Blackened vs Grilled Fish

Blackened or grilled? They are both two delicious ways of cooking fish, but how are they different? This post gives you an in depth look at blackening vs grilling, plus everything you need to know to make the best blackened fish!

Blackened cod in a cast iron skillet.

What’s the difference between blackened and grilled?

Blackening and grilling are two different methods of dry high heat cooking

They are often confused with each other because of their similarities, so let’s go through each method and discuss the differences. 

If you’re already ready to jump into some blackened recipes, check out Homemade Blackening Seasoning, Blackened Cod with Tomato Corn Salsa, Baked Blackened Salmon, or Blackened Grouper. 

See all the best blackened recipes and blackening tips.

Cooking Method: Blackening

Blackening is a cooking method where high heat is used with a specific blackening blend of spices to cook proteins (or even veggies!). Blackening is most often done in a hot cast-iron skillet with butter or oil. 

The blackening cooking technique results in cooked meats that have a blackened flavorful crust on the outside, and are juicy and tender on the inside. 

Celebrated New Orleans chef, Paul Prudhomme, developed this technique around the 1980s at his restaurant K-Paul’s with the now famous dish, blackened redfish. Blackened fish is now a Cajun cuisine staple.

Although blackened redfish was the original dish, you can apply this delicious technique to other fish and proteins too. Blackened chicken, blackened shrimp, and even blackened vegetables can be found on menus all over the US. 

Blackened fish usually tastes spicy and rich, with a crispy blackened outer layer. It usually has a savory coating of butter. 

Cooking Method: Grilling

While grilling is also a method of cooking using high heat, it doesn’t require any specific flavor combinations. Grilling is done over an open flame on a BBQ pit or outdoor grill. 

A gas or charcoal flame is lit under the grill, and the food is placed directly on the grill. Since grilled food is cooked with an open flame, it has a smoky flavor and charred appearance. 

Normally proteins, like chicken and steak, can be placed directly on the hot gril to cook. Since fish have a more delicate texture than other proteins, it is difficult to cook them directly on the grill. 

The best way to grill fish is by using a grill pan. The fish goes on the grill pan, then the pan is placed on the grill. This way, the fish can still get cooked by the flame and gets infused with that smoky grilled flavor, but won’t stick to the hot grill. 

You can also create a kind of grill pan by using aluminum foil to place your fish on. 

Grilled fish will have the flavor of what it was seasoned with, plus the smoky flame broiled flavor from the grill. It may have a charred outer layer.

To learn more about grilling fish, check out this article How to Grill Fish by Serious Eats. 

Advantages and disadvantages of blackening and grilling

Blackening and grilling can both result in a delicious fish dish, but there are some things to consider when choosing your cooking method. 

The main disadvantage of both grilling and blackening is the smoke

Grilling fish over an open flame should only be done outdoors in a well ventilated area. If it’s too cold or raining, it will be difficult to use the grill. 

The blackening process can be done indoors, but it can also produce a fair amount of smoke. I recommend turning on your kitchen ventilation system and opening some windows before you decide to blacken any food. 

Another drawback of both methods is it can be easy to overcook your fish. Since both methods require high temperatures, and fish is a delicate protein, it will cook very fast. You need to keep an eye on your protein while using both cooking methods. 

The great thing about both of these methods is they can produce delicious results! Blackened fish has a distinct spicy flavor, while grilled fish has the charred smoky flavor of the grill. 

Ingredients for blackened fish

To blacken fish, you’ll need some equipment as we discussed above (a cast-iron pan and a fish spatula), and some key ingredients. 

We will get into the seasoning and best types of fish for blackening in the sections below. But first let’s touch on the best fat to use for blackening. 

As you have learned already, blackening requires a high heat. This means that using a fat with a low smoke point, like butter or olive oil, can lead to excess smoke. 

While traditionally, blackening fish is done by giving the fish filet a generous bath in butter before it hits the pan, I have found a better method. 

Sear the fish in a high heat oil, like avocado oil first. Then in the final minute of cooking, add butter to the pan to melt and spoon over the fish. This method gives the best of both worlds. The fish gets its blackened exterior and buttery flavor without risking the butter burning causing even more smoke. 

Another way to do this is by using clarified butter or ghee. When butter smokes, it is because the milk solids in it are burning. Clarifying butter removes the milk solids so it can be used at a higher temperature for cooking. 

A spoon mixing blackening seasoning blend in a small bowl.

Blackening seasoning

You can’t blacken fish without blackening seasoning!

Blackening seasoning is a special spice rub. This blend of herbs and spices is the hallmark of blackened food. Think of it like a spicy dry rub.

There are a ton of blackened seasoning recipes out there and they are all slightly different, but have a few main components in common. 

A good blackening seasoning should always have the following ingredients:

  • Paprika. This red spice adds color to the seasoning but also a sweet and peppery flavor. Some seasoning blends use smoked paprika which adds an even better smoky flavor to the dish. 
  • Cayenne pepper. I think if there was only a single spice to represent Cajun food, it would be the spicy and a little smoky cayenne pepper. This is where blackening seasoning gets its heat from. 
  • Salt. Salt is a necessary component of any spice mix. It enhances all the other flavors. 
  • Black pepper. Adds a pungent and slightly bitter flavor to the mix. 
  • Onion powder. Onions are a quintessential flavor in Cajun cooking (just look at the holy trinity for example) so onion powder is definitely a part of a good blackening seasoning recipe. 
  • Garlic powder. Almost just as important as onions, garlic is a necessary ingredient. 
  • Dried herbs. Dried thyme and dried oregano are two of the most common herbs used in Cajun cooking. They round out the distinct flavor of blackening seasoning mix. 

Other recipes for blackened seasoning might also include white pepper, dried basil, white, or brown sugar. 

It’s easy to make your own homemade blackening seasoning so you always have some on hand. I prefer to make it myself to control the salt content. I find store bought seasonings to be too salty.

You can also buy pre-made blackening seasoning too, like Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish magic seasoning.

In a pinch, you can also use Cajun seasoning in most blackened recipes. Cajun seasoning and blackening seasoning are very similar and contain most of the same ingredients. 

Best fish for blackening

If you’re in New Orleans or Southern Louisiana, you will probably see blackened fish on the menu. The most common types of fish used for blackening in Cajun country are redfish, catfish, and snapper. 

The good news is you can apply this blackening technique to pretty much any fish!

The best fish for blackening have a firm texture, like tuna, salmon, cod, catfish, pompano, mahi mahi, redfish, snapper, or Chilean sea bass. 

Firm-bodied fish can hold up better against the really high heat required for blackening. This also means they hold together better when flipping. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t blacken more delicate fish like flounder or trout. You just have to be more careful not to overcook or break the fish filet apart when flipping. 

Don’t forget about non-fish seafood like shrimp and scallops! These have a plump firm texture that blackens well and tastes absolutely delicious!

Lodge cast iron pan with silicone handle.

A cast iron skillet is a kitchen work horse and essential for blackening!

It heats evenly and retains it heat for a long time, making it great for searing meats and blackening foods. It’s also oven safe up to 500°F (260°C).

This is the Lodge 12 inch cast iron skillet I use.

How to blacken fish 

  1. Gather your mise en place. Prepare your blackened spice mixture. Check your fish for any bones or scales. Get out your avocado oil and butter. You will need a cast iron skillet and a fish spatula. 
  2. Preheat the cast iron skillet. Always start with a hot skillet. Heat your skillet over medium-high heat. Turn on your kitchen vents and open a window. Even better if you have an outdoor cooker!
  3. Prep the fish. Pat the fish fillets dry with a paper towel. Brush the fish with a light coating of oil and season evenly with blackening seasoning on all sides. Gently press seasoning into the fish. 
  4. Sear the fish. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan and heat the oil for a few seconds, then place fish down in the pan. You should hear it sizzle! If not, the pan isn’t hot enough. Once you put the fish down, don’t move it around the pan. Leave the fish undisturbed for 2-3 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, then flip. The fish will naturally release from the pan when it’s ready to flip. 
  5. Finish. In the last 30 seconds of cooking, add butter to the pan and spoon melted butter over the fish. 
  6. Serve. Serve fish with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice and enjoy!

Most fish should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C)!

Brushing blackening seasoning and butter onto cod fillets.

Season fish with blackening seasoning and butter.

Seared blackened cod fillets in a cast iron skillet.

Sear in a hot cast iron skillet until cooked through with a blackened crust.

Tips for the best blackened fish

Follow these tips for blackening fish to get the best results!

  • Mise en place. Have all your supplies and ingredients ready to go before you start. Blackening is a quick process, so you won’t be able to stop in the middle of cooking to grab something you forgot. 
  • Get that pan HOT. Always fully preheat your cast iron skillet for a few minutes before adding the fish. This ensures the blackened crust has enough time to develop before the fish overcooks. 
  • Turn on the ventilation. Things are going to get smoky when you blacken fish. If you can do this outside, it’s even better. If not, open a window and turn on the stove ventilation. 
  • Choose your fat wisely. Blackening is traditionally done with butter, but butter will be extra smokey due to its low smoke point. For this reason I like to start with a high heat oil like avocado oil, and finish with butter. You can still have that buttery flavor without the excess smoke. You can also use clarified butter which has a higher smoke point. 
  • Be cautious. You will be dealing with a hot pan, over high heat, full of hot oil. So be careful not to splash or slosh around any oil. When adding the fish to the pan, let it fall away from you to avoid splashes. 
  • Pay attention. Blackening happens quickly, and fish is easy to overcook, so keep an eye on everything and don’t walk away from the stove!
  • Finish with butter. If you don’t cook the fish in butter, you should still finish it off with some to get that rich buttery flavor synonymous with blackened food. 
Instant read thermometer.

PRO TIP: An instant read thermometer is one of my MOST used kitchen utensils! It’s great for blackening fish since fish can overcook quickly, and this thermometer will quickly read the temperature.

Blackened vs other cooking methods

Blackened vs burnt

Burning isn’t really a cooking method, but more like a cooking method gone wrong. It’s important to mention the distinction here. Blackened food does NOT mean it’s burned. The “blackened” crust that develops from the blackening seasonings may look burnt, but it isn’t. 

Blackened vs seared

Blackened food can also be considered seared, but all seared food isn’t blackened. Searing is a method of using a high dry heat to cook food. Blackening takes that a step further by using a special spice blend. 

Blackened vs charred

Blackened and charred food can look similar. Think of charring as something that happens to food on the grill. The open flame causes a blackened appearance, often in the pattern of grill marks. Charring however doesn’t require the blackening seasoning. 

Blackened vs charbroiled

Charbroiled can often be synonymous with grilled, so the same distinction can be made. Grilling and charbroiling are both done over an open flame, but don’t require the special blackening seasoning blend. All of the methods though can result in food with a blackened appearance. 

Three pieces of blackened salmon on a serving plate with lemons and green onion.

Blackened Fish Recipes

Now that you have all the knowledge about how to perfectly blacken fish, it’s time to get cooking!

Start with some of these blackened fish recipes, or see all of the blackened recipes on the site.

What to serve with blackened fish

Since blackened fish is rich and spicy, it goes great with fresh cool sides. 

I love to serve it with Cajun Tartar Sauce or topped with herby Persillade sauce to cool it down. 

Blackened fish pairs nicely with a fresh salsa like Mango Pico de Gallo or Roasted Chili Corn Salsa.  

Here are some more side dish ideas below. For a complete list, check out What to Serve with Blackened Fish

Frequently Asked Questions

Is blackened food burnt?

No, although blackened food has a blackened outer layer that looks burnt, it doesn’t taste burnt! The special blackening seasoning is designed to give the food the distinct blackened layer. 

What is the best oil to blacken fish with?

The best oil to use for blackening fish is a high heat oil like avocado oil, or vegetable oil. Using clarified butter is also a great option since it also has a high smoke point, and adds a savory flavor. 

How do you get blackening seasoning to stick to fish?

If you’re having trouble getting your blackening seasoning to stick to the fish, mix the seasoning with melted butter or avocado oil, then brush it onto the fish with a basting brush. 

How to reheat blackened fish?

The best way to reheat fish is in a 300°F (150°C) oven for a few minutes until warmed through. Brush butter or oil on the fish to help keep it moist, and cover with foil. 

More Blackened Recipes

You can apply this blackening technique to more than fish! Check out all the blackened recipes.

Lauren sitting on the kitchen counter.

Meet Lauren

I’m the blogger, recipe developer, food photographer, and otherwise food obsessed gal behind Lauren From Scratch. I was born and raised in New Orleans and lived in South Louisiana most of my life. Growing up around Cajun country has instilled a love of food that runs deep in my bones. I am passionate about food and teaching you how to make mouth-watering Louisiana inspired dishes in your own kitchen!

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