I’ll be honest: filleting a fish is not something that you ever HAVE to do. You can buy those muddy-tasting frozen pucks of tilapia at your local big-box grocer and call it a day, or you can enjoy the selection of fresh fish that your friendly neighborhood fishmonger has artfully filleted and arranged in enticing rows for your perusal.
So why bother? First, whole fish are usually cheaper—fillet prices factor in both the weight of the cutting scraps and the fishmonger’s labor. By filleting your own fish you skip the labor costs, and you actually get the bones and scraps that you’re paying for (and trust me, you want those).
Second, whole fish tend to be fresher and cleaner—those beautiful, gem-like fillets dry out quickly, and they collect dust, germs and whatever else happens to be floating around in the air. Compounding this problem is the fact that fillets that aren’t sold by the end of the day but haven’t actually spoiled go right back into the case the following morning. Honest fishmongers (and trust me, you want one of those, too) dispose of anything that’s actually off, but they’re fighting a losing battle with entropy. Whole fish, because they’re protected by their skin and scales, are a little more resilient than fillets.
Thankfully, filleting a fish isn’t as difficult as you might think. Getting really good takes a little practice, but just about anyone can pick up the basics in a few minutes. This method is suitable for most species and is easy to learn.
Before you start cutting, you need a sharp knife. The actual shape isn’t as important as the fact that it’s as sharp as you (or your local Sur La Table) can get it. That said, you’re going to have a hard time of it if your only tool is a 10-inch chef’s knife. I keep two knives for filleting—one with a thin, flexible blade and a smaller, rigid knife with a pronounced curve. You should also have a cut-resistant glove for the hand not wielding the knife. A final word about safety—work deliberately and always cut away from yourself. Fish are slippery and knives are sharp.
1. Place the fish on a nonslip cutting board with the head pointed toward your off hand. I’ve chosen branzini and dorade today, mostly because they’re delicious, but also because they’re readily available and easy to clean. Place a damp, folded towel somewhere nearby—you’ll use it regularly to clean and lubricate your blade.
2. Most fishmongers are happy to do the next two steps for you, so if what follows leaves you feeling a bit squeamish, don’t be afraid to ask. Locate the gill flap (it’s the hard, curved plate slightly behind the eyes). Peel it back to expose the gills and remove them. You can cut them out, but I find it works best to just pull them free with a hooked finger. They can be sharp, so be careful. If you’re not planning on saving the scraps (remember, you want those), you can skip this step.
3. If the fish hasn’t been gutted yet, that’s your next task. Insert the tip of the knife into the vent on the underside of the fish, and draw it up the belly until the cavity is open. Scoop the entrails out with a finger and get rid of them. You may need to give the heart and lungs a good yank—yeah, I know it’s gross, but it’s over quickly. Be careful about blindly sticking your finger in there: it’s not uncommon to find a hook. Rinse out the cavity and pat dry with a paper towel.
4. Place your knife blade on an imaginary, angled line drawn from just behind the top of the head to right behind the pectoral (side) fin. In one fluid motion, draw the knife toward you until you feel resistance from the spine.
5. Angle the blade in the cut you just made until it’s almost parallel to the spine. Applying steady downward pressure, push the blade toward the tail. Avoid sawing or lifting the blade. The blade should exit the fish just in front of the caudal fin (the tail). Set the fillet aside, flip the fish over and repeat.
6. Now you have two fillets, but they’re still pretty bony. To remove the rib bones, angle the knife under the top of the bones and cut them away while peeling them back with your off hand. Let the knife do the work and apply as little pressure as possible.
7. Depending on the species, you might have to deal with pin bones. Pin bones run along a line just above the midpoint of the fillet and are easy to remove with fish tweezers.
8. I don’t recommend removing the skin unless you’re breading the fish or making a stew—it keeps the meat moist and helps the fillet retain its shape while cooking. That said, it’s easy enough to do—simply make a cut near the tail, being careful not to cut through the skin. Holding the tail skin with your off hand, push the knife toward the front of the fish until free.
9. Now your fillets are ready to use in your favorite recipes (like this one for Baja Fish Tacos). And those scraps I told you to save? They’re great for fish stocks and briny sauces—either toss them in a pot with some water right away or wrap and freeze them for later. They also make great (if slightly smelly) compost for the garden—but please, make the stock first. You won’t regret it.
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