After the ‘fishmonger’ at Morrisons managed to completely ruin some beautiful fish with a bodged filleting job, there was no way I was letting them have another crack at the task! The replacement trout we chose were completely unprepared – a bit of a job for us, but at least we could make sure it was done properly this time!
There’s a tradition of fish-eating at Christmas in many countries, with carp featuring on many European Christmas tables. We’ll often have fish on Christmas Eve, and whole fish make a great celebration dish – salmon can be a fabulous alternative Christmas dinner for those not so keen on poultry or red meat.
A lot of people are frightened by fish preparation, and there’s really no need to be. There are knacks, sure, and you won’t be very fast to start with, but preparing a whole fish from scratch is actually really quite straightforward (and, really, not at all disgusting!).
You’ll need two knives, a small pointy paring-type knife for gutting, and a long, thin knife for filleting. Both need to be very sharp.
First, you’ll need to gut your fish. In most cases, this will have been done for you, unless you’ve caught the fish yourself. Fresh fish doesn’t smell, but can be very ‘slimy’! This mucus coating helps protect the fish’s skin and scales, in life, and helps it move smoothly through the water. It’s worth taking a bit of time to remove this, if you can. I find it easiest to wash the fish in cold water and wipe the mucus away with kitchen towel. Going to a bit of trouble to do this will make the fish easier to keep hold of, and, especially if you’re trying knife skills you’re not familiar with, will probably improve your success and safety!
WIth a small sharp pointy knife, make small stab incision just behind the head, between the pectoral fins. Without stabbing too deeply inside the abdomen, extend this incision lengthways until you get to the vent, just in front of the anal fin. Reach into the abdomen and gently pull out the contents.
The end of the gut should come away from the vent at the back, with some gentle traction. The attachment behind the head is stronger, pull this out as well as you can, and then cut it away with the knife. There will probably be a bit of blood spilled at this point – just wash the cavity out with cold running water.
Your fish is now ready to cook, if you’re planning to prepare it whole. If not, then it’s time to fillet it. Put your small pointy knife away now, as you want a long, thin, sharp knife for this bit.
Position your fish on the board with the dorsal fin towards you (belly facing away). Make a cut behind the gills and pectoral fins, into the flesh, perpendicular to the backbone. Stop when you can feel the backbone, don’t cut through.
Now turn the blade 90 degrees with the blade pointing towards the tail, and, grasping the head firmly, start to cut the flesh parallel with, and as close to the backbone as you can. Go slowly – it’s not a race!
After you’ve cut a little way, you’ll be able to hold onto the fillet instead of the head, which will make the whole process a lot easier to control.
Carry on now, all the way to the tail. Congratulations, you’ve got a fillet! Don’t worry if there are ribs attached at this stage – we’ll get to that later.
Put your fillet to one side, turn the fish over, and do the same the other side. The head of the fish will be facing the opposite direction, ad you may find the whole process a bit ‘backhanded’ this way around. Just go slowly and take the time you need. Personally I don’t find it helpful to work with the fish’s belly pointing towards me for the second side, but you may find it easier, so give it a go that way if you’re finding it particularly awkward.
You can see from this photo, it’s a tidy job and almost no waste!
Now you want to tidy up your fillet. Gently scrape, and wash away any bloody material on the fillet under running water. Now, using your long thin knife, insert it under any ribs that are left attached, and trim these away, trying not to take any flesh with you.
Pin bones are the little bones that you’ll feel running from the front of your fillet towards the middle, along the lateral line of the fish. If you’re planning to cook your fillet, I probably wouldn’t bother with them – they’re easy enough to pick out once the fish is cooked, and pretty small and soft in a fish of this size. I’m curing and smoking this fish, so I tried to remove them all. You can cut them out in a narrow ‘wedge’ of muscle, or pull them out individually with tweezers. Both are quite fiddly and time consuming and leave a bit of a tear in the muscle, so try both and see which works best for you!
Finally, trim away any fins and tidy up any ragged edges. I’m quite proud of this batch of fillets and I’m sure they’re going to make absolutely lovely smoked trout for Christmas food and gifts! They’re in the fridge, curing, right now.
So don’t be afraid of that whole fish – it’s quite likely you too can do a better job of preparing and filleting it than whoever the supermarket has working behind their fish counter today!
I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!
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Thanks for posting this – it was an invaluable help when I had to gut and clean a rainbow trout for the first time last night!
So pleased you found it helpful! How did your first attempt go?
I think it went well considering it was my first go (ie definite better than the shocking Morrisons attempt you blogged about!) There will be a blog post tomorrow, so if you’d like to look at my blog it is http://www.messintheness dot com 🙂
Great! Look forward to it 🙂
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This is very useful, but a word of caution if you wish to leave your fish round… the gills harbour lots of bacteria and other such nastiest, and it’s best to remove them. I learnt how to do this one day after a fishing trip. Make your usual cut from the vent to the head, continuing right up to the bottom jaw. Manipulate the gill covers to expose what must be some kind of bone or cartilage by which the gills are attached, and cut through it. Now for the good bit… place your finger down the throat of the fish… not through it’s mouth… and pull down. The gills, internal organs and, with any luck, the pectoral fins will all come away leaving a whole fish that is easy to fillet and ready for the freezer or fit for the oven.