How to Cook Salmon on the Grill

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cooked salmon on vegetables

Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

Salmon is an excellent choice for low-calorie, nutrient-dense food, and it’s tough to beat when it’s cooked on the grill. Freshly grilled salmon creates a smoky meal that you’ll want to add to your dinner repertoire week after week. 

If you watch cooking shows on TV, you might shy away from cooking wild salmon. Salmon can be finicky to the point of taking out some incredible chefs on competition shows. Add the grill to the mix, and you might feel even more intimidated to cook a salmon filet. But we promise it’s not as challenging as it seems.

Use this guide to learn how to cook salmon on the grill like a pro.

To Skin or Not to Skin?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of filling salmon, let’s talk about salmon skin. Some recipes call for removing the skin before grilling, while others prefer the skin to remain intact for their grilled salmon recipe. Does it matter what you do with the skin?

It could. Salmon skin actually offers a protective layer between the delicate salmon meat and the heat of the grill. Unless you grill salmon in foil packets, you’ll probably want to keep the skin on. It gets crispy (i.e., delicious!) on the grill while keeping the salmon flesh from sticking to the grill grate. 

If you don’t like the flavor or texture of the skin, remove it. Of course, you can always cook the salmon on a grill pan to prevent it from sticking if you’re worried about it. But we’ll also let you know how to prepare the grill to avoid sticky messes with your fresh fish. 

Exploring the Different Cuts of Salmon

There are three primary cuts of salmon, and some are better for other cooking methods than grilling. Here’s a peek at what to expect from each one:

Salmon Steak

A salmon steak is a cut that includes some of the backbones. These cuts are generally the largest and thickest, and they’re usually cut from fish that are larger in size. Salmon steaks tend to be more rustic in appearance, so they’re not usually the ones you’ll find in high-end restaurants. However, they’re often the best for grilling because they’re a bit less delicate than other salmon cuts. Cooking with the bone intact can also help the fish flesh stay moist when cooked on the grill.

Salmon Fillet

A salmon fillet is a cut without any backbone portion, although there’s still a chance for small bones to appear. This is the fish cut that you’ll often find in restaurants, as it’s a little fancier looking than a salmon steak. However, using this cut for grilled salmon requires a little more care and attention than the heartier salmon steak. 

Salmon Side

Some people prefer to cook a side of salmon on their charcoal grill. The salmon side is a large portion of meat from one side of the fish from which the smaller salmon fillets get cut. It contains no bone, just a large amount of meat that’s best for feeding several people. This cut can be ideal for cookouts and large families. You can cut smaller portions from the cooked salmon after grilling.

How to Cook Salmon on the Grill

Read through the steps below before trying a salmon recipe on the grill. Here are the basics:

Step 1: Prepare to Grill

Brush olive oil onto the grill grates and salmon. Olive oil prevents the delicate fish from sticking to the grates, and once you heat up the grill, it will lubricate the grill grates naturally. If you choose to use a grill pan or basket, season that with olive oil rather than the grill grates. Preheat the grill over high heat. 

Meanwhile, season the salmon with salt and black pepper. Alternatively, you can use a grilled salmon marinade for a different flavor. If you use a marinade, allow the salmon to marinate for at least three hours in the fridge, but overnight is preferable. About 15 minutes before grilling, remove the salmon from the refrigerator, discard extra marinade, and leave salmon at room temperature until ready to cook.

Step 2: Grill Fresh Salmon

To make grilled salmon, you’ll want to place the skin side down on the grill once it’s heated thoroughly. If your salmon is skinless, either side will work. Salmon fillets generally need to cook for 5-7 minutes on each side, but a thicker salmon steak might need a couple more minutes on each side. Once it’s ready to flip, it shouldn’t stick to the grill grate. 

Step 3: Check Doneness

It’s important to get the temperature right for grilled salmon if you want it to taste its best and be safe to eat. For a medium-rare to medium cook, your grilled salmon should reach an internal temperature of 125-135 degrees. You can also poke the tip of a paring knife into the middle of the salmon. Gently move it around a bit. If the salmon flesh flakes apart easily, it’s ready to eat. 

Step 4: Finish It Off

There are a few ways you can finish off your salmon to turn it into a full-of-flavor meal. If you used a grilled salmon marinade, you probably wouldn’t want to add anything besides maybe a splash of lemon. But in other cases, sauce or seasoning can add another dimension to salmon. 

Butter-based sauces can be heavy, so use them with care. However, a herb or garlic butter can pair well with grilled salmon. Try a sweet vinaigrette made with balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and brown sugar if you want something lighter. Or, you can always keep things simple with a little extra salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

How to Cook Salmon on the Grill

Did you know that Maine Lobster House is more than just lobster (although that’s our specialty, of course!). We also carry fresh fish, including wild-caught salmon fillets that you can order in 2, 4, and 8-pound packages. Most orders will arrive at your door in just a few business days, but we also offer overnight delivery services. 

While you’re waiting, read about salmon nutrition and the benefits of eating this nutrient-dense fish in our Seafood University guide.