil.
- When the grill is ready, sprinkle both sides of the fish with salt and pepper.
- Set the fillets, skin-side down on the cooking grate. Cook until the skin is brown, crispy, and blistered, about 4 minutes. The fish should release easily at this point. If is doesn’t, insert a carving fork between the grates under the fish and jiggle it free.
- Use a thin metal spatula to gently flip the fillets over to the flesh side and cook to the desired doneness. Use an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the fillet: Rare – 110˚F; Medium-rare – 120˚F; Medium – 130˚F. If the fish seems to be burning before the desired temperature is reached, move the fish to the cooler side of the grill (the side without charcoal or lit burner).
- Serve immediately.