How to fillet a fish
Here’s a quick guide on how to turn your catch of the day into delicious fish fillets.
Fish cleaning and filleting is a skill taught to me by my beloved old man when I was a small boy. I still run fishing charter boats and while everybody seems to know how to catch fish, I am constantly amazed at how many people haven’t the foggiest when it comes to preparing fish for the dinner plate.
So, let’s see if I can pass on some of the secrets my dear old dad taught to me so many years ago. It’s really not that hard and the secret is a flat surface without ridges, a very sharp and flexible filleting knife and a fish scaling knife for larger specimens.
It is always best to clean your fish ASAP, especially saltwater species, as cleaning in freshwater later diminishes their eating quality. Fish should also be handled with care, killed quickly and kept on ice immediately to retain their eating quality.
HOW TO FILLET A FISH
1) SCALING FISH
Most fish are cleaned in a similar manner and about 95 per cent of fish species have scales. The exceptions include leatherjacket, elephant shark and most shark species (they aren’t actually fish, anyhow), among others. Some fish, such as our smaller silver trevally and mackerel species, have a small amount of very fine scales while others, like snapper and barramundi, have quite large ones.
There are plenty of fish scalers on the market, from simple plastic versions right through to large stainless steel rakes! Some multi-use knives actually have a serrated scaler on their non-cutting edge. They all do the same job at varying degrees of efficiency.
The flathead, trevally, whiting and pinky snapper we cleaned for this feature are all small-scale species, or juveniles, in which I simply used the back edge of my knife. The fish scales are removed by rubbing the scaler firmly from the tail to the head, making sure you remove them all, particularly those tricky ones near the fins and gills. There’s nothing worse than a mouthful of scales!
2) HOW TO GUT A FISH
Now for the yucky bit. Every fish has an anus located just in front of the anal fin which on most fish is found on the lower part of the body. Put the point of the knife shallowly into the cavity and cut the skin open toward the gills, usually through the middle of the pelvic fins. You only cut shallowly as you don’t want to spread the stomach contents everywhere.
3) CUT THE GILLS OPEN
Cutting across the gills allows you to open the fish right up to remove all of the guts and pull out the gill rakers. Be careful, though, as many fish have sharp fins, spines and even serrated gill rakers that can cause you some damage or even poison you. Clean out the stomach contents entirely. Many fish have quite a large bloodline near the spine. If you can see it, then it may be worth cutting it open and clearing out the blood. It is the blood that causes the sour taste when you cook the fish.
Some fish, such as trevally and luderick, particularly weed eaters, have a black stomach lining. You can usually rub the black out with your fingers in saltwater. I have, on occasion, even used a little bit of sand as an abrasive, but make sure you clean it out with a good saltwater rinse.
You should now have cleaned fish that can be sealed in plastic and packed on ice for the table if you are eating them whole.
4) FILLETING A FISH
Many people like their fish as fillets (i.e. flesh only)? Many anglers don’t like looking at the eye, whereas others want to eat it! For fish fillets with the skin on, follow the previous steps and then follow the rest of the instructions.
I personally like skinless fillets of fish; in this case, you don’t have to scale or gut the fish first.
SKIN-ON FISH FILLETS
Simply lay the fish on its side and cut a line vertically downwards across the back of the head, behind the pectoral fin and down into the centre of the fish. Stop slicing when your knife touches the backbone.
From here, angle the knife to run horizontally along the backbone as close to the centreline of the fish as possible. Cut back, through the ribcage towards the tail to remove as much of the side (that’s the actual fish fillet) as possible.
Cut the whole side off, finishing at the tail, and you have your fillet of fish. If you’re new to this, then you will probably stuff up your first couple of attempts. Just keep trying – it’ll be worth it.
Turn the fillet over onto the skin side on a flat cutting board and you will see the ribcage still intact. Simply cut it out for what should be a boneless fillet. You can run your hand over the flesh and feel for any remaining bones that may be removed individually.
SKIN-OFF FILLET O FISH
I like my fillets with the skin off because I find they don’t shrivel up unevenly when they’re cooked in the pan. I also find the process much easier for small species like whiting, tailor, flathead, etc.
For this, simply grab the whole uncleaned fish by the head, lay it on its side on the cutting board and cut across the back of the head down to the backbone to take the side off yet again.
Slide the knife back, cutting horizontally along the backbone to remove the fillet yet again, but using this method you need to stop just before the tail. Fold the fillet over so that the skin is on the cutting board and you can get a hold on what is left of the fish frame.
Cut slightly into the flesh near the tail and turn your knife horizontally, parallel with the cutting board, and running on the inside of the skin. If your knife is sharp enough you should be able to slide the knife back up the fillet and remove the skin and scales altogether. Then it’s only a matter of cutting out the ribcage and voila, a skinless, boneless fish fillet!
As with all things, you will get better with the right tools, and a bit of practice. Of course, this means you need to go fishing a bit more often, so that you can catch the fish on which to practise your fish filleting. That is my defence, your honour, and I’m sticking to it!
Originally published in Caravan World 513, May 2013.
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