Grilling fish isn’t as hard as you might think, but grilling shellfish is even easier, since it has a built-in protective layer that keeps it from falling apart. It cooks quickly, too, and is a great option whether you’re craving a complete seafood feast or just want to add some surf to your turf. Grilled oysters, for instance, make a great appetizer to tide people over before you get started on the steaks (or burgers). But there’s really no crustacean or mollusc you can’t cook over the coals, so why not give it a try?
Here are tips on grilling all of the most common types of shellfish, with recipes to bookmark for your next cookout.
If you’re buying lobster tails that have already been prepared (as in, separated from the rest of the lobster and cleaned), you only need to make a slit down the underside of the bottom shell and throw them on the grate for about 10 minutes total, flipping and basting with butter midway through. You can also reheat already-cooked lobster tails this way; just make sure they’re thawed first, and only leave them on the grill for a few minutes, max. This should still impart a touch of smoke while warming them up.
Start the tails slit-side down so that when you flip them, they’ll hold in all the lemon-garlic butter (or any other sauce or flavored butter you want to brush on). Get the recipe.
If you want to start with a whole, live lobster, it’s slightly more complicated. First, you’ll want to prepare the grill so it’s ready to go, and then, just before it’s time to cook, kill the lobster(s) as quickly and humanely as possible—there’s no agreed upon best way of doing this, but one popular option is stabbing it between the eye stalks. You can also put it in the freezer for 30 minutes to slow its central nervous system down, then blanch it (put it headfirst into boiling water for three or four minutes, then immediately shock it in an ice water bath to stop further cooking). Another expert source suggests chilling it and then using a long, heavy, sharp chef’s knife to split the lobster in half lengthwise in one swift stroke. This may be your best option for the grill in particular, since halving it helps it cook faster, and ensures the meat will get a true kiss of smoke (plus any butter or marinade you’ll be brushing on will really seep in). The claws will likely take a bit longer, so you may want to separate them from the body and leave them on for a minute or two after removing the rest. LobsterAnywhere.com, appropriately enough, has more grilled lobster tips. And you can simply grill a whole lobster without splitting it first, but this will work better for smaller specimens.
Similar to lobsters, crabs can go on the grill raw or already cooked. Larger types of crabs like Dungeness are best cut into pieces before grilling, but blue crabs can go on intact—well, mostly. Preparing them for this cooking method is admittedly not for the faint of heart; first you stun them in ice water, then you dress them (read: rip them apart in order to clean out the unwanted bits) while they’re still alive (and hopefully insensible). It’s understandable if you’re not up for this, but if it helps, many chefs and scientists liken crustaceans’ brains to those of bugs and believe they don’t feel pain like other animals. Of course, that’s up for debate.
You’ll want to set up a two-zone fire so the crabs can start cooking over direct heat, then be moved to the cooler side of the grill to finish. These are brushed with a complex sweet-salty-spicy glaze, but you could just as easily brush on simple melted butter and Old Bay. Get the recipe.
If you’re buying crab legs, like Alaskan king or snow crab legs, they’ll already be cooked and you’ll just be warming them up. As with frozen lobster tails, make sure they’re fully thawed, then lay them out on the grill for no more than 10 minutes, turning once, just to give them a smoky accent and get their briny juices flowing.
A little char, a little lemon, and a lot of melted butter—it doesn’t get much simpler (or better) than that. Get the recipe.
The easiest way to grill shrimp is probably to thread them onto skewers. For the best flavor and texture, buy fresh, shell-on, large or extra-large shrimp and peel and devein them at home, but leave the tails on. Skewer them so the skewer passes through both the head and tail portions of each shrimp, then brush with oil, butter, or marinade (like sweet chili and lime, or pineapple, garlic, and soy sauce) and grill over direct heat for about five minutes, or until opaque and pink with spots of char, flipping halfway through. Be careful not to overdo it, though; they cook quickly. For that reason, if you want to add vegetables to your kebabs, choose those that also cook rapidly, or else they won’t be done at the same time as the shrimp. (You can always skewer each ingredient separately, which makes it easier to cook everything to perfection, and makes for a pretty platter when they’re all lined up beside each other.)
You can try alternating the shrimp with already cooked sausage and citrus segments for a deconstructed sort of seafood boil on a stick. (And throw some corn on the grate beside them.) Get our Grilled Shrimp Boil Skewers recipe.
Another option if you don’t want to deal with skewers is to use a grill basket, preferably the long-handled, square sort that snugly holds food in a single layer and locks tight, so you can flip all the shrimp at once and ensure even cooking. Or, for easy cooking and clean-up, steam shrimp in foil packs on the grill. This method keeps them moist, and makes sure they lose none of their juice. Since they’ll cook a bit longer, you can get away with adding pretty much any veggies, as long as firmer ones like potatoes are cut into small pieces.
For truly jumbo shrimp and prawns, you can also grill them in their shells like mini lobsters, after simply snipping or slitting open the backs and removing the veins. Just watch for the shells to turn pink and the flesh to lose its translucence and pull them off as soon as they’re done.
Oysters may be the easiest shellfish to grill, or at least they can be. The best I’ve ever eaten were at an oceanfront campsite on the Oregon coast. A friend graciously brought a bunch of live oysters from a nearby seafood market, and we simply placed the bivalves straight onto the grate over a live fire, let them pop open to tell us they were done, and added a little squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of hot sauce to each one as we slurped them straight from their shells, waves crashing about a hundred yards away. It was one of the best bites I’ve been privileged enough to have, and about as close as I’ll ever come to being James Beard. However, you can also shuck the oysters first, and add a bit of flavored butter to the cupped bottom shells if you like.
This recipe uses tarragon butter to baste the oysters and add an earthy, faintly licorice-like note to their briny liquor, with a whisper of smoke imbued by the coals. Get the recipe.
Like oysters, clams can be placed in their shells directly onto the grill grate, and only take a few more moments to cook. Just be sure to purge and scrub them first, discarding any that don’t close during the cleaning process, since those are already dead and may not be safe to eat.
Once they begin to open up on the grill, you can dot them with a little butter, and when it bubbles, remove them to a platter to cool slightly (if you can bear to wait)—or just add the hot clams to a bowl of butter and toss to melt and combine. Have bread on hand for sopping up every last bit.
Since the fire’s already hot, why not char some jalapeños to mix into the butter, along with fresh basil and a bit of honey to sweeten the deal? Get the recipe.
If you prefer to steam your clams outside, you can do so in a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven (or a stainless steel pot you don’t mind potentially ruining), or in a disposable aluminum pan, filled with a little beer, wine, or other liquid, plus aromatics (onions, garlic, herbs) and butter. Steam as you would on your stovetop; if your pan doesn’t have a lid, improvise one with another pan or a piece of aluminum foil. Speaking of aluminum, you can also steam clams in foil packets for individually portioned meals. Just discard any clams that are still closed once you open the packets to eat.
Treat mussels just the same as you would clams, although since they’re often more narrow, you may need to place them in a grill basket to prevent them falling through the grate. You’ll also want to debeard the mussels before cooking.
While you can cook mussels right on the grate, this method of steaming them in a skillet on the grill is the best of both worlds. You’ll get a hint of smoke without losing any of the oceanic juices, which mingle with white wine, fresh herbs, and fried garlic. Get the recipe.
Since we usually see them without their beautiful fan-shaped shells in stores, it can be easy to forget that scallops are also a type of shellfish. If you do find them in the shell (or on the half-), you can grill them like the other molluscs mentioned above (try these Vietnamese grilled scallops in that case), but otherwise, treat them more like shrimp. Go for larger scallops if you can (small ones will easily overcook), and skewer them or snuggle them into a latched grill basket in one layer. Before cooking, make sure to pat them totally dry, and peel off the chewy scrap of muscle often left attached to the side.
If your scallops are particularly large, use two skewers to keep them steady while flipping them, and regardless of their size, try pairing them with a fruit salsa while summer produce is flourishing. Get the recipe.
You can also try skewering them on sturdy rosemary sprigs to impart an herbal fragrance, and/or wrapping each scallop in bacon, which not only lends another layer of flavor but helps keep them moist. This works well for shrimp, too!
Yep, you can also grill crawfish. If you buy them cooked, just like with already-cooked lobster and crab, it’s only a matter of gently reheating them while they get a little whiff of smoke, but you can also cook live crawfish in a grill basket.
Related Video: How to Make Grilled Seafood Paella
Header image courtesy of Element Seafood.