Something’s Fishy: A Story In Photos

Last week, Dave faced what might have been his biggest photography challenge to date: He had to photograph a whole fish for one of the Well Fed 2 divider pages.

For most photographers, once they’d figured out the technical details, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But Dave isn’t most photographers. For starters, he’s more awesome than the average person. And secondly, he’s allergic to fish — “rush to the hospital” allergic — which means that the sight and the smell and the mere idea of fish is nearly intolerable.

But he’s a pro, so we hit up the fish counter at Central Market and came home with a whole red snapper. Then he set up the lights, and took this photo. Cool, right?!


Then the baton fish was passed to me. For the first time ever, I was going to grill a whole fish.

I did some quick online research and started daydreaming about the luscious dinner that was in my future: tender, flaky fish… crispy skin… bragging rights. I was ready! I even talked it up on Twitter.


The first step was scaling the sucker. It was actually much easier than I thought it would be. I just ran a butter knife along the body and the scales popped off. I should also mention that many of them escaped the confines of the sink and fluttered through the air like translucent confetti. I’m still finding them on the floor and in corners of the countertop.


Next was removal of the fins. I liked this part much, much less. This was the moment when I started anthropomorphizing my red snapper. Cutting through the fins with my kitchen shears was gross, and I began to feel like I was dismembering a dead pal.


I soldiered on — and so did Mr. Snapper. I stuffed his belly cavity with sliced lemons, course salt, and pepper. Then I slit his skin (Sorry, Mr. Snapper!), rubbed salt in the wounds slits, and rubbed him it with ghee.


After preheating the grill on high so it was scorchingly hot, I transferred Mr. Snapper to his pyre (ghee-side down), closed the lid, and waited about 7 minutes. Note that I never did remove that bottom fin. Clearly, a sharper knife is needed (and probably, if there are any fishing aficianados out there, you’re cringing at my technique).

Note the awesome steam vent created by the slits. Weird! Funny! Disturbing!


When it was time, I used two spatulas to flip him it over. I’d like to say that it looked delicious and that I couldn’t wait to eat it. But by this point, it smelled pretty fishy, and the beautiful pink color had been replaced by a muddy brown. Dave, too, was losing enthusiasm for the project. His aversion to fish was only increasing with each step of the process. He took several photos of the cooked fish, but this is the one he gave me to use in the post. I think it accurately summarizes his feelings about the experience.


When the fish was cooked — and I have to admit, it was perfectly cooked: tender and flaky inside, crisp and flavorful outside — I removed the skin and fillets from the bones. The tasty part looked like this:


The rest looked like this:


And it tasted… super fishy.

Hmmm. Yes. I guess I’m not a fan of red snapper.

So that’s our fish story.

Not my greatest kitchen experience, but sometimes, cooking needs to be about experimentation — even if the results aren’t the best dinner ever.


How To Grill A Whole Fish (Sort Of)

There is a silver-lining take-away to this story: The grilling technique I learned from Cook’s Illustrated works great. If you find yourself in possession of a whole fish, here are the details for how to grill it to crisp-tender perfection. NOTE: These instructions are for a fish that weighs up to 3 pounds.



Heat a gas grill with all burners on high with the lid closed until very hot, about 15-20 minutes.


Clean the fish: remove scales, fins, etc. (Most fish mongers will do this for you, so when you buy your fish, ask them to get it ready for cooking. You can then avoid having fish scale confetti all over your kitchen.)


Cut a lemon into thin slices and tuck inside the fish, sprinkling the insides generously with salt and pepper. (You could also add leaves of fresh herbs here, too.) Cut a few parallel slits in the skin on both sides of the fish. Rub the outside with coarse salt, then ghee.


Place fish on the grill and cook, with the lid closed, until bottom side of the fish is browned and crisp, about 6-7 minutes. Use two spatuals to carefully flip the fish over and grill ad additional 6-8 minutes, until the skin is blistered and crisp.


Use two spatulas to transfer to a platter or baking sheet, then carefully remove the flesh and skin from the bones. This is way easier than it sounds — the skeleton comes right out.

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  • Peach says:

    Bless you for powering through this experience, however traumatic. I will tackle this one day, once I get a big-girl grill and a man to umm… man the grill. Brava to you and may your next experience be less fishy. #sopunny

  • Mad Betty says:

    In an effort to branch out, I made some red snapper last week. Ugh…no. So fishy. I love the technique you used though. I bet it would be so delicious with trout.

  • Mel says:

    HMMmm I am surprised that the snapper was fishy! Your fish looked good raw. Did it smell fishy then?

    My mom is truly not a fish fan (salmon is too much for her, she is usually eating halibut or tilapia, or shrimp), and she has eaten snapper on occasion.

    PS I Love Central Market! Whenever we go into Houston, we try and stop there… 🙂

    • Mel says:

      It was super fresh and didn’t smell fishy at all. I think I just don’t care for red snapper. No biggie! It was a fun experiment.

  • Teresa says:

    Thanks so much for doing this so I never have to! Way to take one for the team!

  • Chris B says:

    “I should also mention that many of them escaped the confines of the sink and fluttered through the air like translucent confetti. I’m still finding them on the floor and in corners of the countertop.”

    THIS is why fish are usually scaled at the dock if you caught it yourself or OUTSIDE somewhere if you got it at the store!

    So, if you ever decide to try it again …. (snicker)

    • Mel says:

      Yes, once I started I realized I should have done it outside, but it was also 100+ degrees, and I just couldn’t bear the thought.

  • Andrea D says:

    I grill red snapper frequently and have a few tips… 1. Central market is amazeballs, and will scale and remove any part you want prior to you having to take the little guy home! SO MUCH EASIER, 2. all the other steps matched mine to a tee, except I oil him up with olive oil, 3. when he’s/it’s done, poor a 50/50 mixture of olive oil and fresh squeezed lemon juice over the flakey bit of goodness. (ala greek taverna style) It compliments the fish so nicely, and you don’t get the “fishy” after taste. 4. EAT THE CHEEKS! that’s the most flavorful and tender part of a whole fish. That’s if you can get over the fact you have to take apart his face.
    I’m excited to see a fish recipe on your site, and so funny that I did this nearly exact cooking method last weekend and served it with your cauliflower rice pilaf! YUMMMMMMM 🙂

    • Mel says:

      Thanks for the tips!

      I know Central Market is great about cleaning fish, but we needed it with the scales for the photo. The sacrifices we make for art 😉

  • Paula says:

    Sounds like an exact cooking adventure I would have! The finished product does look wonderful though.

  • Mom says:

    “Catchy” blog post!!! Love it!

  • Matilda says:

    I understand where you husband is coming from in 2 perspectives. 1 photographer, 2 dislike fish. I too am the same, however I can eat it, just not catch it or smell it or cook it. So I don’t have fish often.

  • Leslie says:

    Just wanted to let you know that after coveting your cookbook for quite some time I finally ordered it this morning. Looking forward to making some great food for my family!!

  • Denise says:

    The cooked little fish face looks horrifying, like one of those deep sea fishies with the crazy-ass teeth, giant eyes, and the light on his head. I can’t quit looking at it even though it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

  • dane b says:

    these pictures are awesome! this is one culinary adventure i will skip, but i’m glad you figureed it out. i would like to point out- your cookbook is awesome. my wife bought it, and tried the shepard’s pir today. i don’t even like shepard’s pie normally. your version is BOSS. keep up the good work. we are looking forward to the second one.

    • Mel says:

      Glad you like this post — and really glad you’re enjoying the Well Fed recipes. Shepherd’s Pie is like a hug in food form, right?! Thanks for stopping by to comment!

  • Stacy D says:

    Thank you for making me laugh, as you so frequently do. I’m away-from-home, suffering from a chest cold, just ruined TWO sets of boiled eggs [yes, I can cook just about anything EXCEPT hard-boiled eggs], and this post made me laugh so hard I forgot I was miserable. 😀

    • Mel says:

      Oh! I’m so glad this post kept you company while you’re away from home! And I need to know more about how you’re messing up hard-boiled eggs… please share details.

      • Stacy D says:

        First batch — started in cold water, brought to a boil, took them off the stove and let them stand in the hot water covered for 20 minutes. Underdone. (Yuck) Second batch — (older eggs) started in cold water, brought to a boil, then reduced to a simmer for 20 minutes. Won’t peel. Frustrated! 9 times out of 10 my boiled eggs are messed up.

        Solution? — go to the grocery store and buy eggs that are already boiled. (But I hate to think they are putting some preservative on them and I’m paying five times as much.) It just shouldn’t be this difficult! I eat two boiled eggs for breakfast during the work week ’cause they are just so wonderfully portable.

  • Alison says:

    Just to let you know that delicious fish you had in Croatia was probably Branzino or loup de mer depending on what they called it (I think it’s the same fish). We eat it nearly once a week in the summer when it’s grilling season and it is FABULOUS using your technique. Just lower the time cuz they’re smaller than your snapper. Not fishy, just lovely firm white fish. Downside is most of what we get in the states is farmed, but if you have a good source, its the bomb