Spicy, fresh and vibrant, this Whole Grilled Branzino with Chile Basil Ginger Sauce is both easy and delicious. It’s stuffed with cilantro and lime and topped with a beautiful, Southeast Asian-inspired sauce.
What You Need for Grilled Branzino with Chile Basil Ginger Sauce
Branzino: Also known as European bass or European seabass, branzino is an ocean-going, silver-skinned, white-fleshed fish commonly found throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. In North America, it is often referred to as Branzino, the Italian name for the fish. In France, it’s known as loup de mer, or “the wolf of the sea.” Branzino is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and an excellent source of protein.
It has a mild, flaky and slightly sweet flesh that cooks quickly and easily, making it very versatile for a variety of preparations. The skin also gets wonderfully crispy when cooked over direct heat. It can be roasted or grilled whole, as shown in the recipe below. I particularly like it because it’s easy to debone after cooking since it doesn’t have too many bones, like mackerel, for example.
If you can’t find Branzino near you, feel free to substitute whole sea bream (Orata in Italian, Dorado in Spanish), grouper, or red snapper. Of course, the larger the fish, the longer it will take to cook.
Herbs: To make the Chile Basil Ginger Sauce, you’ll need a combination of fresh basil and cilantro. I used regular, garden-variety basil, but feel free to use other types, such as Thai basil, lemon basil, or purple basil.
If you’re not a fan of cilantro, you can substitute a few leaves of fresh mint or just use basil. I prefer not to use parsley here because it does not pair as nicely with the Southeast Asian flavour profile I’m after with this recipe.
Limes: You’ll need one lime for the sauce and one lime to slice and stuff the fish with. Just promise me you’ll use fresh lime juice here. It makes a world of difference in terms of flavour!
Fish Sauce: If you can find Red Boat fish sauce, grab a bottle. It’s gluten-free and has a great flavour profile.
Chiles: For a mild heat and pop of colour, I like to add thinly sliced red finger chiles to the sauce. You can substitute other varieties of fresh chiles, such as Thai bird’s eye, Anaheim, jalapeño, r serrano.
You can also use a chile paste, such as Sambal Oelek.
Ginger and Garlic: For the best flavour, use a combination of fresh ginger and garlic here. I like to finely chop the garlic so that it’s evenly distributed in the sauce and julienne the ginger so that I get pops of flavour and crunch. If you are serving young children though, you may want to grate the ginger to mellow out that bite.
Tips for Grilling Whole Fish:
Pat it Dry: After cleaning the fish and rinsing it under cold water, it’s crucial to pat it as dry as possible with paper towel. Surface moisture is the devil’s playground and will prevent the fish from developing a crust. In turn, the fish will not taste as good and it will be harder to flip.
Tie It With Butcher’s Twine: Even if you’re not stuffing the cavity of the fish, I strongly recommend tying it with butcher’s twine before cooking. This helps ensure the fish cooks evenly and makes it much easier to flip because the skin is securely held together.
Score the Fish: Scoring the fish offers several benefits:
1. It allows for the seasoning or marinade to better penetrate into the flesh.
2. Because you can see the exposed flesh, scoring the fish offers a little window, so to speak, into how fast or slowly it’s cooking.
3. Scoring the fish before cooking makes it a little easier to debone when serving.
4. When scored, the fish will cook a bit more evenly and quicker.
5. Scoring will also prevent the fish from curling onto itself while cooking.
It’s Ready to Flip When It’s Ready to Flip: One of the biggest mistakes people make when grilling fish is trying to flip it too early. Place the fish on the grill and leave it be so that it develops a crust. The crust isn’t just flavourful, it also helps release the fish from the grill grates, making it easier to flip.
Direct vs. Indirect Heat: Unlike conventional gas and propane grills, Traeger Grills operate using indirect heat and all-natural wood pellets.
The perimeter of a Traeger grill is where things get hottest because that’s where the hot air is circulating. So, if you want to cook the fish over a more direct heat and achieve a better crust, place it along the front or back of the grill grates. I prefer the front of the grill because it’s easier to flip the fish there.
If, on the other hand, you’re cooking a larger fish that requires more time, like a snapper, place it near the center of the grill so that it cooks more gradually. Otherwise, you run the risk of burning the skin before the flesh has had a chance to cook through. If your grill is preheated properly, you’ll still get beautiful grill marks.
If using a conventional grill, cook the Branzino over medium, direct heat for approximately 5 minutes per side, or until the skin is slightly charred and the flesh is opaque and flakey.
How Do I Know When the Fish is Cooked?
Generally speaking, fish is cooked through and ready to serve when the flesh is opaque and flaky. This is the case for most white-fleshed fish like branzino, halibut, sole, tilapia, pike, walleye, bass, etc.
Salmon, tuna and trout, on the other hand, can be served medium-rare or even rare, depending on your preference. Of course, if using sushi-grade fish, it can also be eaten raw.
More Recipes From the Sea:
- Grilled Sweet Thai Chile Pineapple Salmon
- Grain-Free Crab Cakes with Dijonnaise
- Fish Pie
- Popcorn Shrimp
- Mussels and Fries
- Orrechiette with Shrimp, Greens and Beans (not Paleo)
Whole Grilled Branzino with Chile Basil Ginger Sauce
- For the Chile Basil Ginger Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro stems reserved and set aside
- 2 tablespoons thinly sliced basil
- 2 green onions thinly sliced, greens and whites separated
- 1 red finger chile substitute Thai bird’s eye chile or Anaheim pepper
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger julienned
- 1 clove garlic finely chopped
- 1.5 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons water
- Juice of 1 lime
- For the Grilled Branzino:
- 2 whole branzino gutted, scaled and fins removed
- 1 small bunch reserved cilantro stems see above
- 1 lime thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon avocado oil
- Kosher salt and freshly-cracked black pepper
- For the Chile Basil Ginger Sauce:
- In a bowl, combine all of the ingredients and stir. Taste for seasoning and adjust with honey for sweetness or fish sauce for salt as desired. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
- For the Grilled Branzino:
- Preheat Traeger grill to 450F for 5 minutes. Make sure the grill grates are very clean.
- Rinse the fish under cold water and pat very dry with paper towel.
- Using a sharp knife, make three diagonal score marks around 1” apart on both sides of each fish. Season the cavities with a pinch of salt and pepper, stuff each fish with 3 lime slices and half of the reserved cilantro stems. Tie each fish with three strands of butcher’s twine. Rub with avocado oil and generously season with salt and pepper.
- Once your Traeger grill is preheated, place the fish as close to the front edge of the grill as possible, close the door and cook until lightly charred, around 6 minutes. Carefully flip with a fish spatula and pair of tongs and cook until lightly charred, around 6 more minutes. The fish is ready to serve when the flesh is opaque and flaky.
- Transfer the fish to a serving platter and spoon the Chile Basil Ginger Sauce over top. Garnish with thinly sliced scallions and serve immediately.