How to cook great seafood like fish, shrimp, lobster and mussels on the grill or in the smoker every time


When we Texans head to the smoker or grill for a barbecue, we come armed with brisket, ribs, sausages, maybe chicken. We know these meats. We love these meats.

But grilled or smoked seafood? We know much less about fish. We fear the fish.

Well, we are afraid of ruining the fish. The fish is delicate and requires constant supervision. Take your eyes off it for just a few minutes and your shrimp skewers become shrimp briquettes.

And fish failure is expensive. If you ruin a pork chop, you’ve lost about $1.99 per pound. Ruining a good salmon fillet will set you back around $15 a pound.

But the truth is, heat is heat, so if you can cook fish in the oven or on the stovetop, you can cook it outdoors. Here are my tips for foolproof seafood every time, whether you’re cooking in the smoker or on the grill.

Start with thicker, heartier cuts like swordfish, mahi mahi, tuna, or salmon about 2 inches thick with the skin on. The firmer flesh means it will be less likely to flake, so you can treat it more like a steak.

Robin Jerstad, Freelancer/San Antonio Express News

The good fish

Start with heartier cuts like swordfish, mahi-mahi, tuna, or salmon, about 2 inches thick with the skin on. The firmer flesh means it will be less likely to flake, so you can treat it more like a steak.

You want the fish cut into individual portions before you cook it. If you’re buying whole fillets, cut them into 2- to 3-inch-wide pieces, or you can have them cut into slices at most grocery stores or fish markets. Then cook them skin side down, without turning them over.

On the smoker, I set the temperature around 250 degrees, and the fish is ready in about an hour. I prefer to use pecan or oak wood. The mesquite is too pungent, overwhelming the flavor of the fish.

On the grill, set it as low as possible, about 350 degrees, with an indirect setup – charcoal or gas burners on one side and a cold side on the other. Cook the fish slightly in the fridge for about 10 to 12 minutes, and it will be perfect.

Placing fish fillets on fruit slices means they won't stick to the grates.

Placing fish fillets on fruit slices means they won’t stick to the grates.

Robin Jerstad / Robin Jerstad

Grates

Even on the skin side, the fish is quite lean and will stick to the grates of a smoker or grill without a bit of prep. Grease these grids well with olive or vegetable oil.

Another great trick is to place ¼ inch slices of fruit like pineapple (my favorite) or lemon on the grates, then lay the fish on top of the fruit. You don’t have to cover the entire surface; one under each corner of the net and one in the center will keep the fish slightly elevated and away from the grates.

The cedar planks under the fish also work as a non-stick barrier and provide a nice smoky flavor. But they can be expensive. For a significant discount, purchase cedar fence pickets from a lumber yard and cut your own. Just make sure they are natural and untreated.

The prawns are on a double skewer to facilitate their turning.

The prawns are on a double skewer to facilitate their turning.

Marvin Pfeiffer, San Antonio Express-News/Staff Photographer

Shrimp

The larger the shrimp, the easier it is to cook them on the grill. Still, the shrimp will fall through the grill grates, so I cook them, peeled, in a cast iron skillet or on skewers directly over the heat of a grill set at about 400 to 500 degrees.

If using a cast iron skillet, add a tablespoon of olive oil and cook your seasoned shrimp, stirring occasionally, for five minutes. Why not just on a stove? Because even in a pan you still get the extra flavor of charcoal smoke from the grill.

If you’re grilling the shrimp on skewers, thread the shrimp onto two skewers about an inch apart to keep them from turning. Season the prawns, then brush them with melted butter. Cook them for five minutes over high heat directly over the charcoal, brushing them with more butter and turning them halfway through cooking.

Do not put shrimp in the smoker. I once experimented with smoked shrimp and ended up with shrimp jerky just as a snack for the fish in my aquarium.

Lobster tails should be treated more like steaks.  Take veils and cut the weave on top of the tail and separate it slightly with your hands.

Lobster tails should be treated more like steaks. Take veils and cut the weave on top of the tail and separate it slightly with your hands.

Susan Vineyard, Contributor / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Other shells

Because of their small size, clams, mussels and lobster claws should be cooked, like shrimp, in a cast iron skillet on the grill.

Heat the grill to 400 to 500 degrees and place the pan directly over the heat. Melt a stick of butter, add onions and garlic, then wine or beer, and add mussels and/or clams. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about seven minutes until the shells open, signaling that they are done.

Lobster claws take two minutes longer to cook, so add them two minutes before the mussels and clams, or take out the cooked clams and mussels and cook the claws afterwards in the same pan. The claws are cooked when the shell turns bright red.

Lobster tails should be treated more like steaks. Take shears and cut the armor on top of the tail and separate it slightly with your hands.

San Antonio chef PJ Edwards of Meadow Neighborhood Eatery + Bar cooks it directly over high heat for five minutes, then moves it to the cold zone for another five minutes.

“Hot and quick is the way to go, because if you take too long with the lobster, the meat tends to get a little mushy,” Edwards said.

[email protected] | Twitter: @chuck_blount | Instagram: @bbqdiver

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