How to Grill Salmon

Grilling moist and flavorful salmon is easy when you know how to do it. While there are many ways to cook salmon, the most flavorful way is to grill it. The grill’s smokiness is a subtle way to ramp up salmon’s mild flavor with a deliciously charred quality. We’ll tell what to look for when buying salmon, cover the various types and cuts of this hardy fish and share some of our favorite grilling techniques.

what to look for when buying salmon

Always buy the freshest salmon for the best taste. Look for fish that smells fresh with no pungent, fishy odor. When pressed, the skin or flesh should spring back rather than retaining the indentation from your finger. For whole fish, eyes should be bright, bulging and moist. Under the dorsal fins, gills should be rich red or pink, not light brown or gray. Unless frozen, fish has a fairly short shelf life and should be cooked within two days for best results.

For top quality frozen fish, look for the letters FAS (Frozen at Sea) on the packaging. FAS fish is flash-frozen at extremely low temperatures onboard a fishing vessel within seconds of being caught.

types of salmon

While many people won’t grill anything but the king of salmon, other varieties such as sockeye, coho, pink and Atlantic salmon are also delicious on the grill.

King/Chinook: Loaded with omega-3s, king salmon (also known as Chinook) are rich bodied, high in fat and large in size. King salmon have been recorded at up to five feet in size and over 100 pounds in weight.

Sockeye/Red: Sockeye or red salmon is known for its red-orange flesh. They're smaller and leaner than kings with a richer or fishier flavor.

Coho/Silver: Coho or silver salmon get their name for their bright silver skin. With a medium fat-content and a more subtle flavor, coho is similar to king salmon, but has a more delicate texture.

Pink/Humpback: This salmon goes by pink or humpback because they have light-colored pink flesh and a distinctive hump on their back. They're mild in flavor and low in fat and size, weighing between two and six pounds. Although they can be found fresh and frozen, they're typically processed and sold in cans or pouches.

Atlantic: All commercially available Atlantic salmon is farmed and tends to be more mild in flavor, but often larger in size due to their specialized diet.

steaks, fillets and Other cuts

In addition to a wide variety of salmon available, there are many different options when it comes to cuts of this versatile fish.

Fillet: A fillet is the meaty part of the fish taken from the side of the salmon. This cut usually has the skin and bones removed, but they may still have some tiny bones.

Steak: A steak is a thick cross-section cut around the fish and across the spine. Usually one-half to one-inch thick steak cuts are available, either with skin or scaled with skin removed.

Supreme Cut: Considered the best and choicest cut of fish, the supreme cut is a slice of fish with all bones removed that’s cut on a slant from the fillet.

Butterfly or Cutlet: The side of the fish is sliced from behind the head, around the belly and tapered toward the tail on both sides of the fish keeping the flesh over the tail connected, producing a double fillet.

Whole Fish: When grilling whole salmon, remove the fins, tail and internal organs. Make several angled cuts or slits into the salmon along both sides without cutting all the way through. Salt and season the inside and outside, including the slits on the sides.

Dressed and Pan-Dressed: A dressed fish is a whole fish that has been scaled and gutted of all internal organs. A pan-dressed fish also has its fins, tail and head removed.

how to prepare salmon for the grill

Check for bones. Use tweezers to remove any bones you may find. If you don't see any bones, run your finger down the seam of the meat to feel for them. When your salmon is bone-free, rinse and pat dry with paper towels.

Marinate for 30 to 60 minutes or lightly rub salmon with olive oil on both sides. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and seasonings of your choice. Season salmon just before grilling to avoid moisture loss.

salmon grilling tips and techniques

Grilling fish may be challenging, but once you master it, you won’t want to cook salmon and other fish any other way. Not only do you get to enjoy smoky, chargrilled flavor you can only get from grilling, you keep the smell and the mess outside.

A clean, lightly oiled grill grate is especially important when grilling fish. Rub the grate with a thin layer of oil and heat the grill to 400° to 500°F. A properly heated grill will help keep the fish from sticking to the grate and falling apart while cooking. Wait for your grill to preheat all the way to your target temperature before loading your salmon.

What is the best grill for salmon?

Whatever your preference – gas, electric or charcoal, a smoking hot grill between 400° and 500°F is the best grill for grilling salmon. Hot grates ensure the fish won’t stick to the grates and will lift away easily once it’s cooked.

Here are some of our favorite techniques for grilling salmon.

Kabobs: Cut your salmon into one to one and a half inch cubes and marinate for 30 minutes to an hour. Thread marinated salmon and veggies onto skewers and arrange salmon kabobs on hot grill grates. Close the lid and cook for three to four minutes per side until they’re opaque, flaky and tender.

Cedar Plank: Cedar planks insulate delicate fish from the direct heat of the grill, allowing it to steam gently in the heat of the grill, staying incredibly tender and moist. It picks up smoky flavors from the grill and woodsy flavors from the cedar, along with the liquid you soak the planks in.

Grilling Basket: Keep your salmon from falling through the cracks with a non-stick grilling basket that has a locking lid. Place salmon in the basket and set the basket on top of the grates. When it’s time to flip, you can flip the grilling basket with worrying about your fish falling apart.

Foil: Grilling salmon in foil helps to protect your salmon from the intense flames of the grill while still providing that great chargrilled flavor you want. Place the fish in the center of a sheet of foil and add seasoning. Fold the foil over the top and mold the foil into a sealed packet. Set it on the grill grates and cook over indirect heat for 10-12 minutes. After letting it rest for five minutes, open carefully to avoid hot steam as it escapes the packet.

Should you grill your salmon with the skin on or off?

Either way works great. Leaving the skin on salmon helps to keep it from breaking apart when grilling directly on the grates. Place the salmon skin-side down on the hot grill, cover and cook undisturbed. Use a spatula to remove the fish from the grill.

For skinless salmon, you can use aluminum foil to form a thin barrier between the fish and the grill. The layer of skin or foil (along with cooking oil) will help keep the fish from sticking and over-cooking.

Do you have to flip salmon on the grill?

No. You do not have to flip salmon when grilling. If you prefer grill marks on both sides of your fish, place salmon on oiled, heated grill. Once the salmon releases itself from the grates, flip gently using a wide spatula.

Do you cook salmon on both sides?

Whether you cook salmon on both sides is really about personal preference. When grilling salmon with skin, always start with the fillets skin-side down and there’s no need to flip. The skin is more durable than the flesh and can withstand more time on the hot surface of the grill without overcooking while protecting the tender flesh from the direct heat of the grill.

salmon grilling temperatures and internal doneness

Although the USDA recommends cooking fish to an internal temperature of 145°F, many people feel like at that temperature, the salmon will be overdone. To avoid overcooking salmon, cook until the internal temperature reaches 125 to 130°F on an instant-read thermometer; then remove from heat and let it rest for 5 minutes. The internal temperature continues to rise while it rests.

What temperature should salmon be grilled at?

Ideally, you’re looking for medium-high heat, or 400 to 450° F. For a charcoal grill, prepare the coals until they’re covered with gray ash and spread them out in an even layer. When you can hold your hand five inches above the coals for 3 to 4 seconds, the grill is ready to go. For a gas grill, turn the burners to medium-high and close the cover for about 15 minutes.

How long do you cook salmon on the grill? How long does it take to grill a whole salmon?

Doneness is determined by the meat’s internal temperature. For salmon, that temperature is 145°F. Cook times will vary depending on the size and thickness of the fish. Grill salmon for 3 to 4 minutes on each side per half inch of thickness, about 15 to 20 minutes for most 1-inch-thick cuts.

How do you know when salmon is done on the grill?

Salmon is done when it separates easily along the white lines when pressed gently with your finger or a fork. Your salmon should be moist and flaky when finished.

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