While many of us buy our fish nowadays cleaned filleted and plastic-wrapped at the supermarket or fishmonger, there are still many chances to eat freshly-caught fish or buy fish in its basic state from a more traditional market – so it is a good idea to know how to clean a fish from scratch.
For freshly-caught fish, make sure that you either keep it alive until you plan to eat it or kill and clean it thoroughly and the place it on ice for storage. To clean it for storage, slit the fish’s belly open with a knife, cutting from the vent up to the head. Making sure that you keep the cut shallow, as you do not want to puncture the intestines.
Now spread the body open and remove all the entrails and internal organs with a spoon or with your fingers – in particular, keep an eye out for a kidney, which may be by the backbone, common in many fish. Next, cut off the head if you wish and then rinse the fish in clean, fresh water. Do not use the lake or river water as this may have pathogens and/ or contaminants.
Scaling a Fish
In order to make it easily edible, you will need to remove the scales from the skin of the fish. Place the fish on a flat surface and hold the head firmly. Then using a fish scaler or even a large spoon, rake the scales backwards, moving from the tail towards the head. They should come off easily. Do both sides and the remove the head, gills and fins as well if you wish. Many small fish are only scaled and cleaned and gutted, and then cooked whole in their skins, with bones intact – these are removed just before eating.
Skinning a fish
For many fish, removing the skin can actually improve the taste, as well as getting rid of a layer of unwanted fat just under the skin. Again, place the fish on a flat surface and hold the head firmly, ideally with a clamp. Next, cut through the skin behind the head and the pectoral fins and then use a pair of pliers to pull the skin from the body, working from the head towards the tail. Wash the fish again in clean water and then it is ready for cooking. Again, bones can be removed just before cooking.
Filleting a fish
For larger fish, it is common to fillet them before cooking, i.e. removing the bones from the meat. In some fish, such as salmon, the bones and skin may be removed but scaling may not be necessary. To fillet a fish successfully, you will need a very sharp knife with a long, thin blade. Special knives have been specifically designed for filleting fish and the technique needs to be carefully learnt as the extremely sharp filleting knife can be dangerous.
Always wash your hands thoroughly of any slime before you begin to prevent slipping and keep your hands well at the back of the blade. Ideally, it is best to wear metal-mesh “fish-cleaning” gloves for full protection.
Again, lay the fish on a flat surface and then start cutting the fish from behind its gills and pectoral fin towards the backbone, although take care not to cut through the backbone. Then, without removing the knife, turn the blade so you can cut through the ribs toward the tail, following the fish’s backbone as a guide. Now turn the fish over and repeat on the other side.
Next, slide the knife blade in close to the rib bones and gently slice the rib section of each fillet away. Pull the flat of meat and skin away from the fish (but still attached) and lay it skin-side down. Now move the knife to about ½ inch from the tail and insert the blade there; grip the tail firmly and push the blade between the meat and the skin at an angle. With a gentle sawing motion (use very little pressure), you will be able to cut against the skin, rather than through it, and then remove the fillet of meat away from the skin. Wash each fillet in clean, cold water and then path them dry with a paper towel. Now they are ready for cooking or for storage in the fridge or freezer.
For really large fish, such as swordfish, cutting the meat into thick steaks is popular. Follow the steps for cleaning, skinning and scaling (scaling may only be necessary if the scales make it difficult to cut the steaks). Next, chill the fish in the freezer, until it is slightly stiff. Now you can slice through the body, starting at the tail end and working towards the head. It is best to make each steak about ½ inch to 1-inch thick. Once you have the pieces of steak, trim away any bones or belly fat that you can see, although it is customary to leave the backbone.