Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Recipe: Charcoal Grilled Salmon

Grilled sockeye salmon with loose chives tossed on top

Grilled salmon is a real treat when done right. The key, as with just about any fish, is not to over-cook it.

This recipe comes from my days cooking at an adventure lodge in Alaska. Just about every time we served this grilled salmon rendition, a handful of guests would exclaim that it was the best salmon they had ever had in their life... and demand the recipe. We were happy to oblige, because we knew that an earnest request for a recipe is the finest praise a cook can receive.

Now, I bring this recipe to you.

As for the fish... I'm a sucker for wild-caught sockeye or silver salmon. Of course, this recipe works great with whatever salmon variety you've got on hand. NOTE: If you have yet to make your salmon purchase, you can review my article (rant) about the different types of salmon.

You'll want to marinate the salmon for 6-8 hours, so plan accordingly. This recipe serves 8.

I use a charcoal-fired Weber kettle to do my grilling, but you can do just fine with a gas grill. You can also use skinless salmon filets or even steaks... just be sure to closely follow my guidance on when to pull the fish off the grill—as it applies to steaks and skinless filets as well.


  • 8 skin-on salmon filets
  • 2 cups soy sauce or tamari (for a gluten-free experience)
  • 1 1/3 cups water
  • 1 1/3 cups brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup grated ginger
  • 7 large cloves pressed garlic
  • 1/4 cup sesame oil

In a large glass bowl, make the marinade by combining the soy sauce (or tamari), water, brown sugar, black pepper, grated ginger, and pressed garlic. Make sure all ingredients are well-mixed. There should be no brown sugar sitting on the bottom of your mixing bowl.

Salmon marinating in a Ziploc
I typically marinate the filets in a Ziploc bag. If you're using a bowl, cover the top with plastic wrap so the parts that stick out of the liquid don't dry out.

Marinate your salmon filets for 6-8 hours. Ideally, give things a stir or shake every 2 hours to ensure even coverage, and to eliminate un-marinated spots that occur where two pieces of fish are pressed tightly together.

Be sure not to marinate for longer than 8 hours, otherwise the salmon gets too salty. If you need to marinate overnight (up to 24 hours), double the water in the marinade.

When you're about 45 minutes from serving time, light your charcoal grill with a full chimney of hardwood lump charcoal. When the coals are glowing at the top, dump them out in an even spread, and then place your grill surface over the coals to heat. Always let your grill heat for 5 minutes and then clean it with a grill brush before adding the food on top.

When grilling tender and/or lean meats (like salmon), be sure to oil your grill surface before adding the food. Otherwise, the meat will stick and make a mess of things.

Oil the hot grill surface with canola or some other relatively high-heat oil. I typically pour a quarter cup of oil into a small glass bowl, and then immerse two folded paper towels and pick them out with grill tongs to oil the grill with them. You can also use spray-on oil... just be sure not to blow yourself up.

Grilled salmon started skin-side up
With the grill well-oiled and hot, toss on your salmon filets skin side up (i.e. red flesh side down). You'll probably want to cover the grill to keep the heat from getting too intense. Grill the salmon for 3-4 minutes, or until you've got some nice grill marks.

Then, flip the salmon filets over so they are skin side down, and finish them off. You'll likely want to cover the grill for this portion as well.

It will probably take another 7-8 minutes to finish the filets, but it depends entirely on the thickness of the filets, the heat of your grill, and the alignment of the planets.

Therefore, you should be in the habit of gently peering inside your salmon filets to check doneness. Do this by gently separating the flakes of flesh—working with the grain of the meat. Salmon filets can go from "just right" to "dry and tough" in less than a minute.

If you will serve your salmon filets immediately onto the plates of your guests (with all other side dishes plated and ready), pull your salmon when there's just a hint of deep red (not fully-cooked) color left in the thickest part of the filet.

If the filets will sit around for 5 minutes after grilling, pull them when there's a good bit of deep red left—maybe half an inch of thickness. Because the filets are being cooked at such a high temperature, they will continue cooking until eaten.

If the filets will sit around for longer than 5 minutes after grilling... save your salmon for another time and cook hot dogs instead.

Just prior to serving, brush the filets gently with sesame oil. This gives them a nice sheen, and also helps keep the filets from losing moisture. It also adds a nice flavor complement to the soy-ginger marinade.

Serve and enjoy!


  1. I believe I once saw this done, by Mr. Cast Iron himself, with one giant side-of-beef-looking piece of salmon. On a giant grill. If there were not others around, I would have eaten the whole thing. Thanks for the great stuff here, D.


  2. Ah, Mr. Pierce... I do recall a humid afternoon in the Old Dominion that fits your description.

    Now you can replicate that side-of-beef-like-hunk-of-salmon for your very own.

    Miss you guys!



Howdy! Thanks for visiting, and thanks even more for leaving a comment. I'll respond as soon as the kids are asleep.