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How to Grill Salmon (Without Losing It through the Grates)

A woman grilling salmon on a traditional charcoal grill.
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Fish is delicate and will easily flake apart once cooked through, which is why many avoid grilling it without foil. But, with a little preparation, you can grill your salmon right on the grates.

With proper technique (and the right tools), grilling salmon is easier than you might think. Follow our tutorial for creating a mouthwatering marinade, then prepare and grill your salmon to perfection—here’s how we do it.

Make the Marinade

While you can choose from dozens of different marinades at most supermarkets, we say save a few bucks and make your own. Not only is scratch marinade cheaper, but it’s also healthier, and you can create the exact flavor you want.

Every homemade marinade should consist of fat (usually oil), an acidic ingredient, and flavorings of your choice. To keep it simple, use about four parts oil to one part acid. For example, for every one cup of oil used, add in ¼ cup of acid like citrus juice or vinegar, then flavor it using, garlic, herbs and spices, and so much more.

Cut Your Salmon Filets

Four salmon filets, freshly portioned sitting on a rectangular plate with salmon scraps, a knife and a cutting board in the background.
Emilee Unterkoefler / LifeSavvy

Using a non-serrated knife (filet, boning, or chef knife), cut your slab of salmon into about five- or six-ounce portions. Start by trimming away the belly fat, which is the thinnest side of the fish and looks fattier and lighter colored than the rest.

We recommend cutting larger more square pieces (rather than thin strips), as more surface area is easier to flip on the grill. We will be keeping the skin on to help hold the fish together without the meat breaking apart while grilling. The skin will naturally peel off once cooked.

Bonus Tip: if you have a hard time cutting through the skin, use kitchen shears to cut through after slicing through the fish.

Marinate Your Salmon

Marinating salmon filets in a homemade marinade with salmon scraps and marinade in the background.
Emilee Unterkoefler / LifeSavvy

If you aren’t up to creating a marinade from scratch just yet (no worries), here’s a delicious garlic and herbs recipe perfect for marinating salmon. Once you make the marinade, go ahead and place it in a freezer bag for at least 30 minutes to four hours.

Because this marinade is not acid-based, it is safe to marinate the fish this long. However, you should never marinate fish in an acid-based marinade longer than 30 minutes; otherwise, the fish begins to break down.

Preheat Your Grill and Oil The Grates

Using a set of long tongs and a wad of paper towels dipped in oil to grease the grill grates before setting salmon on it.
Emilee Unterkoefler / LifeSavvy

Preheat the grill to medium-high, and clean the grates thoroughly. Before placing your fish on the grill, dip a large wad of paper towels in oil and wipe down the grates with a long pair of tongs. The oil will prevent the salmon from sticking and further clean your grill.

Place Filet Skinless Side Down

A spike of flame after placing marinated salmon filets on the grill.
Emilee Unterkoefler / LifeSavvy

Before putting your salmon on the grill, be sure to wipe off any herbs or garlic that might still be on the salmon to avoid burning. Place the salmon, skinless side down, turn your heat down to medium, and put the lid down.

Flip Using a Fish Spatula or Tongs

Flipping salmon filets using a pair of tongs.
Emilee Unterkoefler / LifeSavvy

If you have a fish spatula, we recommend using it to flip the salmon; otherwise, a set of tongs will work. The salmon will release itself when it’s ready to be flipped. In other words, if you try and flip and it’s sticking, let it be a little longer.

You want grill lines to appear and allow the salmon to form a nice sear before flipping it.

Remove the Skin

Removing the skin from the salmon filet using a pair of tongs.
Emilee Unterkoefler / LifeSavvy

Once the salmon has cooked on the side with skin, you’ll be able to remove the skin very easily as it will naturally peel right off. Some enjoy eating the crispy skin, and it’s generally safe to eat in small amounts, so the choice is yours; however, we always ditch it.

Temp and Serve Immediately

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends cooking salmon to a safe internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Many chefs choose to cook it a little less, as it offers a flakey exterior and moist center.

Check its doneness with an instant-read thermometer before removing it from the grill. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over your salmon and enjoy.

We love our salmon on a bed of jasmine rice with grilled broccoli, or on a freshly tossed salad, but there are so many ways to enjoy it. What do you usually accompany salmon with?

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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