Grilled salmon is healthy and easy to prepare on a sizzling hot barbecue. Learn the essential tips for nailing beautiful char marks and achieving a tender, flaky texture. It’s a seafood dish that requires only a few simple seasonings and cooks in less than 10 minutes.
One of the easiest items to cook on the barbecue is flaky, lightly charred, grilled salmon. The naturally oily flesh sears like a dream without becoming overly dry. A large fillet can be cut into smaller portions, making it a breeze to flip and cook in just 10 minutes.
In culinary school, I learned to cook salmon skin-side up first. It might seem a little riskier, but when grilling, as long as you give the fish time to cook, gorgeous dark lines will appear. Once the fish flips, there is still time for the skin to get crispy. The silky fish combined with crunchy skin is a mealtime winner!
How to grill salmon
- Cut the salmon into 2 ½ to 3-inch fillets.
- Wrap in paper towels and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
- Brush each side with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
- Preheat gas grill to high, clean and oil the grates.
- Place fish on a diagonal, skin-side up. Cover and cook about 4 to 5 minutes.
- Flip, cover and cook until the desired doneness is reached.
- Serve with lemon wedges.
Cutting the fish
For a 1 ½ pound salmon cut into 4 to 5 equal size pieces, not larger than 3-inches. If the fillet is any bigger it’ll be difficult to flip over with tongs without falling apart. If you prefer to keep the fillet whole, you might want to try my cedar plank salmon recipe.
Moisture is the enemy
Cover the salmon in paper towels to help remove excess moisture from the surface. If it’s not dry enough when it hits the grill, it will take more time to evaporate the water instead of instantly charring, which is what you want. I find that chill in the refrigerator when wrapped in paper towels keeps the fish together when cooking with more success than if at room temperature.
I keep it simple with olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Salmon has a rich taste and I think just a squeeze of lemon is all that’s needed to pair with the smoky flavors created on the barbecue. Although if you want to take it further, marinade ingredients like soy sauce and brown sugar are a great option to experiment with.
What side do you grill first?
Start by grilling the salmon fillets skin-side up. This ensures dark grill marks on the surface, while still providing for crunchy salmon skin if left on. Make sure to gently press the filet down for more contact with the grate.
How to prevent sticking and falling apart?
The grill should be preheated to high heat, have clean grates, and you should apply oil to the grates before adding the fish. This will help create a nonstick surface. Make sure the surface of the salmon is dry before adding the seasonings and brush oil on both sides for extra insurance.
The key is to not move the fish once you’ve placed it on the hot grill grate. A crust should form, creating the characteristic dark char, and that is when the fish will naturally release from the grates. I find that the fish needs to be about 70% done cooking before you flip the salmon. If needed, carefully use a spatula to help unstick any stubborn areas when attempting to turn over.
Cooking temperature and time
Heat the grill to high, about 450 to 500ºF (232 to 260ºC) before adding the fish. The goal is to sear the salmon filet quickly on both sides without drying the flesh out. Grilled fish cooks very quickly and needs less than 10 minutes in a lid closed barbecue, depending on the thickness.
How do you know it’s done?
Use a fork to see if the flesh flakes apart easily, but still moist towards the center. The fish should be opaque, and slightly more translucent in the center. Test the thickest part of the salmon with an instant-read thermometer. Depending on the desired doneness, target 125ºF (52ºC) for medium-rare, 140ºF (60ºC) for medium.
Can I eat salmon skin?
Yes! Also long as the scales have been scraped off. I usually will use a spoon on the whole fillet to remove the scales before cutting. Simply run the spoon in the opposite direction of the scales and they’ll flick off. If you’re lucky, some grocery stores already have them cleaned and ready to eat.
Sides I serve this with
More grilling recipes
Always season the grill
One of the most important steps in grilling, especially at high heat is to season the grill by oiling the grates. This technique creates a thin polymer barrier between the grate and the food to help prevent sticking.
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- 1 ½ pound salmon fillet
- olive oil, as needed for brushing
- kosher salt, as needed for seasoning
- black pepper, as needed for seasoning
- 4 lemon wedges
- Cut salmon into 4 equal portions, about 2 ½ to 3-inches wide.
- Wrap each fillet in paper towels, place on a plate and allow to sit for 15 to 20 minutes to remove excess moisture.
- Brush each side of the fillets with olive oil.
- Season each side with salt and pepper.
- Preheat grill over high heat, 450 to 500ºF (232 to 260ºC).
- Clean the grill grates by carefully greasing them with the oil using a folded paper towel until shiny and glossy, about 5 to 10 times.
- Place the salmon in a diagonal to the grill grates flesh side down. If the skin is already removed, that side should be facing up.
- Gently press the salmon on the grill for maximum contact.
- Cover and cook until the salmon can be easily lifted off the grill, about 4 to 5 minutes. Check at 4 minutes, then every 30 seconds until the fish no longer sticks. Use a spatula if needed to gently release the flesh from the grates.
- Carefully flip the salmon and cook until medium-rare (125ºF) to medium (140ºF) doneness, about 3 to 5 more minutes depending on the thickness.
- Transfer grilled salmon to a clean platter and serve with lemon wedges.
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