Fish Cleaning Basics – How to Fillet and Skin Fish

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When cleaning fish it’s important to decide if you will scale or skin the fish as well as choosing to fillet the fish or simply gut and remove the head, tail and fins. Smaller fish may not be suited for filleting but most larger fish can easily be filleted in order to provide high quality boneless meals. Skinning the fish and trimming any dark meat can further raise the quality of your meal.

Prior to filleting fish, select the proper knives and check their edge. Sharpen and clean the blade if needed. For very large fish, a thick blade may be necessary to cut the skin. Once the tough outer skin is cut, it may be necessary to switch to a flexible fillet knife. Never use a knife to scale fish, instead use a fish scaler or an old kitchen knife that is dull and no longer useful for cutting.

To fillet fish, first scale the fish well (if using the skin-on method) and rinse thoroughly. Lay the fish out flat and make a cut along the top side of the fish, from the head to the tail. Follow the skeleton, cutting as close to the bones as possible. Make vertical cut just behind the gills, angled to match the gill plate. Continue slicing downward, working from top to bottom until the fillet is free from the carcass. Repeat the process for the remaining side of the fish.

If the fish will be skinned, lie the fillet down flat, skin side down. Using a SHARP fillet knife, make a cut from the tail section towards the front using a slicing motion. Continue working forward, parallel to the skin. A clean skinning process should not be wasteful, but will leave a thin layer of dark meat on the skin.

Fish should always be kept cold! Store fish in an iced cooler and clean them right away after your trip. Fillets will be best if rinsed, placed in zipper bags and placed back on ice immediately after cleaning.

For small panfish, filleting may not be practical. Just as with filleted fish, scaling is the first step of the process. While holding the fish firmly with one hand, use the tool to remove all scales. You must run the scaler or knife from tail to head in order to get the scales off. The skin should be smooth when all scales are gone.

Next, cut the fish’s head off. make the cut at the back of the fish’s gills. Cut through at this point. Make a cut from the belly back to the vent, avoiding all organs. Remove all organs, saving the roe if any is found. Cut off the tail and fins. Rinse the fish and place on ice immediately.

Don’t want to waste anything? You can use kitchen shears and remove the gills from the head, then rinse the head, skeleton, skin and scraps of dark meat for use in making a delicious fish stock. Any parts not used can be added to a compost pile. Fish scraps are excellent sources of minerals and other nutrients for your garden.

Vacuum bags are an excellent choice if you plan to freeze part of your catch. Vacuum bags work by removing air from freezer storage bags. You simply place your food in the freezer bag, seal the bag, and use the vacuum tool to air from the bag. Removing excess air cuts down on freezer burn.

Several types of bags and vacuum devices exist, ranging from inexpensive hand pumps to large models for bulk freezing. One of the most popular options is an economically priced, hand-held vacuum sealer which removes air from the specially designed food bags. To purchase a manual or electric vacuum pump and bags, shop online or visit major grocery stores and mass retailers. The average cost of a kit is very affordable and refills of quart or gallon size bags are available.

These pages have specific tutorials and other information on cleaning fish, shelllfish and other seafood:

Cleaning and Filleting Flounder

Cleaning and Filleting Tautog

Cleaning Black Drum Fish

Cleaning Scaling and Gutting Pan Fish

Fillet Knives and Other Kitchen Accessories

Freezing Fish and Other Seafood