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Should you BBQ fish in foil?

Grilling fish in foil packs, also known as foil packets, is a popular cooking technique for fish on the barbecue. The fish is enclosed in a pouch of aluminum foil along with vegetables, herbs and seasonings. This allows the fish to steam and absorb the flavors of the additional ingredients. Foil packets help keep food moist during grilling and are easy to flip and move around the grill. But is grilling fish in foil always the best option? Here we’ll look at the pros and cons of barbecuing fish in foil packs vs direct grilling methods.

Quick Answers

– Grilling fish in foil allows it to steam and absorb flavors, while also keeping it moist.

– Direct grilling can give you better sear marks and caramelization on fish for more flavor.

– Thinner, smaller fish fillets will overcook easily if direct grilled. These are best cooked in foil.

– Fattier fish like salmon can be grilled directly with less risk of drying out.

– Grilling in foil is ideal for adding extra flavor from ingredients like herbs, citrus, spices.

– Direct grilling gives better charring and texture from the grill grates.

Pros of Grilling Fish in Foil Packets

Retains Moisture

One of the biggest benefits of grilling fish in foil is moisture retention. Fish fillets can dry out quickly, especially thinner fillets like tilapia or sole. When you enclose the fish in a sealed foil packet, the fillets gently steam and baste in their own juices and any other ingredients added. This prevents the delicate fish from losing moisture on the hot grill grates. The foil allows heat to penetrate and cook the fish, while also creating a self-contained environment that keeps it tender.

Infuses Flavor

Cooking in a sealed foil pouch allows the fish to absorb much more flavor from aromatic ingredients. Placing fillets in foil with fresh herbs, sliced lemons or limes, garlic, chili flakes, sliced onions or olives will infuse the fish with these flavors as it cooks. The steam circulates around the fillet, carrying the tastes throughout the fish. This works much better than simply sprinkling ingredients on top of fish before direct grilling.

Easy to Transport

Foil fish packets are very portable and easy to maneuver around the grill. You can prepare the pouches ahead of time, then simply place them directly on the grill grates when ready to cook. The foil helps prevent the fish fillets breaking apart or sticking to the grill. And the sealed packets make flipping and removing the fish trouble-free. Direct grilling requires a spatula and more careful handling to keep fillets intact.

Cooks Evenly

The steaming environment and enclosure of the foil pouch allows for very even cooking. There’s no risk of the thinner parts of the fillet overcooking or drying out while you wait for the thicker sections to cook through. The heat circulates all around the pouch to gently cook the fish through without creating hot spots. Direct grilling often leads to uneven cooking, especially if fillets vary in thickness.

Easy to Season & Add Ingredients

Preparing foil packets is a simple way to season and flavor fish before grilling. Just lay the fillets in the middle, sprinkle with desired ingredients, seal the pouch, then toss on the grill. The seasoning gets evenly distributed over the fish during cooking. With direct grilling, coatings and toppings are more likely to char or fall off the fish into the grill. Any sauce glazes will also stay contained in the packet instead of dripping into the grill.

Cons of Grilling Fish in Foil

Less Browning & Texture

Cooking in foil prevents the beautiful sear marks and charring you can achieve from direct grilling. The fillets essentially steam so you lose out on the nice caramelized crust and texture. The foil will also soften up the outer surface of the fish, rather than allowing it to get browned and crispy.

Can Make Fish Too Soft

While the moist environment of the foil pouch prevents dry fish, it can also cause the flesh to over-soften. The steam and moisture can make fillets almost mushy if cooked too long. With direct grilling, the hot grill sears the outside and provides some textural contrast.

Fewer Smoky Flavors

Foil packets seal the fish away from direct contact with grill smoke. You’ll pick up less smoky flavor compared to direct grilling on the grate. Of course, you can still add smoked paprika or other spices to the packet. But the smoke itself won’t penetrate and flavor the fillets as much.

Hard to Check Doneness

Since the fish is encased in foil, you can’t easily check on browning or use the pinch test. You have to rely on cooking times and internal temperature. Opening the packet lets steam escape and can cause overcooking. With direct grilling, you can peek at the fish and get a better sense of when it’s done.

Can Create Steam Burns

The sealed foil allows steam to accumulate in the packet. When you go to open it after cooking, the rush of steam can burn your hands or face. Direct grilling doesn’t have this issue. Just be sure to open foil packets slowly and careful after grilling.

Not Ideal for Higher-Heat Grilling

If you want to cook fish over very high heat for a good sear, foil packets aren’t the best option. The steam won’t be able to escape quickly enough. Very high direct heat can still work for quick searing before lowering the temp. But intense direct heat may cause foil packs to burn or rupture.

What Types of Fish Work Best in Foil?

Here are some of the top choices for grilling fish in foil packets:

Tilapia – A popular option because tilapia fillets are very lean and prone to drying out. Foil keeps them moist and tender.

Sole – Like tilapia, sole is a thinner, flakier fish that does well with the gentle steaming method.

Flounder – Another good lean, delicate fish for foil. The packet will prevent sticking and breaking apart.

Catfish – Farm-raised catfish fillets also benefit from the moist cooking environment of the foil.

Salmon – The rich omega-3 oils in salmon keep it moist for grilling. But foil can provide even more protection against overcooking.

Trout – The light flavor of trout soaks up the aromas of any herbs and citrus added to the packet.

Halibut – This lean, firm whitefish stays very moist when steamed in foil with some butter or oil added.

Cod – Cod holds up well in foil packets and takes on lots of added flavors.

Mahi Mahi – Mahi has a dense texture that won’t fall apart in foil. The packet keeps it juicy and seasoned.

Fish Best for Direct Grilling

Here are some varieties of fish that tend to work better for direct grilling:

Tuna – Meatier tuna steaks can achieve a nice sear while still staying rare in the center.

Swordfish – Another robust fish that can take higher heat for charring on the grill.

Salmon – Fatty salmon is great for getting a crusty skin and rich exterior.

Arctic Char – With proper basting, this trout-like fish develops delicious caramelization.

Branzino – Whole branzino cooks evenly over direct heat. The skin crisps up while flesh stays moist.

Red Snapper – Snapper fillets have a sturdy texture for direct grilling. A rub or glaze adds lots of flavor.

Grouper – As long as you don’t overcook it, grouper can develop nice char marks on the grill.

Tips for Grilling Fish in Foil Packets

Here are some pointers for succeeding when cooking fish in foil pouches on the barbecue:

– Use heavy-duty aluminum foil to prevent rupturing or burning of the packets.

– Lay sheets of foil on top of each other and fold up the edges to reinforce the seams before adding fish.

– Coat the inside of the foil lightly with oil or butter so fish doesn’t stick. Olive oil spray works well.

– Try to make packets uniform in thickness so they’ll cook at the same rate.

– For best results, place pouches perpendicular to grill grates rather than parallel.

– Resist urge to peek! Opening packets during cooking will release moisture and steam.

– If grilling multiple packets, stagger them on the grill rather than stacking.

– For charcoal grills, move packets to indirect heat if flare-ups occur under packets.

– Double wrap or crimp edges of packets tightly to prevent steam leaks.

Sample Foil Packet Recipes

To give you some inspiration, here are a few tasty foil packet fish recipes to try on the grill:

Lemon Butter Salmon Packets

– Salmon fillets
– Butter
– Lemon slices
– Dill
– Salt and pepper

Place salmon in the middle of a foil packet. Dot with butter and top with lemon slices and fresh dill. Season with salt and pepper then seal packet. Grill 8-12 minutes until salmon is opaque and flakes easily.

Tilapia & Vegetables

– Tilapia fillets
– Zucchini slices
– Bell pepper strips
– Cherry tomatoes
– Parmesan cheese
– Basil
– Olive oil

Toss vegetables with oil, salt and pepper. Place tilapia in the center of foil and top with veggies. Sprinkle with parmesan and basil. Seal packet and grill about 10-15 minutes until fish is cooked through and veggies tender.

Pesto Mahi Mahi Packets

– Mahi mahi fillets
– Grape tomatoes
– Spinach
– Pesto sauce
– Lemon wedges

Put a base of spinach in foil packet then place mahi on top. Spoon pesto over fish and top with grape tomatoes. Squeeze fresh lemon on top and seal packet. Grill 8-10 minutes until mahi flakes easily.

Citrus Swordfish & Shrimp

– Swordfish steaks
– Shrimp
– Orange slices
– Lime wheels
– Cilantro
– Olive oil
– Salt and pepper

Brush swordfish and shrimp with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place on foil packet with orange and lime slices. Top with cilantro. Grill about 10 minutes until swordfish is cooked through and shrimp are pink.

Spicy Fish Tacos

– Tilapia or cod fillets
– Diced onion
– Minced garlic
– Chopped tomato
– Lime juice
– Cajun seasoning

Mix all ingredients except fish in bowl. Place fish in the middle of foil packet and top with vegetable mixture. Seal packet and grill 8-10 minutes until fish flakes easily. Flake into tortillas with cabbage slaw.


Grilling fish in foil packets offers the advantages of steam cooking for a moist, tender result with lots of infused flavors. The foil also makes the fish easy to handle and helps prevent sticking or breaking. However, the tradeoff is a loss of caramelization, crispiness and smoky barbecue flavor that you get from direct grilling. Very delicate, lean fillets tend to come out best when cooked in sealed foil pouches. Fattier fish like salmon and tuna can still develop a nice crust over direct heat as long as they are watched carefully. In the end, the grilling method comes down to your specific type of fish and preferences. Foil packets are convenient, require little skill and deliver delicious results. But the hands-on approach of direct grilling offers greater texture and charred flavors. As long as you choose an appropriate fillet and avoid overcooking, both grilling in foil and direct on the grill grates can produce mouthwatering fish from the barbecue.