Basic BBQ (Grilled) Salmon


A neighbour asked me the other day, “How do you do your BBQ salmon?” I laughed and said I did the same thing that everybody does. But I do have a few “secrets” which really help enhance the flavour of BBQ’d salmon (or any fatty fish for that matter).

Now before anyone in the East accuses me of confusing the difference between barbecuing and grilling–I wouldn’t dare confuse the low temperature smoke cooking done to make that mouth watering pulled pork, with simply throwing a chunk of steak on the grill (though there’s an art to that too). It’s just that on the coast we call grilling barbecuing.

So the trick to making a good piece of salmon into a great piece of salmon, is… salt. Pretty basic. Prior to grilling the salmon and prior to any other seasonings or marinades, I take the prepared piece of fish (fillet, steak, etc) and liberally sprinkle the exposed flesh with coarse pickling, kosher or other non-iodized salt then wrap it in a piece of clean linen or very clean dish towel and let it sit for 15-25 minutes depending on thickness. After this I rinse off the salt and pat dry with paper towel before continuing with adding marinades, spices, mirepoix or any other wonderful flavouring.

The salt does a couple of things. First it kills any lingering surface bacteria and removes any light “fishiness” that might cling to the meat, and secondly it takes moisture out of the flesh and subtly changes the texture. Why are these good things? Well the first one is pretty obvious, but in addition to freshening the fish it will also increase the shelf life of the fish by a few days–handy if you’re prepping fish for tomorrow’s dinner. The benefit of the second one is less obvious until you realize that if you remove moisture from anything it will naturally want to draw moisture back into itself, so if you replace the removed moisture with a marinade or a spice mixture it will draw that flavour back into the flesh–and that’s a win.

Aside from the salt cure, I follow some pretty basic guidelines for grilling:

  • First, fresh fish. It sounds simple, but most people don’t realize that when a fish smells strongly “fishy” it’s already gone. I’ll do a post later on how to buy good fish, but for now just remember that no smell is good smell
  • Second, skin on. If you’re using a marinade with sugar added, nothing is more heart wrenching (as a cook) than leaving chunks of caramelized fish clinging to the grill top. If you grill with the skin on you can always run a knife between the skin and the flesh and leave the skin on the grill for later cleaning. If you only have skin off fish then cook it on a sheet of well oiled aluminum foil (it will still stick, but not as badly and clean up is a snap).
  • Third, always test the thinnest part of the fish for doneness. If you check the thicker portion for doneness you will always end up with a rubbery tail section. Keep in mind that fish will continue to cook even after it’s left the grill.
  • Fourth, always oil the grill when hot. Doing so means less sticking. I got this tip from America’s Test Kitchen and it works. I use an oil soaked paper towel rubbed over the hot grill with tongs.
  • Finally, always a very hot grill. You can’t reasonably control the cooking time for a piece of fish by grilling it over low heat, also you don’t get that caramelized goodness from low temperature cooking.

Follow these basics and as long as you watch your cooking fish like a hawk, you’ll get good results every time.