Before you try to fillet a whole fish, it should be scaled. This isn’t necessarily tricky to do, but it can be messy as the scales have a tendency of flying all over the place.
To fillet a fish you are going to need the sharpest knife you have and a pair of tweezers. Victorinox knives are perfect for this as they’re not too thick and are quite flexible so you can cut around the ribcage without losing any flesh. The tweezers you will need for taking out the pin bones of the fish.
Remove the Scales
Start off by scraping the scales off from tail to head using the blunt edge of the knife, held at a slight angle. Go easy, so they don’t go all over the place, and watch out for the spines. Make sure that you remove all of the scales from both sides of the fish. Once the scales have been removed, run the fish under cold water and pat dry with a little bit of kitchen roll.
You could go ahead and gut the fish here but I find it gives better support if you leave this step. On a flat board, place the fish on its side with its back to you. Arch it upwards slightly and make an incision around the back of the head, just below the head fin. Cut straight down halfway through the fish to the backbone, being sure to include the meaty spot right behind the top of the head.
Cut Along the Body
From the incision that you’ve just made at the head, turn the knife parallel to the board (at a 90-degree angle to your first cut) and use the knife to cut all the way along the back bone to the tail, making sure to keep the blade as close to the spine as possible. Make sure you glide the knife, don’t saw it.
Remove the Fillet
At this stage, if you’re filleting sea bass or gurnard, you’ll encounter a small difficulty: the rib cage (at the head end of the fillet) bulges out a bit. You need to break it by sliding the knife down with a bit of force, while lifting the flesh gently with your other hand. Once it’s broken, you can remove the fillet easily from the body by cutting along the bottom.
Lay the fillet down separately and trim around it, cutting away the skin and fat you’re not going to eat and generally tidying it up.
Turn Over and Repeat
Now you need to repeat the process above but on the other side of the fish so turn it over and repeat. This side is always a little harder because you’ve lost some support. I find it easier on the second side to make the cut starting from the tail end. When you’ve taken both fillets, remove the guts and use the carcass to make fish stock or soup.
Get the Tweezers Out
The last step is to remove the pin bones from each fillet with your tweezers. You’ll find the bones running along the middle of the fillet at the head end. The fresher the fish, the harder it is to get them out. Some of these pin bones are nearly impossible to see. To remove them, feel along the fillet to locate each bone and then pluck it out. Pull the bones out in the direction they are pointing, the same as you would with a splinter.
Skinning is completely optional but if this is the way you want to go, follow the steps below:
- Put the fillet, skin side down, on the cutting board.
- Starting at the tail end and holding the knife parallel to the cutting board, slice between the flesh and the skin, as close to the skin as possible, until you can grasp the tail end of the skin with a paper towel.
- With the knife angled ever so slightly down toward the skin, slice along the skin, using a gentle sawing motion.
- As you slice, simultaneously pull on the tail skin in the opposite direction to maintain pressure on the cutting edge of the knife.
- If you miss a spot, trim it away.