While we love pretty much every grilling recipe, grilled fish can be a little nerve-wracking. Compared to hearty burgers and steaks, salmon fillets look tender and delicate, and the intense heat of the grill might seem like a bad choice. But it’s that heat that makes the grill a perfect cooking method for a fish like salmon. The grill’s smokiness is a subtle way to amp up salmon’s mild flavor, and the high heat creates a deliciously charred finish.
The only problem with grilling fish is that it flakes. If it sticks to the grill, you’ll watch your investment crumble into the fiery inferno below before you get to take a bite.
Luckily, we have a bit of good news: Fish doesn’t have to stick to the grill. In fact, it’s easily avoidable. Learn how to grill salmon—without it sticking—by adopting a few simple techniques.
Tips on Selecting Salmon
You have a few choices when it comes to grilled salmon: fillets or steaks. The fillets tend to be a bit thinner, so they’ll cook up more quickly than the steaks, but both options work well on the grill. Whether you plan to eat the skin or not, it’s always best to opt for skin-on salmon, too. That skin gives you a buffer between the delicate flesh and the hot grill, protecting the salmon from the dreaded sticking scenario.
When it comes to the type of salmon, we always opt for wild-caught salmon when we have the option. It’s naturally leaner, so you’ll need to watch it carefully to keep it from overcooking. But we love its bolder color and more complex, salmon-forward flavor. Farm-raised salmon might be a better fit for some picky eaters, though, because it has a mellower flavor that’s nowhere near as bold. It also contains more fat, so it’s more forgiving to cook.
Learn more about choosing the best fillet in our ultimate guide to cooking salmon.
Tips for Grill Prep
Keeping the fish from sticking to the grill is a three-pronged approach: You need a clean, preheated and oiled grill. Start by cleaning your grill. Dirty grill grates increase the chances of food sticking. Since the grill is easiest to clean when it’s preheated, you just knocked out two of the three essential steps.
Then, before you start cooking, oil both the fish and the grill grates. Rub some cooking oil on a paper towel and, using tongs, lightly coat the grill rack with the oil. You may get a few flare-ups during this process, so always move the tongs from the back of the grill towards the front to protect the hairs on your arms.
Essential Tools We Recommend
For starters, you’ll need to decide the right type of grill for your cooking style—gas or charcoal. You can’t go wrong with the Napoleon 18-inch Charcoal Kettle grill ($119) if cooking over briquettes or lump charcoal is in your future. If you decided to go for gas grills, look to the Weber Spirit II E-310 ($479). Short on patio space? Go portable with the Weber Q 1200 portable gas grill ($209).
How to Grill Salmon
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 4 salmon fillets (6 ounces each)
Editor’s Tip: You can skip the garlic, lemon and rosemary for an even simpler grilled salmon recipe.
Step 1: Prepare the grill
The best way to keep the salmon from sticking is to start with a clean, preheated grill. You’re looking for medium-high heat, or 400 to 450° F. For a charcoal grill, prepare the coals until they’re covered with gray ash and spread them out in an even layer. When you can hold your hand five inches above the coals for 3 to 4 seconds, the grill is ready to go. For a gas grill, turn the burners to medium-high and close the cover for about 15 minutes.
When the grill is fully preheated, clean the grill grates before moving on to the next step.
Step 2: Grill the salmon
In a small bowl, mix the garlic, lemon zest, salt, rosemary and pepper; rub over the salmon fillets. Let stand 15 minutes.
For a simpler take, rub each side of the salmon with a little bit of cooking oil and season with a sprinkle of kosher salt and pepper.
Prepare the grill by moistening a paper towel with cooking oil. Using long-handled tongs, rub the oiled towel onto the grill rack, moving from the back of the grill towards the front to protect your arms from flare-ups. Place the salmon directly on the grill grates, skin-side down, and place the cover on the grill. After about 4 minutes, the salmon should release easily from the grill grates. Flip the fish over and cook for an additional 3 to 6 minutes, until it reaches the desired temperature (125° F for medium fish, or 145° F for a fish that flakes more easily with a fork).
Step 3: Let it rest
Salmon is no different from any other meat: It needs to rest after cooking. Given the fillet’s small size, you should only need about five minutes. Then, peel off the skin (or eat it if it’s crispy enough for your liking) and serve.
Flipping the Salmon
When you’re cooking salmon fillets or steaks over direct heat, we recommend flipping them halfway through. Don’t worry; if you started with a clean, preheated and oiled grill, your salmon won’t stick. After three to four minutes on a hot grill, the salmon will naturally release. Simply get under it with a thin, flat spatula and gently flip it over to finish cooking.
If the idea of flipping the fish makes you nervous, feel free to skip it. Be sure to cook the fish skin-side down and close the lid for the entire cooking time. The ambient heat of the grill will heat the fish all the way through, although the top won’t have a beautiful grilled appearance.
Grilling the salmon on a cedar plank is another option for no-flip grilled fish. This technique cooks the fish over indirect heat, and it never comes in contact with the grill grates. Learn how to pull it off with our guide to cedar plank grilling.
Cooking the Salmon Perfectly
The best way to know when salmon is finished cooking is to use a thermometer (like this Thermapen digital thermometer). The USDA recommends cooking salmon to an internal temperature of 145° F. While that temperature results in a moist, flaky fish, we prefer our fish a little closer to medium—125° F.
If you don’t have a thermometer, you can still cook salmon perfectly. Pay attention to the color of the fish on the side of the fillet. You’re looking for that translucent pink to turn an opaque white as it creeps up towards the top of the fish. If you gently poke the fish with a fork, it should turn into flaky pieces.
In general, direct heat grilled salmon should take about eight minutes per inch of thickness, or about four minutes per side. Most fillets are an inch or thinner, but salmon steaks can be a little thicker, so you may need additional time.
For indirect heat cedar plank grilled salmon, you can count on anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes, depending on the size of the salmon.
Can You Grill Salmon Indoors?
If you don’t have a grill, you can still cook a grill-like salmon indoors. Cook the salmon in a preheated cast-iron skillet to get a similar sear to what you’ll find on the grill. Or take advantage of your broiler. It’s essentially a reverse grill, where the heating element is on top of the food instead of the bottom. After preheating the broiler to high, position the salmon four inches below the element. Then, cook it according to the recipe above, flipping it halfway through.
Dishes to Serve with Salmon
Salmon is great on its own, but that doesn’t mean you can’t complement it with a great sauce or side dish. Try making a tangy dill sauce to serve over the salmon, or top it with an easy flavored butter. For a bolder option, look to this chorizo-olive sauce.
As far as side dishes go, you can’t go wrong with grilled vegetables. Try whipping up some foil-pack vegetables, or make your favorite potato salad recipe. For something a little different, try serving salmon with Mediterranean lentils or quinoa with peas and onions.