Grilling a Whole Fish

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Grilling a Whole Fish by Angela Roberts

I’m not sure why I’ve never grilled or roasted a whole fish before. Perhaps, because it seems so daunting, and unlike my neighbor, Susan, who brought the fish over for us to share, I didn’t grow up eating whole fish. Her Chinese father reveled in sucking each morsel of flesh off the the head of the fish and then ate the eyeballs. I’m so glad he taught her that, because she has passed this whole fish wonderment over to us. She came in hand with a near 3 pound fresh red snapper and I got on line to get some help. Who knew it would be so easy?

Outside of smelts for Christmas Eve, we ate our fish breaded and fried. However, we often ordered whole Dover Sole out in restaurants. They would show us the fish and then go back to the kitchen, filet it and return with delicious fish. The fish that was roasted whole always tasted so much better to me, as does any kind of meat cooked with bones. It’s the reason I very rarely purchase boneless chicken breasts, which lack flavor and I opt to always buy a whole chicken.

I’ve come to learn this week that fish is the same way. The bones add flavor and the skin keeps the moisture in. Another advantage to taking home a fish that is  staring back at you is a guarantee of freshness. Check for bright eyes and a moderate briny smell. If the eyes are not clear and bright and or the fish smells too fishy, don’t buy it. Ask your fish monger where the fish came from and when it was caught.

I purchased the red snapper at Whole Foods and everything was prepped, which included trimming the tail, removing the tail fin, pectoral fin,  pelvic fins, the dorsal fin, and the gills, and gutting and scaling it. They offer a method called unzipping, which removes the bones from the whole fish before you take it home. I don’t recommend that because as I’ve mentioned, the bones add flavor. They will also chop the head off for you, but, trust me, the cheeks of the fish has the most amazingly tender, succulent fish, that you would be a fool to do that.

The preparation for grilling or roasting a whole fish is quite easy, when the fish monger takes care of the yucky stuff.

I rubbed the fish with olive oil,  and seasoned with salt and pepper. I made 4  diagonal slits  about an inch and half apart, all the way to the bone on each side of the fish. Each slit and the cavity were stuffed with lemons, limes and various fresh herbs I picked from my garden.  You can find your own way with herbs and  spices, but if you have a beautiful fresh fish, don’t over do it. I set out a garden pesto to eat with the fish, but it was so deliciously perfumed from the fresh herbs and citrus, we didn’t dare add anything more to it.

Grilling a Whole Red Snapper by Angela Roberts

I put it on the grill at 450 degrees and then turned down the heat to medium to keep that steady temperature.  I set the timer for 30 minutes and I never turned the fish over. You may be tempted to turn the fish, but it could fall apart.  When I took it to the table, I peeled each piece of skin away at the slit and fileted the fish. Remove the top layer of skin, and gently remove the pieces of fish sitting on the bones. Underneath those bones is a lot more fish. This 2. 6 pound fish was more than 4 people could eat. I served the fish with a salad of green beans, potatoes and fresh tomatoes, all prepared with a bit of olive oil and fresh herbs.

The fish was absolutely fantastic. The fish is meaty and mild and absorbed every bit of herb and citrus into the flesh. I have a rather high deck on a corner house and a neighbor walked by and remarked about how wonderful whatever I was making smelled. The aroma of the lemons, limes, basil, dill and thyme was sheer perfection.

There were four of us with good appetites and we still have fish left over. This fish is just a perfect size for four people, and something I know I will be grilling a whole fish again and again.

Grilling a Whole Fish 3 by Angela Roberts


Print Recipe
5 from 1 vote

Grilling a Whole Fish

Lemons, limes and fresh herbs are stuffed into a whole red snapper and grilled for a succulent fish dinner.
Prep Time5 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Total Time35 minutes
Course: Entree
Cuisine: African
Servings: 4
Author: Angela Roberts


  • 1 whole red snapper scaled and gutted
  • olive oil
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 lime
  • fresh herbs such as basil thyme, parsley, dill
  • salt
  • pepper


  • Rub olive oil over fish. Make sure to oil the bottom of the fish.
  • Make 4 slits all the way to the bone on each side of the fish
  • Stuff the fish with slices of lemons, limes and fresh herbs.
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Allow fish to sit out for at least 30 minutes.
  • Heat the grill on high. Place fish on grill.
  • Turn grill down. Cook for 25-30 minutes.

Oven Roasting Method

  • If using an oven, bake on baking sheet (preferably with parchment paper) at 425 degrees. Bake for 30 minutes. Do not turn over.

Filet Fish

  • Peel skin back. Using spoon and knife, remove the fish off of the bones. The bones will lift off in one piece. There will be a few bones you will miss. Be aware of that.

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A video for deboning red snapper.

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  1. I know exactly what you mean about cooking a whole fish. The first time I did about 4 years ago. I was terrified it would be awful but it was sensational. Yours looks beautiful and imagine it tastes just as good.

    Great tips and photo.

  2. I love it this way…funny that I never posted. lokks delish…no eyes for me…but yes to the cheeks..Great job!

  3. I have grilled a whole salmon in the past with herbs and lemon tucked inside but Snapper would be amazing. In Florida is the only time I have ever had this fish…and I caught it myself:D

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