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Fish: Grilling and Smoking Overview

Cooking fish successfully involves more than bringing it home and slapping it on the grill. Follow these grilling and smoking guidelines for a tasty meal.

Do you pause often at the fish counter and debate whether to make the leap from hamburgers and steaks to salmon and swordfish? You may have enjoyed grilled or smoked fish in restaurants and been afraid to try the recipe at home. The art of cooking fish does not require culinary-training, just a little know-how, the right fish, and a good recipe.

The biggest mistake people make with fish in the home kitchen is overcooking. Never fear serving raw fish: when the fish reaches an internal temperature between 135 degrees and 140 degrees, it is done. It will not be translucent in the center, but creamy white. It is that simple.

Length of cooking time is easy to calculate. Cook the fish about three minutes (some experts recommend more but it depends on the fish species) on each side for every inch of thickness. The internal temperature is your indicator; check it often to make sure the fish is cooked to perfection.

You have much to do before you bring that fish home. Where should you purchase? Let your nose be the guide. If the fish counter smells like fish, then you need to shop somewhere else. Fish should not smell like fish until after it is cooked. You are looking for a non-smell or that of a fresh ocean breeze, but not fishy.

Once you have selected a fish, take a closer look. Does it glisten or does it look slimy? If you suspect the latter, ask to run a finger across it. Send it back if it feels gooey.

Now that the fish market has done its part, it is time to do yours. Take the fish straight home and put it in the refrigerator. If you have a long way to travel, consider placing the fish in a cooler with ice. Do not run any errands and when you get home, take the fish inside first. An ideal environment is in a pan of ice inside the fridge. You will have at most a couple of days to cook your catch.

If you have purchased frozen fish, let it thaw naturally in the refrigerator before cooking. An absolute no-no is to use the sink method. Your fish will absorb the water, which will change the texture and flavor.

Now, which species should you purchase? Fish are delicate creatures; handle them accordingly. Are you grilling, smoking, or cooking in the oven? The method will determine the type of fish.

If you are smoking, will it be a cold smoke or a hot smoke? Cold smoking is a longer process that requires a brine and a lengthy drying time under a low temperature (about 90 degrees). This can take several hours or several days and is probably a bit more than most cooks will want to attempt. Hot smoking can still require brining, but the cooking time is a few hours with indirect heat.

Trout and salmon are two species that are up to the task of smoking. Tuna, mahi-mahi, as well as salmon, are good choices for grilling. Cook whitefish and similar varieties in the oven. Some fish have a higher fat content and may cause flare-ups. You do not want oil from the cooking fish to drip directly on coals or onto wood chips. If you are grilling oily fish, set up your fire on one side of the grill and cook the fish on the other side. If you are using a gas or electric grill with multiple units, light only one unit and set the fish on the unused burner.

The best investment for grilling fish is an enclosed basket. It should be flat and large enough to hold three or four fish. A basket will keep the fish from sticking to the grill and from falling apart. Oil the basket before placing fish inside.

If you cook directly on the grate, make sure it is spotless or the fish will undoubtedly stick. Oil the grate before it is heated.

Once the fish is in place, do not fuss with it - turn it only once.

An alternative is to cook fish in a foil packet. This steams the fish, but really defeats the purpose of grilling.

Grilling or smoking fish should not be a scary ordeal - relax and enjoy the great taste.


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