June 6th, 2014
01:30 PM ET
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Fish fillets have a bad reputation on the grill. Why? Because it’s likely that they’ll stick to the grill grate, and when they do, you can forget about removing them in whole pieces. The delicate texture of cooked fish makes it virtually impossible to remove fillets neatly, so what you end up bringing to the table are inelegant shards of what you hoped would be an elegant piece of fish. Enter our recipe for perfectly grilled, easy-release fillets. You may find it surprising that the key to success revolves around how you treat the grill before you even begin to cook.

Here’s the secret: After heating the grill grate and scrubbing it clean, wipe the grate well with a wad of paper towels dipped in vegetable oil. Greasing the grate is not the objective here - rather, coating it with oil seasons the grate, much like you’d season a cast-iron skillet. Due to the high heat of the grate, the oil polymerizes, creating a layer that helps prevent proteins in the fish from sticking to the metal. When cooking delicate seafood, we recommend wiping the grate multiple times so that it builds up a coating, guaranteeing that your fish won’t stick.

This recipe works best with salmon fillets but can also be used with any thick, firm-fleshed white fish, like red snapper, grouper, halibut or sea bass. Cook white fish to 140 degrees, up to two minutes longer per side.

Grilled Salmon with Olive Vinaigrette
Makes 4 servings

For the olive vinaigrette:
1/2 cup pitted green or Kalamata olives*
1 small shallot
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Table salt
Ground black pepper

For the salmon:
4 (6- to 8-ounces) skin-on salmon fillets (3/4- to 1-inch thick)**
vegetable oil for cooking grate
Kosher salt
Ground black pepper

*Green olives tend to be quite mild and mellow in flavor; large, plump green Cerignola olives from Italy are one of the most commonly available types of green olives. Black Kalamata olives have a sharper, brinier flavor than green olives. Use whichever type you prefer to make the vinaigrette.

**These days, many supermarkets offer both wild and farmed salmon varieties. We prefer wild salmon because we find its texture to be firmer and its flavor more buttery and fresh than farmed salmon. It is, however, more pricey. If all you can find are skinless salmon fillets, they’ll work too; treat the skinned side as if it were the skin side.

Prepare vinaigrette:
1. Coarsely chop 1/2 cup pitted green or Kalamata olives.
2. Peel and mince 1 small shallot, yielding about 1 tablespoon.
3. Chop enough parsley leaves to yield 2 tablespoons.
4. Squeeze 2 teaspoons juice from the lemon.
5. Stir together olives, shallot, parsley, lemon juice and 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a medium bowl.
6. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
7. Set vinaigrette aside.

Prepare salmon:
8. Place fillets skin side up on a rimmed baking sheet or large plate lined with a clean kitchen towel.
9. Place another clean kitchen towel on top of the fillets and press down to pat fish dry.
10. Refrigerate fish, wrapped in towels, while preparing grill, at least 20 minutes. (If using gas grill, proceed to step 18.)

Prepare charcoal grill:
11. While fish dries, light a large chimney starter filled two-thirds with charcoal (4 quarts, about 65 briquettes).
12. Allow to burn until coals are fully ignited and partially covered with a thin layer of ash, about 15 to 20 minutes.
13. Build modified two-level fire by arranging coals to cover one half of grill, leaving the other half empty.
14. Position a cooking grate over coals, cover grill, and let the grate heat up, about 15 minutes.
15. Use grill brush to scrape cooking grate clean.
16. Lightly dip wad of paper towels in vegetable oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe grate.
17. Continue to wipe the grate with oiled paper towels, re-dipping towels in oil between applications, until grate is black and glossy, 5 to 10 times. (Proceed to step 22.)

Prepare gas grill:
18. While fish dries, turn all burners to high, cover and heat grill until very hot, about 15 minutes.
19. Use grill brush to scrape cooking grate clean.
20. Lightly dip wad of paper towels in vegetable oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe grate.
21. Continue to wipe the grate with oiled paper towels, re-dipping towels in oil between applications, until grate is black and glossy, 5 to 10 times.

Grill salmon and serve:
22. Brush both sides of fish with a thin coat of vegetable oil.
23. Season with salt and pepper.
24. Place fish skin side down on the grill, and diagonal to grate slats.
25. Reduce heat to medium, cover grill and cook without moving until skin side is brown, well-marked and crisp, 2 to 4 minutes.
26. Try lifting fish gently with spatula after 2 minutes; if it doesn’t cleanly lift off grill, continue to cook, checking at 30-second intervals, until it releases.
27. Using two spatulas, flip fish to second side.
28. Cover grill and cook until centers of fillets are opaque and register 125 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 3 to 7 minutes longer.
29. Stir vinaigrette and serve with grilled fish.

More from America's Test Kitchen:
Our Favorite Fish Spatula
Our Winning Charcoal Grill
Baked Fish
Removing Fishy Smells from Fresh Seafood
The Best Grill Cookware

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Thinking things through

    Since I'll probably Never get my grill grate to that nice pristine glossy state again, there's always using aluminum foil, into which you've punched holes so the smoke can mingle with the fish. Lightly oil the up-side of the foil, add your fish, and grill away. Yes, their method is better, but for saving over elbow grease that may have gone on vacation, it works.

    June 10, 2014 at 7:27 pm |
  2. AleeD®

    Whee dohggie! I'll eat anything with olives. 'Cept I'd sub out the salmon with mahi or amberjack.. Mmmm.

    June 9, 2014 at 6:48 am |
  3. aspblom

    Most of the deaths in the world result from grilling fish. Remember the Great Chicago Fire and the burning of Rome by Nero: Grilling fish.........

    June 8, 2014 at 11:51 am |
    • aspblom

      And the myriad brush fires in California.

      June 8, 2014 at 11:52 am |
    • The Fladaboscan

      If everyone carried concealed fish none of this would happen.

      June 9, 2014 at 3:07 am |
      • Thinking things through

        LOL, Fladaboscan - but if you conceal the fish too long, um, it WILL make its presence known.

        June 10, 2014 at 7:22 pm |
  4. Grillzilla

    Along their recommendations about heating, cleaning, and oiling, I flip my spatula over before using it. The extra spring tension helps completely separate the fish from the grate in one piece.

    June 7, 2014 at 11:03 pm |
  5. 1776usa2016

    First, find an unpolluted body of water to fish in.


    June 7, 2014 at 11:57 am |
    • aspblom

      I use the Detroit River.

      June 8, 2014 at 11:52 am |
    • Gulf Fishing

      Gulf o'Mexico is clean. Do all my fishing there.

      June 9, 2014 at 6:46 am |
      • BP

        It's well oiled too so no need to oil the grill grates

        June 9, 2014 at 5:22 pm |
  6. Tony

    Grilling fish over an open bbq is great, but really, if you want some very easy, very fast grilled fish, just do it on a cast iron ribbed grill in your kitchen. All the same technique applies. Use a little oil on the grill, season the fish, through it on. Cover it with a deep pan, flip, and done. No need to clean the grate, fire up the charcoal, get the temp right, etc.

    June 6, 2014 at 5:03 pm |
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