Food

The Best Way to Grill Salmon

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from friends that they never cook salmon because the fish smell lingers in their house for days. What a shame. There are so many beautiful, sustainable, reasonably priced salmon options at the store, and it’s a quick-cooking fish that — because it’s fatty — can be wonderfully moist and satisfying.

So my question to those friends is often: “Well, have you tried grilling it? When you cook it outside, you don’t have to worry about the smell.” To that, I get the same response 100% of the time: What if the fish sticks to the grates?

Well, I’m here to tell you that you can put those fears to rest. I tested five ways to grill salmon fillets, and I can honestly report that I had practically no issues with sticking (read on for the keys to success). That’s giving away much of the punchline, revealing a key part of my test results, but I wanted to get it out there early — and I’ll repeat it.

So with sticking being a non-issue, what would stand out as the best way to grill salmon fillets? What about a high-heat start and a low-heat finish? Should you start the fish skin-side down or up, or leave it one way the entire time? How about wrapping the fish in foil? I looked online for recipes and instructions that were rated highly and used them as my guide for each test.

So, What Is the Best Way to Grill Salmon?

While there were a number of methods that worked well, the very best method for grilling salmon was starting with it skin-side down and finishing it skin-side up. Read on to learn more about why that method was my favorite and to get all the details on how to grill perfect salmon at home.

A Few Notes About Methodology

Salmon: I used 6-ounce, skin-on salmon fillets for all of my testing, and I chose sustainable Atlantic farmed salmon (it’s fattier than wild salmon and thus more forgiving on the grill). I sought out center-cut fillets, which tend to be thicker than tail-end pieces; mine were all about 1-inch thick.

Seasonings: To keep as many variables constant as possible, I simply brushed olive oil over the flesh and skin side of each fillet and seasoned them with just salt and black pepper. 

Grill: I used a gas grill for all of my testing and heated it to the level specified for each method. With each method, I indicate whether the lid is left open or closed. Just before placing the fish on the grill, I made sure that the rack was scrubbed very clean and rubbed it with an oil-soaked paper towel held with long tongs.

Helpful tool: Although you don’t have to use a fish spatula to flip the fish over and remove it from the grill, I cannot recommend one highly enough. The thinness of the head helps it slide effortlessly between the fish and the grill grates. (And believe me: If you get one, you’ll find yourself reaching for it every time you bake cookies and roast veggies, too.)

Time: The time stated is the cooking/grilling time only; it does not include the amount of time it takes to preheat the grill.

Ratings: Each method is rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing perfection. I based my ratings on these main criteria: texture and flavor of the flesh, texture and flavor of the skin (because when it’s good, it’s so, so good), and whether or not the fish stuck at all. I also gave moderate consideration to appearance. 

Grilled Salmon Method: Wrapped in Foil Over Medium Heat with the Lid Closed

About this method: For this technique, I looked at popular recipes from Epicurious and Well Plated and loosely followed their guidance. I say “loosely” because I was working with 6-ounce fillets (to keep the tests consistent across methods), and their recipes call for larger pieces. But here’s the gist: I heated the grill to medium (about 375°F). I arranged the (oiled, seasoned) fillets on a large piece of heavy-duty foil coated with cooking spray, wrapped the foil around the fish (I didn’t seal it completely, based on the Epicurious technique), placed the packet on the grill, and closed the lid for the entire cooking time.

Grilled Salmon Method: High Heat Skin-Side Down, Then Low Heat Skin-Side Up with the Lid Open

About this method: For this test, I set up my grill for two heat zones — cranking one side up to high and turning the other side to low as the directions in Food Nework’s recipe state. I then placed the fillets skin-side down on the hot side, left the lid open (the instructions never say to close it), and grilled for 6 minutes. Then I moved the fish over to the low-heat side, flipped it to skin-side up, and let it cook for 3 minutes with the lid still open. 

Results: Thankfully, I experienced no issue with the flesh or skin side sticking to the grill. The fish didn’t pick up as much smoky flavor as it did with most of the other methods, and it looked more pale — no doubt because the lid stayed open. The skin was very crisp, which I enjoyed, but the flavor was a little lacking.

Grilled Salmon Method: High Heat Skin-Side Up, Then Skin-Side Down with the Lid Closed

About this method: I followed the instructions in Simply Recipes’ method, although as noted in my methodology notes, I used just salt, pepper, and oil on the fish and omitted the marinade. For this method, I cranked the grill up to high heat (475°F to 500°F). I then placed the fish onto the grill rack skin-side up (flesh-side down), closed the lid, and cooked for 3 minutes (the recipe says 1 to 3 minutes) — until the fish picked up some grill marks. Then I flipped the fillets over so the skin side was down, closed the lid, and grilled for 4 minutes (the recipe says 2 to 5 minutes).

Results: This was the only method that gave me a little issue with sticking. When I went to flip the fish over, one of the fillets stuck the slightest bit — which made the “presentation side” less beautiful. However, there was a nice crust overall on the flesh side, and the fish was moist. The skin did get a bit overly singed, but despite being very dark, it did not taste burned.  

Grilled Salmon Method: Medium-High Heat Skin-Side Down the Whole Time with the Lid Open

About this method: I’ll admit that I’ve grilled salmon this way many times in my non-testing life. For this test, though, I went less off my off-the-cuff instincts and instead followed the directions given by The Spruce Eats: I heated the grill to medium-high (between 400°F and 425°F) and placed the fillets skin-side down on the rack. I closed the lid and let the fish go for slightly less time than the recipe instructs, opting for 13 minutes. 

Results: I had zero issues with the fish sticking; it would’ve practically skated across the rack. The flesh side was a bit pale, and lots of unappetizing-looking albumen was released on top. Since we eat with our eyes first, that was a bit of a letdown. But the skin was fantastically crisp, and the fish was well cooked — moist, unctuous, and tender. 

Grilled Salmon Method: High Heat Skin-Side Down, Then Skin-Side Up with the Lid Closed

About this method: Even though the method described on the site Foodie Crush emphasizes the superiority of a charcoal grill, I used my gas grill to keep the tests as consistent as possible. I heated it to high, maintaining a temperature between 475°F and 500°F. I arranged the oiled, seasoned fillets skin-side down on the oiled grill rack, closed the lid, and grilled the fish for 6 minutes (the recipe says 6 to 8 minutes). I then flipped the fillets over so they were skin-side up, closed the lid, and grilled 2 additional minutes (the recipe recommends 2 to 4 minutes). 

Results: This is my kind of salmon! The skin was quite dark but perfectly potato-chip crisp with a robust grilled taste — not a burned flavor. The flesh side had lovely grill marks, and the flesh itself flaked into big, irresistible, moist-oily chunks. And no, the fish didn’t even think about sticking.

First off, if you’re timid about grilling salmon because you’re afraid of it sticking, please rest assured that if your rack is clean, hot, and lightly oiled (hold a paper towel dipped in oil with tongs, and rub that over the rack), you shouldn’t have any problems. With all of these methods I tested, I only had one fillet stick just a wee bit. Don’t try to flip the fillets with tongs. Instead, slide a thin metal spatula (remember, I recommend a fish spatula) between the fish and the rack, and it should release easily. That said, medium-high or high heat tends to work well with this quick-cooking fish, giving it a robust, flame-lickled essence, and for the crispiest skin, either start the fillets skin-side down or keep them that way the entire time. 

Ann Taylor Pittman

Contributor

Ann Taylor Pittman is an independent food writer and recipe developer. Prior to freelance life, she built a career of creating healthy recipes at Cooking Light magazine, where she worked for 20 years. She is the recipient of two James Beard Foundation Awards. Ann lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, their 15-year-old twin boys, one big dog, and one little dog.



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