How to clean and fillet a fish

It's a dirty job, but...

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Every serious cook will eventually need to clean (yes, that means gutting) and fillet a fish. Are you woman enough?

Nothing beats the flavor of fresh-caught fish. Whether you get out and catch them yourself or purchase from a local fishmonger, there will probably come a time when you need to know how to clean and cut the fish properly.

How to clean a fish

Supplies: 

  • Cooler
  • Ice
  • Gloves
  • Sharp boning knife
  • Pliers
  • Bucket or garbage bowl
  • Garden hose, large squeeze bottle filled with water or faucet

Directions:

  1. A fish begins to spoil pretty quickly after it's caught (unless you keep it alive), so clean your fish as soon as possible after you catch or buy it. Store the fresh catch in a cooler filled with ice, and put ice on top of them. This will keep them both cold and wet. If they do dry out, you'll need to soak them in ice water for a few minutes before you begin. Don't store whole fish in the fridge.
  2. We recommend cleaning the fish outdoors. It's a messy job. If it grosses you out, wear some work gloves — you'll be working with a sharp knife and some fish have sharp spines or even fins.
  3. Cover a table outside with newspapers or trash bags. It's best if the table you use is high enough to comfortably work on without sitting. Set the fish one at a time out on the newspaper.
  4. If your fish has scales: Hold the fish by the head and use the back of your knife to scrape the scales from tail to gills. They should come loose fairly easily, so if they don't, apply more pressure. Be careful working around the fins. Many breeds have sharp points on them that can do anything from poke to cut you. Keep scraping until you're sure you've got all the scales. Don't forget the bottom and top of the fish, which can be hard to reach, and get around all the fins well.
  5. If your fish has skin: Hold the fish by the head. Make a cut behind the dorsal (top fin, think Jaws) fin, slicing through the back and under the fin. You can remove the dorsal and ventral fins (the ones on the bottom of the fish located near the back). Then make a small incision perpendicular to the spine (careful not to break the spine or bone could more easily get into your food).
  6. Use pliers to peel back the skin. You can use a knife to help loosen it if you need to, but don't use the knife to peel back skin. You can often remove any leftover skin with your fingers.
  7. Split the fish starting at the anus (near the tail), drawing it to the base of the gills. You can often hold a small fish, but larger fish should be set with their back on a table. This will expose the innards. Just stick your fingers in and pull out all the entrails. Place them in the bucket.
  8. Rinse out the interior of the fish with a light stream of water, and then rinse the outside to ensure you got any remaining skin or scales.
  9. At this point, your fish will be skinned minus the head. If you'd like, you can cut it off behind the gills, though many fish are cooked with the head on. Don't just chop it off. Make a diagonal cut in the direction of the head straight through the bone. Flip the fish and do the same on the other side. You can also remove the tail, but for that, you can just cut straight down — though it's smart to leave it until you're ready to fillet so you know which side to start with.

How to fillet a fish

Supplies:

  • Cleaned fish
  • Boning or fillet knife
  • Pliers

Directions:

  1. If necessary, remove the head and tail (see directions above).
  2. Place the fish on the counter with the tail end facing you. Slide the knife down the backbone of the fish, starting at the head end and finishing at the tail.
  3. Cut the fish around the rib cage to separate the fish into two fillets. Just follow the natural shape of the fish and slice over the bone. Remove the meat from that side and set it aside.
  4. Flip the fish and do the same. Discard the bones.
  5. Run your fingers gently over the side of the fish that touched the skeleton. If you feel bits of bone, use a pair of pliers to pull them out.
  6. If you'd like, you can use the knife to remove the fatty portion where the belly used to be. Discard it or save it to make fish stock.
  7. Store your fish in the fridge for up to two days.

Learn more basic prep skills

How to debone a chicken
How to shuck an oyster
How to shuck corn

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix the Fish. You can follow her on Twitter @HireHeather.