Salmon cooked on a grill is quick, delicious and good for you! Salmon has a relatively high fat content (for fish!) meaning it can stand up to grilling with less chance of drying out than some leaner fish-alternatives. Salmon is not only high in omega-3 fatty acids, but it also has loads of protein, minerals and vitamins making it a healthy choice at mealtime. The following steps will guide you through the process of grilling salmon to perfection--whether it is on cedar planks, with foil or directly on a grill. You'll get recipes for grilled salmon steaks, filets, and even tips for grilling a whole salmon.
Salmon filet, salmon steak or a whole salmon
Before you grill salmon, you will want to decide which cut of fish you want to grill. Preparation and grilling times will vary a little based on the cut of fish you choose and the recipe you use.
You can buy salmon as a filet, a steak or a whole salmon. Check what your recipe calls for before you choose a type to grill.
As a filet, salmon will be about 97% boneless, is more delicate and apt to break apart when laid directly on the grill. Therefore, it is best to choose filets that are about one inch thick. Salmon filets cook the quickest of all the cuts and should not be turned on the grill since the flesh is more delicate and may fall apart.
Salmon steak is a slice of salmon cut across the filet with the backbone in tact; after grilling the salmon, you can gently twist the bone and it will come right out. Salmon steak is best for grilling since its thickness allows it to be more easily turned over (only once) to grill both sides. However, a salmon steak will need to cook a little longer on the grill than a filet due to its thickness.
A whole salmon can be grilled but some sections of the fish may take longer to cook than others due to varying thicknesses. It is best to score a whole fish, cutting several diagonal cuts into each side before grilling. This helps the salmon cook quicker and ensures that the cooking heat will spread through the salmon more evenly.
A 3 to 4-pound wild caught whole fish is the perfect size for grilling. Naturally you will want the fish to be gutted, rinsed, and patted dry before you grill the salmon. You can grill a whole salmon with the head and tail on or ask to have them removed. You can even stuff the cavity of the fish with seasonings before grilling.
Another delicious and healthy way to grill a whole salmon is to enclose it in a large aluminum foil pouch (discussed further below) to allow it to poach in its own juices. This recipe also eliminates the possibility of less thick portions of the salmon falling through the grill rack while it is cooking because everything stays nicely sealed in the foil.
Prepare salmon for the grill.
- Defrost, if frozen. Ideally, fish should be defrosted before cooking or grilling. Place the fish inside a sealed ziploc bag in a secondary container (to catch liquids) and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator. Grill the salmon the next day or as soon as possible.
- Seasoning. Season the salmon to taste. Many recipes will suggest various types of seasonings. Salmon has quite a bit of flavor on its own so try simple seasonings like salt, pepper and dill or rosemary. Sprinkle with Old Bay spice or similar seasoning. There is a myriad of fish-specific seasonings available in grocery stores these days. Many supermarkets now offer salmon that has already been seasoned or marinated at the time of purchase so all you have to do is put it on the grill.
- Marinades. Recipes for marinades can provide additional flavor to salmon before grilling. If you choose to use a marinade, do not let salmon (or any other fish) sit in a marinade more than 15 minutes before cooking, as the acidic ingredients will begin to break down the flesh and make it mushy. A light sprinkle of soy sauce, tamari, a touch of sesame oil or lemon juice will best enhance and bring out the flavor of salmon.
- Salmon skin. Remove skin if desired. Some people prefer to grill salmon with the skin intact and then season or sauce afterward, but if you want to pre-season, it's best to remove skin first so the salmon fish is seasoned on both sides. The cut of salmon and how you season it may dictate whether you leave the skin on or not during the grilling process.
If you cook salmon with the skin on, it helps the fish flesh remain more intact while it is grilling. Thus, the fish will be less likely to fall down through the grill rack. Salmon steak, for example, is best grilled with the skin left on and will easily peel off once the fish is cooked and before serving.
If you want to pre-season a salmon filet before grilling, it’s best to remove the skin while the fish is raw so the salmon fish can be seasoned on both sides. Then, maybe add a light sauce afterward. If you grill a salmon filet with the skin on, place the salmon on the grill skin side down to cook. If you choose to marinate your salmon before grilling, remove the skin before you grill the salmon so the marinade absorbs into the fish flesh.
- Cooking inside an aluminum foil tent or pouch. For a salmon filet or a whole salmon, try taking a large piece of aluminum foil (the foil should be larger than the fish in length and width), fold it length-wise around a seasoned piece of fish and roll up all of the edges lightly. Place the aluminum foil pouch on a heated grill and poach the salmon in the pouch in its own juices. Don’t wrap the foil around the fish too tightly; leave room inside the pouch for the salmon to breathe and for the pouch to vent any steam created inside the aluminum foil.
- Cedar planking. Using cedar planking is another unique and delicious way to cook your fish. The cedar plank can help keep the salmon incredibly delicious and moist while giving it a unique smoky flavor. Be sure to pre-soak the plank for 2-6 hours before using it to grill salmon. You may wish to soak the plank overnight for the next day’s use. To soak, submerge the plank in warm water (in your sink or a 5-gal bucket), weighing it down with something heavy so it stays underneath the water. Feel free to add white wine, apple cider or your favorite beer and fresh herbs to the water to experiment with different flavors.
The next day, before you cook the salmon, dry the plank off and coat the top surface lightly with olive or vegetable oil. You can even rub the plank with things like garlic, sea salt or fresh herbs. Pre-heat the grill on high for about 10 minutes with the lid closed. Then, pre-heat the dried and coated plank by placing it on the grill for 5 minutes. Carefully place the salmon on the plank with the skin side down. Close the lid and cook the salmon on a medium-high heat (350°F - 400°F) for about 15 to 25 minutes. Use the guide below for estimating doneness. Try not to open the lid. There is no need to turn the salmon over when cooking on a plank. Keep a spray bottle of water on hand near the grill to extinguish any flames. Flames help to get the plank smoldering and the smoke will provide a smoky cedar flavor to your fish. If you need to put flames out, spray just enough water directly on the flames to extinguish them but don’t try and stop the plank from smoldering. Have a metal cookie sheet available and some oven mitts or welding gloves to move the plank on to when the fish is done. The plank can be submerged when you are done to cool it off. It is best not to re-use the cedar plank if it is charred.
How long do I grill salmon?
How long you grill salmon (and most fish) is based on the temperature of the fire, the thickness of the fish at its thickest part, and the distance of the grill rack from the heat source. Never let salmon touch the flames on the grill.
Most fish cook quickly. A good rule of thumb is to grill fish for approximately 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness, cooking it at 4 inches above the heat source. For grilling salmon, use the following as a guide:
- Salmon Filets: will cook in approximately 4-5 minutes. Do not turn over when grilling.
- Salmon Steaks: will cook in approximately 4-7 minutes. Turn once to cook on both sides. You can also sear the outside flesh on a hot grill and finish grilling on medium heat.
- Whole Salmon: Cook slow and low. Use the thickness rule stated above.
Again, these grilling times are approximate. Always keep a close eye on the salmon to keep it from overcooking. Fish does not hold its heat well so always serve the salmon immediately after grilling.
So, how exactly do I grill salmon?
- Choose the type of salmon you want to grill (filet, steak or whole). Some recipes require specific types of salmon.
- Lightly oil the grill rack or two-sided grilling basket by spraying or brushing on olive oil before placing salmon directly on the grill. (There is no need to do this step if you are grilling salmon in an aluminum foil pouch.)
- Preheat the grill to a medium-high heat (300 and 325 degrees). Grilling salmon on a gas grill is ideal, but if you are using a charcoal grill, remember that the coals are generally ready when they are bright red and all actual flames have subsided.
- Grill the salmon based on approximate grilling times noted above, making sure no flame touches the fish directly. The finished grilled salmon will flake gently when you part it with a fork and the flesh will feel firm when pressed. Like meat, salmon continues to cook a little bit after it is removed from the grill so it is better to remove it when it looks a tiny bit raw or deeper pink inside. Grilling salmon slowly and steadily over a medium heat will allow the fish to retain most of its own juices.
- After you grill the salmon, serve it immediately.
Farm raised vs. wild caught salmon
When you use a recipe to grill salmon, you may be wondering what type of salmon to use. Today, about half of the salmon sold in stores worldwide are farm-raised at fish farms since wild caught salmon is only available certain times of the year. A global study published in a journal called “Science” analyzed salmon filets from about 700 farm-raised and wild caught salmon. This study revealed that farm-raised salmon has more “health-related contaminants” than wild caught salmon. The researchers found significant concentrations of four cancer-causing agents: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, dieldrin, and toxaphene. Also, one must be aware that there are only a few defined federal or state rules about how salmon and other fish can be labeled. A package of salmon might be labeled “fresh” or “wild caught.” Always ask where the salmon has come from before you buy it. If they don’t know, skip it.
Here's one of my favorite healthy grilled salmon recipes for a great sauce to put on top of a simply prepared salmon: Bring 1/2 cup dry white wine to a simmer in a small saucepan. Stir in 1/2 container herb and garlic cream cheese, Alouette, Pub Cheese or Boursin. Stir constantly until melted and smooth. Taste. If desired, add more cheese or wine to taste. Don't like wine? Use milk. This sauce is designed to be drizzled over the grilled salmon just before serving.
Here's another healthy grilled salmon recipe. Follow the steps above for pouching the salmon on the grill with foil. Sprinkle the grilled salmon fillet with lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper and dill. Fold aluminum foil tightly and grill salmon for 10 minutes over medium heat in the pouch. Serve with boiled red potatoes!
Or check out a delicious Honey Soy Grilled Salmon with Edamame Recipe from the Food Network website.
Now you know the basics of how to grill salmon—from using foil, cedar planks and more. You also have some healthy grilled salmon recipes to get you started. And remember that grilling can be done in all seasons! Once you get started, you will find out just how easy, delicious and quick grilling salmon can be.