The catfish is a very popular freshwater marine animal of the U.S. This bottom-dwelling denizen is famous for its large frame, barbels or "whiskers" on its face and for its soft, white fishy flesh. But there is one deterrent to the catfish's appeal. Its large size and rather unusual appearance makes most fishermen release it back into the water. Then there's the point of cleaning the fish for cooking. The catfish has acquired a reputation for being difficult to skin and clean, due to its tough thick skin and large size. But with the right technique and tools (and a little practice), this fish can be skinned, gutted and cooked, just like any other fish. Below a few steps on how to clean a catfish completely for cooking, are listed.
Tools Needed to Clean a Catfish
There are different regional species of catfish, such as the blue catfish, the channel catfish, the flathead catfish and the bullhead catfish. These species differ on the basis of physical size and small physical details. The cleaning and skinning technique followed is the same for all. Cleaning any fish can be a messy job and there are times, when careless cutting and cleaning can destroy the flesh of the fish. First you need to collect the right tools, which are:
Knife: A sharp and sturdy knife is needed to slice and clean the fish. The knife should be narrow and not too large. You can use an electric fillet knife but practice is needed to master such a device.
Pliers: The skin of a catfish is tough and needs a very firm grip to be pulled off. Pliers give you a better grip on the fish while pulling and allow you to cleanly separate the flesh from the skin.
Gloves: The catfish has spiny and poky barbs on its fins, especially the pectoral fins. These barbs can sting human flesh quite painfully. Protect your hands from such stings and cuts with a pair of fish-handling gloves.
Cutting board: A clean and flat surface is needed to cut the fish. Use wooden cutting boards and scrub them down in advance, with some antibacterial soap and water.
How to Cut, Skin and Clean a Catfish
Before you start cleaning the fish, be humane and make sure it is dead. If it is wriggling even slightly, a sharp blow to the back of the head will end its suffering. Then wash it well with water.
- You can nail the head of the catfish to the cutting board, to make cleaning it easier.
- Slice off the pectoral fin with your knife.
- Grip the head of the fish in one hand firmly.
- Do not make deep flesh cuts or touch the bone of the fish. Use your knife to make light skin cuts or shallow slits.
- Use the knife to make a vertical cut at a slight slant behind the gills.
- The cut should begin at the end of one gill and meet at the second gill on the fish's other side.
- Then make a similar skin cut along the spine of the fish, from its head to its tail.
- Do not cut through the dorsal fins, instead cut around it.
- Make a shallow slit along the belly of the fish.
- Make a similar vertical cut at the tail of the fish, where the fleshy part ends.
- Lay the cut fish sideways on the board.
- Clamp the skinning pliers onto the skin cut, either the one on the fish's side or the point where the two cuts meet.
- Slowly but firmly pull the pliers back, to peel off the skin from the flesh, in one smooth motion.
- Do not pull the fish away from the skin, rather pull the skin away from the fish.
- Peel back the skin until the tail cut. Peeling the fish perfectly will need experience, but your style will improve with time.
- You can also hang the fish up by its head and pull the skin off using the pliers in a downward motion. This peeling technique is recommended for large fish as their skin is very thick.
You can either serve catfish fillets or cook the complete body. Which cut to use, depends on the overall size of the fish. Small-sized catfish should be cooked intact and whole, while large and fleshy catfish will yield juicy fillets. For catfish fillets, slide your knife sideways into the flesh of the peeled fish and slice it away from the vertebrae or rib cage of the fish. Steps are:
- Check to see that all the skin on the fish's body has been peeled.
- Catch the fish's head in your hand and bend it backwards towards the tail, then pull it forward to touch the stomach. This breaks the spine.
- Cut the head off or pull it towards the tail and yank it off.
- Cut off the tail and any fins, except the dorsal fins.
- Lay the fish on the board, such that its belly faces you and make a light slit to open its stomach.
- Use your finger to remove entrails and body parts, leaving only the flesh.
- Wash out the body with cold running body, such that it is free of blood outside and inside.
- You can cook the fish with its dorsal fin intact or remove it whole.
- To do so, make a cut, half inches deep along the sides of the fin. Then use pliers to pull out the fin.
Don't judge a book by its cover or in this case, a catfish by its skin. With a little practice at making the cuts and skinning, you'll be peeling a catfish with ease. It may seem very intimidating to skin this cat but for delicious catfish cakes or Cajun catfish, the effort is worth it!