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How to Clean a Fish

Learn How to Clean a Fish Correctly and Look Like a Super Chef

Squeamish about cleaning fish, or unsure how to go about it? Read on to learn how to clean a fish, by following some simple rules that may well solve your problems.
Tilottama Chatterjee
Last Updated: Jul 21, 2017
While you may have eaten a lot of fish in your lifetime, cleaning fish is a whole different ball game, though an essential skill for a cook to learn. Knowing how to clean a fish will also give you a variety of options when cooking, since you don't have to depend on store-bought fish, and you can modify your cuts to suit your recipe and needs. Plus, if you're a fishing enthusiast, you might just have to put off dinner until you're done figuring out the part where you clean your catch. There are a number of ways to prepare fish for cooking, though all the methods will involve ridding the fish of its internal organs, inedible parts, or parts that may be unpleasant to eat―these will vary for different types of fish.

What You Need to Know About Cleaning Fish

There are essentially three methods to preparing fish for cooking, all of which come under the heading of cleaning fish. These will differ depending on how the fish is to be cooked, or what cuts the recipe calls for. In many cases, the catch decides the style it is to be followed―some fish taste better grilled whole, while others may be best enjoyed fried or filleted. A good sharp knife is an essential tool, so sharpen it at regular intervals, to make it easier on yourself.

Cleaning Fish to be Left Whole
Some fish are left whole and baked or grilled covered in aluminum foil, for instance oven-baked salmon, popular amongst most fish lovers. In this case, all you need to do is scale the fish and clean the insides. Scaling the fish involves placing it on a flat surface then using a fish scaler or the blunt edge of a knife to remove the scales. Move the knife along the outer surface of the fish from tail to head. The translucent whitish scales will come off when you do this; once you're through, wipe down with a clean kitchen towel, flip over and repeat for the other side. Some fish have smooth outer skins that don't require scaling, for these, and for the fish you've scaled, make a neat slit along the belly of the fish using the tip of your knife. Starting at the gills, make a clean incision, then slide the knife towards the tail, elongating the slit as you go along. Take care to keep the slit somewhat shallow, to avoid puncturing the internal organs. Once your slit extends from end to end, loosen the organs on either end with a knife, then use your fingers to remove the entrails―this process is called gutting the fish. Hold under running water and wash well, both inside and out until the water runs clear. If you're using the fish whole, most recipes will leave the head on, though you can choose to remove it if you wish. You can cut off the tail with a single sharp slice, to neaten the end.

Cleaning Fish for Steaks
This method is often used for large round fish. To make steaks, scale the fish, gut it, and begin slicing vertically, across the backbone, into thick slices. Snip off any fins using a sharp pair of scissors, and begin slicing from just below the gills. A thick cut of fish from the middle section is known gastronomically as a 'darne'. Salmon, trout, king fish, and turbot are good options for steaks. After cleaning salmon, or cleaning trout, you have the option of cutting them into steaks or filleting them, as discussed below.

Cleaning Fish for Fillets
Easily the hardest, but also most versatile cut to master is the fillet. A lot of seafood recipes use fillets of fish, the old favorite fish and chips recipe for instance―filleting essentially removes the skin and bones from the fish, which makes it a lot easier to eat. The main concern when filleting is minimizing wastage―without including bones and skin. You needn't scale fish that will be filleted. The following are the steps to fillet a fish:
  1. Lay the fish flat on its side on a chopping board. Make an incision just below the gills using the tip of a sharp knife, then gently push through until you reach the backbone. Continue over the backbone to the far side, till you've pushed your knife all the way through.
  2. With the fingers of one hand, hold back the 'flap' that you've revealed and use a slight sawing motion with the blade of the knife all the way through to the tail, but don't cut it off―it provides support for the backbone when you're filleting the other side.
  3. Turn over and repeat on the other side.
  4. Place the de-boned fish, skin side down onto the cleaned board.
  5. Starting at the tail end, leave as small a gap as you can manage, then insert the tip of your knife just between the meat and the skin, at an angle.
  6. Use a little pressure to separate the skin, then hold down with your fingers, and pull the knife slowly back and forth with a gentle sawing motion, to 'peel' away the meat from the skin.
  7. Continue all the way through, but take care to ensure you don't cut all the way through to the skin.
  8. Wash well―and they're ready to use.
Although it takes a little practice, you'll soon find that cleaning fish is actually quite easy and greatly increases your prowess in the kitchen. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be cleaning saltwater fish, sea fish and even north-water pike, that many find particularly difficult, in a jiffy. Practice makes things perfect!