Grilled trout is one of those iconic dishes whether you are in the backcountry or in your backyard. Crispy skin, tender, smoky meat — what’s not to love? A lot, if your trout sticks to the grill. Here’s how to grill a whole trout perfectly every time.
Grilling a fresh whole trout or kokanee over an open fire is the natural end to a day spent in a beautiful place, where cold, clean water flows and the pines whisper to you as you cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve.
That said, grilled trout is a common backyard staple, too, since you can buy whole, farmed rainbow trout in many supermarkets.
Grilling a whole trout isn’t rocket science, but you do need to know a few things to succeed — and to keep your fish from sticking to the grill.
Best Trout for Grilling
Any trout that fits on your grill. Seriously. OK, I’m joking a little. What you want for grilled whole trout are fish that are plate sized or just a little longer. The store-bought rainbow trout are raised for this, actually. Wild rainbows are better.
And better than that are wild brook trout. Small browns, cutthroat trout, Dolly Vardens and small Arctic char are good, too. Think single serving.
Prepping Your Trout
- Gut and gill your trout. This one’s for the anglers, because store-bought trout are sold gutted and gilled. Gills impart an “off” taste to the parts of the fish surrounding them. No need to scale, as trout have tiny scales. If you are grilling a large trout, like a lake trout (mackinaw), you might want to scale it. But I don’t bother.
- Make sure the fish are approaching room temperature. This will ensure that they are fully cooked at the bone. One of the biggest grilling mistakes is to put cold fish on the grill. Doing this will often result in charred skin and raw meat where it meets the bone.
- Oil your fish, and your grill grates. This will really help prevent the trout from sticking.
- Make sure your grill grates are absolutely free of debris! You don’t need to scrub them with soap or anything, but you do need to make sure you scrub them down with the wire grill brush once they’ve heated up.
- You want a hot grill. This isn’t barbecue. This is grilling. High heat. (If you want, I do have a barbecued trout recipe here.)
- Flip only once. This is vital. Grilled trout is ready to flip when you can easily slip a thin metal spatula (I use a fish spatula) underneath it without more than one or two little places sticking. Flip and finish the cooking on the other side. Basting the trout with some butter or oil at this point really helps keep everything moist.
When in doubt, let the fish cook a bit more than you think. Grilled trout, or really any other whole fish, is actually better a little bit overcooked. It’s the char. We all love a little Maillard reaction. That said, don’t incinerate your fish.
Some people protect the fish with foil, but that’s not grilling. That’s using a grill to steam or bake a fish. Not the same. And trust me, if you follow these rules you will quickly become a grilled trout expert. Like I said, it ain’t rocket science. (I have even more tips and tricks on grilling a whole fish here.)
You can serve your grilled trout with anything, but I decided to make this a nod to the Alps, where there are lots of trout swimming around in their cold, clear lakes and streams.
So I made some rye spätzle and used a combination of sunflower and roasted pumpkinseed oil, plus some wild greens and a cool vegetable called agretti I happened to have lying around. You can use anything green. A grilled trout is great over a bed of morels, too.
All told, this whole dinner took me about 45 minutes to make. Not a bad way to end a day on the water, eh?
Grilled Trout or Kokanee
- 4 small trout, or 8 trout if you are big eaters, gutted and gilled
- Roasted pumpkinseed oil or some other nice oil to coat fish
- 2 cups rye flour (or whole wheat or spelt or emmer)
- 1 egg
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Some sunflower or other oil to coat dumplings
- 1 pound various chopped greens (Spinach, lambsquarters, chard, etc.)
- 3 tablespoons sunflower oil, or some other vegetable oil, or butter
- Salt and black pepper
- Malt vinegar or lemon to taste
- If you are going to make the spätzle, do them first. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it well. Fill the spätzle maker with the batter, which will be goopy and sticky, and run it over the boiling water. Do this is batches, skimming off the spätzle as they float to the top. Put the finished spätzle onto a baking sheet and coat with a little oil. Set them aside.
- To grill the trout, coat them in oil and salt them well. Set them out at room temperature for 20 minutes, while you make the fire for the grill. Make very sure of two things: 1), that your grill grates are spotlessly clean -- foods stick to gunk on the grill, not the grill itself; and 2) that the grill grates are very hot. Right before you put the trout on the grill, wad up a piece of paper towel and, using tongs, wipe down the grill grates. Put the trout on the grill.
- Let the trout cook until they are nicely browned, even charred a little bit. How long? At least 5 minutes, and maybe up to 10, depending on how hot your grill is. As they cook, paint them with the roasted pumpkinseed oil, or some other good oil you like. Use a metal spatula -- I highly recommend using a fish spatula because they are very thin and flexible -- and test to see if the fish comes away easily from the grill. It will when it's ready. If it still wants to stick, let it cook a little longer. When you are ready to turn the fish, slip the spatula under the fish and, using your other hand to steady it, flip the trout. Do this only once. Grill on the other side until the trout comes away from the grill easily, again, about 5 to 10 minutes.
- When you flip the trout, start the greens in a large sauté pan set over high heat. Add the chopped greens and sauté for a minute or two, until they wilt. Add the spätzle and stir-fry them for a couple minutes. Turn off the heat and sprinkle salt and black pepper over them.
- To serve, put some of the greens and spätzle on everyone's plate, then a trout. Drizzle a little of the roasted pumpkinseed oil over everything, then splash everything with a little freshly squeezed lemon or malt vinegar.
Keys to Success
- Make sure the fish are approaching room temperature. This will ensure that they are fully cooked at the bone. One of the biggest grilling mistakes is to put ice cold fish on the grill. Doing this will often result in charred skin and raw meat where it meets the bone.
- Oil your fish, and your grill grates. This will really help prevent the trout from sticking
- Make sure your grill grates are absolutely free of debris! You don't need to scrub them with soap or anything, but you do need to make sure you scrub them down with the wire grill brush once they've heated up.
- You want a hot grill. This isn't barbecue. This is grilling. High heat.
- Flip only once. This is vital. Basting the trout with some butter or oil at this point really helps keep everything moist.