How to Grill the Perfect Fish Steak
Steaks cut from firm, meaty fish like salmon, swordfish, tuna, and halibut are fantastic when grilled over live fire.
Because they’re cross-cut–sliced perpendicular to the backbone like beef T-bones—they tend to be sturdier and less prone to sticking than more fragile fillets, which routinely strike fear in even the most intrepid griller’s heart.
You can cook fish steaks directly on a hot, clean, well-oiled grill grate; on a plancha or griddle preheated on the grill grate; on a cedar or alder plank; or for easiest turning, in a well-oiled stainless steel fish basket. If the incomparable flavor of wood smoke is a goal–and we hope it is–cook the fish steaks over a wood fire or a fire (charcoal or gas) enhanced with hardwood chips or chunks.
How to Grill the Perfect Fish Steak
Here are the particulars to grilling the perfect fish steak:
1. Start with the freshest possible fish.
Extra points if you caught it yourself. The rest of us must depend on a trustworthy fish monger with impeccable sources and high turnover. For best results, buy steaks that are at least 1 1/4 inches thick: They tend to stay moist over the high, dry heat of the grill.
2. Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat it to high.
3. When ready to cook, brush the fish steaks with olive oil and season.
When ready to cook, brush the fish steaks on both sides with extra virgin olive oil, melted butter, or even Thai-style coconut milk. Season generously with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, or use your favorite rub or mix of herbs. You can also marinate the steaks for up to an hour before grilling, if desired. Longer, and any citric acid in the marinade can begin to “cook” the fish, ceviche-like, affecting its texture.
4. Prep your grill.
If cooking directly on the grill grate, brush or scrape it clean once it is screaming hot and oil it well. Do this even if you’re cooking the steaks on a plancha, plank, or in a fish basket. It’s the professional thing to do. (If cooking on a plancha, heat it to high at the same time.)
If working over a charcoal fire, add hardwood chunks or wood chips (soaked in water to cover for 30 minutes, then drained) to the coals. If working on a gas grill, place one or two hardwood chunks directly over the burner under the grill grate or place the chips in your grill’s smoker box.
5. Arrange the fish steaks on the hot grate and grill on one side.
Arrange the fish steaks on the hot grate, all facing the same direction. Grill on one side for 3 to 4 minutes for steaks that are about 1 1/4 inches thick; adjust the time for thinner or thicker steaks. If desired, rotate the steaks 90 degrees after 2 minutes using a thin-bladed spatula to create an attractive crosshatch of grill marks. (If cooking the steaks on a plank, see general directions for plank-roasted bluefish in the recipe below.)
6. Carefully turn the steaks over and grill the other side.
Carefully turn the steaks over—again, using a thin-bladed spatula—and cook the second side the same way. (Tongs have a tendency to tear the fish when you turn the steaks.)
7. Cook until 145 degrees in the center.
While sushi-grade ahi tuna can be served on the rare side, swordfish, salmon, and halibut should be cooked to 145 degrees in the center. The fish should flake easily when pressed with a fork. You can also insert a metal skewer through the side toward the center of the steak. Leave it for a few seconds, then touch it to your lip; it should be quite warm.
8. Serve the fish steaks with fresh lemon or one of the sauces below.
Serve the fish steaks with fresh lemon halves (preferably grilled), or pair them with one of the sauces below—raisin chimichurri, mango salsa, Cajun remoulade, Chilean tomato and onion salsa, pipian sauce, a drizzle of best-quality olive oil, or a simple vinaigrette.
Grilled Fish Steak Recipes
Tuna steaks served blood-red and rare, just like beef steak. This recipe is Cajun-style with blackening spices and a remoulade sauce. A beautiful rare tuna in the center with an electrifying, spicy crust.
I first tasted this dish (or one very nearly like it) on the end of a barely inhabited island located a few miles off the Côte d’Azur. Raïto a sauce richly rooted in the Mediterranean, with a deep flavor that goes with grilled tuna.
This is what I call millionaire grilling—about 5 minutes preparation time gives you million dollar results. You cook the fish on a cedar plank, which gives it a great flavor and eliminates the two drawbacks associated with grilling fish: its tendency to stick to the grill grate and to fall apart when turned.