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Salmon Grilling 101

The third and final installment of the great afternoon of grilling with Jamie Purviance triptych was the one I was looking forward to the least. Not because I was tired of Jamie. (But, boy, was I tired—just look at what 10 hours of shooting can do to a guy’s hair and the bags under his eyes.) No, I was dreading it because the subject matter is the bane of almost every skilled griller I know: fish.

Historically, whenever I grilled fish, most of it ended up dropping through the grates and getting incinerated—each piece slowly shriveling up as it turned a blacker shade of charred. After these marine Joan of Arc moments grew too numerous—I mean how many patio autos-da-fé must a man witness before he gets the hint as to his lack of affinity to fire and fish?—I simply walked away from anything aquatic. I figured if I were to singe anything, at least let it be something solid that I could chase around the grill with a pair of tongs, like grilled steak or fire-rostissere chicken.

But during our last video of the day, Jamie taught me three important things. (Well, he taught me plenty of important things, but if you remember just these three, you’ll be able to stand facing your grill with a grate full of fish and not quiver. Too much.) First, use high heat. Second, the 70/30 rule. And third, the Zen of fish cookery–that’s me trying in vain to practice it in the photo above.

The use of high heat
What blew me away was that high heat—upward of 500 degrees—is the right temp, especially for salmon. It sears the fish, helps it hold together better, and creates great grill marks that result in it releasing easier. Lower heat, which I always thought was best for such a delicate protein, actually causes the flesh to stick worse than your aunt’s thighs on plastic car seat covers. And sticking flesh is what causes you to lose your mind when you try to flip your fillets.

The 70/30 rule
The 70/30 rule is something chefs use. It means to cook the fish for 70 percent of the time on the first side—the flesh side—and then to flip and cook the skin side for 30 percent of the time. Again, this reduces stickiness and keeps the fish juicy. Oh, and it lets you pull off what is without a doubt the coolest grill trick of the season: removing the fillet whole while leaving the skin on the grill. Boo-yah!

The Zen of fish cookery
This is the hardest of the three major points for me to put into practice. It’s all about becoming one with the fish and having patience—that sort of thing. (Hell, I have a hard enough time becoming one with myself, let alone joining forces with my meal.) But rushing things on the grill, especially something as delicate as fish, will only end up with the dog (yours or a neighbor’s) surreptitiously slinking away with your dinner that you chucked across the yard out of utter frustration.

Need to practice the practice of Zen cookery? I do, I must admit. Until I’m able to roll that beautiful piece of salmon as suavely as Jamie does in the video, I’m turning to these recipes—Grilled Red Snapper TacosGrilled Littleneck Clams, and Portuguese Grilled Shrimp with Hot Sauce—kind of like recipes with training wheels.

Video by Inextinguishable Productions.