How to clean and fillet a whole fish at home for the freshest seafood experience
Advice from the late, great John Bil makes the intimidating process so much easier to tackle
If you've ever eyed a beautiful-looking, whole, fresh fish while grocery shopping, and were just too intimidated to take it home, we get it. Being able to take a whole fish — scales and all! — straight from the boat or the market and turn it into a meal requires a certain level of confidence and competency. That's where the late, great seafood aficionado and Toronto restaurateur John Bil comes in.
In this excerpt from his posthumously-released cookbook, Ship to Shore: Straight Talk from the Seafood Counter, Bil provides a primer on all aspects of the preparation process, from scaling to cleaning to filleting. Keep scrolling to read his easy-to-follow advice — your next dinner party guests will thank you.
How to clean and fillet a fish
By John Bil
The cleaning of fish and their "filleting" — the term for removing the flesh from the bones — is a practice that most people can go a lifetime without indulging in. However, if you want to experience the pleasures of eating fresh-caught or whole fish from the market, it is a skill well worth acquiring. Not only will handling the whole fish help you understand its form and freshness, but cutting it up will also expose you to all the nuances in the density and texture of the flesh — the surest way to learn how to properly prepare fish.
Needless to say, there are many forms of fish, and each type requires a somewhat different method. Despite the variations, certain broad characteristics are common to most fish, so a general approach to cleaning and filleting can be applied with success.
If you want to remove the scales from the fish, it's best to do it first, before gutting the fish, when the body is a little more rigid and can better withstand the vigorous scaling action. Most fishmongers will do it for you if you ask, but it is handy to know how to do it yourself. You'll need a fish scaler or simply the back of a knife.
- To scale the fish, lay it on its side, with the tail facing your dominant hand.
- Using a kitchen towel to protect your other hand, hold the fish by the head near the gills. Starting at the tail end, using your tool of choice, scrape the scales from tail to head (against the scales) in repeated strokes. The scales should easily fly off. Flip the fish over and repeat until all of the scales have been removed (the fish should feel smooth to the touch).
- Rinse your scaled fish under cool running water, and pat dry with paper towel or a clean kitchen towel. It's now ready to be cleaned.
Cleaning or gutting
Fish are mostly muscle or flesh, and the bulk of their organs and the digestive system are gathered in the softer front section of the animal, below and behind the head and gills, and running all the way to the anal fin, which is located a bit more than halfway along the underside of the animal. To clean or gut the fish, follow these steps using a sharp, ideally thin-bladed, knife:
- Place the fish on a cutting board with its belly facing you and locate the fish's anal fin. With the edge of the knife blade facing the head, insert the tip of the knife about ½ cm (¼ inch) into the belly, on the head side of the anal fin.
- Working carefully, cut the belly all the way to the centre of the gills. Pull the knife out and set it aside. Most of the innards will now be exposed.
- To remove the guts from the cavity, hold the body of the fish down with one hand. Using two fingers from your other hand, reach into the head end of the cut (which is where you will find the beginning of the digestive system) and grasp the tubes with your fingers. In a fluid motion, push your fingers up into the back of the fish and then pull your hand toward the anal fin to scoop out as much of the loose matter as you can (a bit of blood, but mostly the stomach, intestines, and organs); discard this matter unless you have some use for the heart and liver. Repeat the process until the cavity is empty. You should now be able to see and feel the bones of the fish's symmetrical skeleton (in general, a backbone and a series of ribs that run down from it).
- Rinse the cavity under cool running water, making sure to use your fingers to scrape away any remaining bits of tissue.
- If you plan on cooking the fish whole, it's best to cut out the gills at this point: Insert the point of the knife into the part of the gill closest to the mouth of the fish. Carefully cut into and around the gill structure until you can remove the whole gill. Repeat on the other side. You should also cut off any fins. Discard the gills and fins. Rinse the cavities under cool running water. Using a clean kitchen towel or rag, pat dry both the inside and outside of the fish.
- To fillet the fish, you'll need to cut off the head: Resting the fish on its side, place your knife just behind the gill cavity and, using a modicum of force, cut through the backbone to sever the head from the body. On some larger fish, such as cod, it's worth spending the time to cut out the fleshy parts of the head, like the cheeks.
After scaling and cleaning the fish, you should now be left with the empty body of the fish lying on its side. Having looked into the cavity of the fish when cleaning it, you will have some sense of how the backbone and the hanging ribs support the fleshy part of the tapering body: The flesh is thickest where the head has been severed and slims down to the tail.
- Place your non-dominate hand flat on the fish to keep it steady. Using your other hand, position the centre part of your knife blade (a sharp, narrow blade works best) lengthwise just slightly above the backbone and ribs of the fish. In long, sweeping motions, carefully cut the flesh from head to tail, letting the blade slip out the narrow end just before the tail. Ideally, the flesh should come off in one piece (this is your first fillet); set it aside. Flip the fish over and repeat.
- Once the two fillets have been removed, only the skeleton with bits of flesh between the bones should remain. Save this, along with the gill-less head, for making stock, if you wish.
- Many varieties of fish, especially those in the salmon and trout families, have a series of very fine bones — called pin bones — that run through the meat about one-third of the way up from the stomach. You can sometimes see them or more easily feel them by running your fingertips gently along the bottom half of the fillet. These bones must be removed: You can either pull them out with your fingertips or a pair of tweezers.
Removing the skin
Many types of fish can be cooked and eaten with the skin on, but if you'd like to remove the skin from your fillets, here's how:
- Place the fillet skin-side down on a cutting board. Using your non-dominant hand, hold the narrow (tail) end of the fillet between two fingers (use a kitchen towel to prevent slipping). Holding the knife at a 45-degree angle about 1 cm (½ inch) from the tail end, cut into the fillet just to — but not through — the skin.
- Turn the blade of the knife until it is as parallel to the board as possible. Keeping a firm grasp on the tail end, carefully cut the flesh away from the skin using a slight up-and-down motion, pushing the blade toward the thick end of the fillet. Try to keep from cutting through the skin or cutting too much into the flesh. On a small- to medium-size fish, such as barramundi, you should be able to keep cutting under the meat right to the end. With bigger fish, such as salmon, you may have to flop the meat over upon itself to relieve a bit of pressure on the knife. Once the knife cuts through, remove and discard the skin.
- Remove any lingering blood or dirt with the tip of your knife. Some fish have a glossy section of fat along the bottom or stomach section of the fillet; cut away any obvious fat.
- Repeat this process with the other fillet. You should end up with almost all the meat in two even sections.
- Rinse the skinned fillets quickly under cool running water and pat dry.
Don't be discouraged if you are unable to cleanly fillet or skin the fish with ease the first few times you do it. With practice, you will develop a "feel" for it and be able to gauge the angle and pressure needed to make the different cuts. Although it's very useful to use a thin knife to clean and fillet a fish, it's more important to use a sharp knife.
Excerpted from Ship to Shore: Straight Talk from the Seafood Counter, copyright © 2018 by John Bil. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com