Thanks to the wonders of modern refrigeration and shipping, shopping for seafood has never been easier. Tenderloins, halves, and steaks are readily available at most grocery store fishmongers these days. But the pleasure of eating from nose to tail, and with it, a better understanding of what’s on our plates is unbeatable, if not more durable. Maybe you like catching your own. Or maybe you like picking up an extra-fresh catch from the docks. Either way, knowing how to clean a whole fish is a useful skill for any home cook.
Last month, while the SAVOR team was in South Carolina for the Charleston Wine & Food Festival, I met James London, chef-owner of Chubby Fish, a neighborhood restaurant featuring only local seafood dishes. . London is an avid fisherman who is committed to serving responsibly caught fish. He’s also a generous teacher, and he invited me into his kitchen to show how he likes to make the beautiful whole fish he brings back from his suppliers. The species he was working with that morning was a grunt – a small round species of bycatch identified by its bright orange mouth. The method he demonstrated will work well for round freshwater or saltwater fish of any size, including cod and salmon. Ready to take matters into your own hands? Here is London’s step by step tutorial on how to clean a fish.
Install it above the sink and trim the fins.
Reduce cleaning by placing a large rack directly above the sink; this will be your work surface for the first half of the process. (You can also work directly in the sink if you don’t have a grill.) Place your fish on the grill, then use sharp kitchen shears to cut off all the fins. Most round fish (think red snapper and branzino) have five fins (flatfish, like flounder and sole, have different anatomy.) Dorsal fins are located on top of the fish, sometimes in two parts , or otherwise in a long fin. The anal fin is at the bottom, closer to the tail. Two pectoral fins are on each side, just behind the head; the pelvic fins are under the fish’s chin.
Scale the fish.
An inexpensive fish scaler can quickly remove the tough outer layer of fish. To begin, turn on a slow stream of cold running water; descaling under the stream directly in the sink prevents scales from flying all over the place while you work. They’ll get stuck in the drain and you can throw them away when you’re done. Next, hold the scaler in your dominant hand while you hold the fish with your non-dominant hand. Using gentle but firm pressure, run the textured side of the scaler against the side of the fish in long strokes, from tail to head. “The places where the scales are hardest to remove are near the chin and at the base of the tail at the bottom,” says London, so be sure to focus on those places. Run your hands back and forth over the fish to feel for any remaining scales, then rinse well.
Remove the tripe.
Starting at the bottom of the fish, near the tail, slide your scissors through the belly and cut it from tail to chin. Tuck your fingers into the opening and remove and discard the contents. Rinse the fish well inside and out to remove blood. Then, open the gills behind the eyes and, using your finger, remove the U-shaped cartilage; this will remove the guts that remain in the fish. Rinse once more and, with the water flowing into the cavity, run your finger along the inner spine, eliminating the blood line.
Configure your net station.
Pat the fish dry with paper towel, then transfer it to a cutting board. A clean, dry work surface is important not only for hygiene reasons, but also for safety – excess moisture can lead to slipping and slipping while cutting.
Kitchen scissors and a sharp fillet knife are essential for the following steps. London loves the inexpensive Dexter knife, which can be used to break down a chicken or even debone a leg of lamb. This model is easy to find, has a sharp edge and a flexible blade. “All the professionals use it,” he tells me, “and you can just sharpen it on a steel,” which makes the Dexter a perfect choice for the home cook. London also likes a traditional Japanese-style blade called deba, which is specially designed for filleting; its one-sided bevel shaves close to the bones, resulting in an exceptionally clean cut.
Mark the skin.
Use the fingertips of your non-dominant hand to find the soft spot on top of the fish’s head, then gently insert the tip of the knife. Hold the fish firmly in place, then run the tip of the knife along the spine, incising the skin from the base of the head to the tail.
Slice the tenderloin.
After the initial cut and using no more than an inch of the blade, make long strokes with your knife to gradually cut the fillet, while your other hand lifts the fillet as you go. (By lifting the fillet you expose the bones, so you can see and follow the natural shape of the fish.) Try to keep your knife as close to the bones as possible as you go down to the belly to keep as much of it as possible . intact flesh as possible. If you hear the knife slam against the bones as you slice, that means you’re on the right track. if not, angle the knife down to bring the edge closer to the ribs.
Once you have reached the belly, the net should still only be attached to the ends of the tail and the head. Place the palm of your hand over the fish holding the tenderloin in place, then slip the knife between the tenderloin and the ribs. Carefully slide the middle of the blade to loosen the meat from the front and back of the fish, then set the fillet aside.
Remove the second fillet.
Flip the fish over so that the head is now facing your non-dominant hand. Use the tip of the knife to cut behind the fins, then, starting from the belly, cut along the collarbone in a U-shape, towards the spine and the soft part of the head. Then, starting from the tail this time, use the tip of your knife to score the skin again along the spine until you reach the head. Repeat the same long, shallow strokes as before to slice the second tenderloin away from the ribs. “The fish will tell me where to go,” London explains, “it will tell me if I’m going too far and where I should aim my knife along the bones.” At this stage, the net will only be attached to the tail; while holding the tenderloin with your palm, use the middle of the blade to cut this piece. You will now have two fillets and the fish carcass. Reserve the fillets to cook them as you wish; the bones can be reserved for stock or fish stock which can be used in soups or paella, or as a poaching liquid.
Skin the fish.
At this stage, you can cook your fillets as they are. However, if you want to remove the skin, continue. Place one of the fillets skin side down with the tail end pointing towards your non-dominant hand. Grab the knife in your dominant hand and make a shallow cut in the flesh just where it meets the skin. Grasp the freed piece of skin and, with your knife under the meat and parallel to the cutting board, wiggle the skin and knife around as you work your way down the tenderloin, gently separating it from the skin. You can save the skin with the bones for the broth or discard it.
At this point, you can prepare the fllets right away or wrap them in damp paper towels and transfer them to the fridge for up to a day.