Grilled fish tacos are a healthy alternative to tacos made with deep-fried fish. The smoky flavor of a little char on the outside of the fish is perfect for these tacos bursting with summertime flavor. Some recipes tell you to “cook till opaque” or “flakey,” but as with any other meat, temperature is key to success with grilled fish. Plus, learn a secret tip for keeping your fish from sticking to the grill….
How to Grill Fish That Doesn’t Fall Apart
Fish cooks quickly and many recipes say just to cook the fish until the meat is opaque all the way through. When you’re determining doneness only with visual cues, it’s incredibly easy to overcook the meat. The only way to know for sure if your fish is cooked all the way through every single time is through accurate temperature tracking.
A Non-Stick Grill Surface—Guaranteed!
Grilling fish can be a messy process. Have you ever set a beautiful piece of fish on the grill only to have it fall apart when it comes time to flip it? The experts at Cook’s Illustrated have tips for the best experience you’ve ever had with grilling fish. It has to do with the polymerization of your grill’s grates. It doesn’t matter if your grill is charcoal or gas, the grates need to be treated in such a way that they are completely nonstick.
This process of polymerizing oil on grill grates is what “seasons” metal cookware such as a cast iron pan. Heat beyond the oil’s smoke point must be applied in order to lay down a blanket of black, carbonized oil. If the heat is too low, the grate’s coating will be sticky rather than non-stick. The smoke point of vegetable oil is about 400-450°F (204-232°C), and the high heat of the grill is usually about 500-700°F (260-371°C).
4 Tips for Perfectly Grilled Fish
Tips for perfectly cooked grilled fish that won’t stick to the grill and fall apart.
- Choose dense, firm-fleshed fish such as tuna steak, mahi-mahi, halibut, or cod. More delicate fish like tilapia or salmon can easily fall apart on the grill.
- Prepare the grill grates properly by cleaning and oiling them.
- Only flip the fish when the outside edge touching the grate has cooked enough that it releases easily from the grate. If any part of the fish is still sticking, give it more time on the grill before attempting to flip.
- Test the internal temperature of your fish to be sure you remove it from the heat at the right time. Overcooked, dry fish will flake and fall apart.
What is the best doneness temperature for your fish? It depends on the type of fish. Salmon has the perfect texture at 125°F (52°C), and halibut has a fantastic texture around 130°F (54°C). We used tuna steaks for our fish tacos, and its best doneness temperature is 125-130°F (52-54°C). The fish is fully-cooked, yet still moist and soft enough to hold together without completely falling apart. In the temperature range of 135-140°F (57-60°C), tuna steaks become dry and flaky. If you prefer a flaky texture, then that is the final doneness temperature range you should target. Remember to pull your fish from the grill about 5°F (3°C) below your desired doneness temperature.
Check fish for doneness early and often to minimize your chances of overcooking the fish. Harold McGee recommends cooking fish to an internal doneness temperature of 120-135°F (49-57°C) to maintain moistness.
Easy (And Healthy!) Grilled Fish Tacos Recipe
- 1 lb. dense, firm-fleshed fish (mahi-mahi, cod, halibut, swordfish, or tuna steak)
- 2 Tbsp. shallot, minced
- 1 tsp. jalapeño, minced
- 1 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
Avocado Cream Sauce
- 1/2 ripe avocado (save the other half for garnishing the finished tacos)
- 1/2 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt
- Juice of 1/2 a lime
- 1/4 cup cilantro
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1/2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
- A couple dashes of hot sauce (optional, to taste)
For Assembling Tacos
- Shredded cabbage
- Queso fresco, or cotija cheese
- Lime wedges
- Place all marinade ingredients into a medium-sized bowl and stir to combine.
Make the avocado cream
- Place all avocado cream ingredients (except hot sauce) into a blender and process until completely smooth. Add drops of hot sauce to taste.
- Pour into a bowl or other container, cover and refrigerate.
Marinate the Fish
- Place fish filets in a gallon-size zipper-lock bag.
- Pour the marinade over the fish and seal the bag well, expelling the air out of the bag.
- Refrigerate the fish for 30 minutes while preparing your grill.
Prep the Grill
- Prepare your grill for direct, high-heat cooking. Keep the lid closed and heat for about 10 minutes.
- Once your grill is hot, scrub and scrape the grill grates extremely well to remove any debris.
- Using tongs and an oil-soaked folded paper towel, oil the grill grates liberally and then let the oil heat until it stops smoking. Repeat this process 5-10 times. This will polymerize the oil creating a non-stick surface to cook your fish. The grates should look glossy, not dull.
Grill the Fish
- Remove the fish fillets from the marinade and place them on the grill. Cook for about 3-4 minutes on one side and test to see if it’s ready to flip. If any piece of the fish is still sticking to the grill grates, let it continue cooking.
- Once the fish is ready, flip and cook on the other side until it is no longer sticking.
While attempting the turn, if you feel too much resistance, just stop and walk away. If you’ve properly cleaned and oiled the grate, the fish will let you know when it’s ready to turn by releasing itself from the grate. —Joshua Bousel, How to Grill Fish, SeriousEats.com
- Continue cooking flipping frequently until the internal temperature of the fish reaches 120-125°F (49-52°C).
- Spot-check the internal temperature of the fish with a Thermapen frequently to ensure it is perfectly cooked.
- Once the internal temperature of the fish is verified, remove it from the grill and allow it to rest for about 5 minutes.
- After the fish has rested, slice or chop to prepare for assembling the tacos
Assemble the Tacos
- Grill the corn tortilla until they are warm and a little browned—about 30-45 seconds on each side.
- Arrange shredded cabbage on a tortilla, top with grilled fish, add some avocado slices, drizzle with avocado cream sauce, and garnish with cheese crumbles and cilantro.
- Serve with lime wedges, and enjoy!
These tacos are as delicious as they are beautiful—they are a bright, fresh taste of summer. Thanks to Vindulge for the expert recipe! Understanding why and how to properly clean and season your grill’s grate plays a large role in grilling perfect fish. Keep your Thermapen at your side so you can grill your fish to perfection every time. Happy grilling!