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How to BBQ fish

Carlton Boyce / 28 April 2016

Read our tips for cooking fish on the barbecue, including how to add flavour with herbs and smoking.

Using foil to BBQ fish
Using foil to barbecue fish keeps the flesh moist and protects the delicate flesh from the direct heat of the grill

Fish makes a great barbeque food but it does need care; while meat is robust enough to withstand even the most ham-fisted BBQ chef, fish, with its more delicate flesh and skin, needs more careful handling.

That’s not to say you should shrink away from using it because the results can be wonderful, especially if you are cooking freshly caught mackerel on the beach!

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Prepare the BBQ

While there is nothing wrong with using a gas barbeque, I prefer a charcoal one. It might be a bit more work but the flavour is better and there is something primeval about cooking over coals that appeals to my inner caveman. Nor is there anything wrong with the occasional use of a portable barbeque; they might not be the most environmentally considerate way to do it, but you can’t beat them for the odd beach meal.

The temptation with charcoal is to start cooking when then coals are still alight or glowing red, but please do resist. It’s far better to wait until they are a dull grey colour with no visible flames. Then, if possible, heap them up at one end, gradually sloping the coals down towards the other, creating a temperature gradient that allows you to move the fish around as necessary to prevent it burning.

Try this recipe for grilled langoustines

Protect with foil

Tin foil is your friend. It not only protects the fish from the direct heat of the grill, it also serves as a mini-oven to keep things moist and as a serving plate.

The key is to rip off enough to be able to fold it in two lengthways, before folding it again in the same direction. Then fold the two short ends over a couple of times to make a double-thickness envelope. Place the fish and herbs inside this pocket and fold the open side over a couple of times to seal.

And flavour with herbs

Fresh herbs can transform a humble piece of fish into a meal fit for the Gods. Be bold, and don’t be scared to experiment, either: dill and tarragon might be familiar but rosemary, sage and thyme also work very well.

Of course, you’ll also want to use a few lemon slices plus plenty of salt and freshly cracked black pepper too. Or a dribble of balsamic vinegar, chilli oil, or really good extra virgin olive oil; just experiment, and have fun, and if it doesn’t turn out exactly how you anticipated then just crack open another bottle of wine before serving it…

Try this marinade for BBQ tuna steak

And butter

Butter adds flavour and texture, so don’t stint. A thick dollop alongside the herbs and seasonings will add a delightfully decadent level to an already wonderful dish. Just remember that if you’re using salted butter you might need to ease off a little when you are adding the salt at the seasoning stage.

I also like to make lemon or paprika butter ahead of time. Simply mash some finely grated lemon zest or some smoked paprika into soft butter to taste. The roll it into a sausage shape (you might need to chill it in the fridge for half-an-hour first to firm it up a bit) with clingfilm before freezing it.

You can then slice off a piece as-and-when you need it, making it very easy to tszuj up an otherwise dreary meal when you haven’t got the time or inclination to faff about with fresh herbs.

BBQ fish

Fish can be a little harder to barbecue than meat as the flesh is more delicate, but the results can be wonderful


Place the sealed fish parcel on the cooler end of the grill and turn several times to cook both sides. A good guide is to allow 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness of fish, plus another couple of minutes if you’re cooking in a parcel as the temperatures will be a bit lower. Then just rip open the top and serve as a parcel of fish complete with its own sauce.

Or, if you’re feeling brave and have whole filleted fish to hand (mackerel and other oily fish work very well, as the oil in the skin and flesh help prevent it sticking), you can cook it directly on the grill. Opinion is split as to whether you need to oil the grill; I don’t bother as I’ve never found that it makes a great deal of difference as it burns off very quickly anyway. Still, if you want to it certainly isn’t going to do any harm.

The main thing to remember is to slash the flesh and skin and then to leave it in place for a little bit longer than you feel comfortable with initially to let a crust develop; if you try and turn it over before then it will probably stick and fall apart regardless of whether you oiled or not…

Find out about Diana Henry's BBQ tips

Smoking the fish

If you want to add a smoky flavour to the fish then you can add some wood chips to the charcoal. They’re readily available from almost all garden centres and DIY shops, but a small piece of oak, or beech or any wood from a fruit tree will do much the same job for nothing. Just don’t use pine or other soft wood as they’ll impart a tarry, unpleasant flavour due to the resin in the wood. Or, you can throw some herbs on the coals towards the end of the cooking time for a subtler, herby flavour.

That’s all there is to it! We’d love to hear how you get on in the comments section below, and to hear your tips.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.