How To Clean A Fish ~ Cleaning a fish is a must-have skill for individuals who like to eat fish, as well as for fishers, chefs, and avid campers. While it can be a messy job because of the slimy scales and innards of a fish, it’s also a must to remove these inedible parts and the pollutants that may be in them.
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If it’s your first time cleaning a fish, you shouldn’t worry about it. You will find that it’s an easy skill to learn with the right mindset, tools, and techniques. You will also need the presence of mind and concentration because of the sharp tools used.
Preparing To Clean A Fish
Keep in mind that freshness is key to the effective cleaning of a fish, so it’s essential to clean it as soon as you can. If you caught it in the morning, for example, you should ideally clean it an hour or two after catching it. You should keep it in water or on ice to keep it fresh until such time that you’re ready to clean it.
Furthermore, cleaning a fish can be quite a messy task, particularly when it requires scaling and gutting. You should then consider doing it outdoors, such as in an outdoor sink, but you may also do it inside a kitchen.
Whether you clean a fish indoors or outdoors, you should ensure that you have easy access to running water. Either a kitchen faucet or an outdoor hose will do. Just ensure that you won’t be holding the hose while cleaning the fish since both your hands will be used for the task. If necessary, you can ask another person to hold the hose while you clean the fish.
You should also gather your cleaning supplies and the fish to be cleaned in one area. It can be a table with sufficient size to hold these items or a kitchen counter. You must also ensure that you’re in a comfortable position, whether you’re sitting down or standing up while cleaning a fish. You shouldn’t be hunching over the table or counter. It is because it can mean putting too much pressure on the fish being cleaned, not to mention that you will get sore after 15 minutes in such a position.
The supplies and tools that you will need for the task are:
Old Newspaper And A Small Garbage Bag
Magazines with their shiny pages aren’t ideal for the task since the paper can be easily folded. A newspaper is best due to its foldable paper. Parchment paper and cardboard can also be used.
The garbage bag is for wrapping the scales and innards before these are disposed of in the trash bin.
If you’re not filleting the fish, then you may not need it. Cooking a fish whole can make it more flavorful. But it can also be used to cut an incision in the fish’s stomach area before getting out its innards if you’re not using it for filleting.
It is obviously for removing the scales on the fish. Again, you may not need it if the fish doesn’t have scales in the first place.
Cutting Or Chopping Board
Be sure to use a chopping board dedicated to fish, poultry, and meat instead of, say, a chopping board for vegetables and fruits. Cross-contamination between raw foods, such as fish and ready-to-eat foods like fruits and vegetables, is a real health risk.
Cooler Of Ice
Skip it if you’re immediately going to cook the clean fish. Otherwise, keep the fish in a cooler of ice or place it in the coldest part of the fridge in a plastic container.
Use either disposable gloves or washable gloves, usually of knitted material, depending on your preference and comfort level.)
Platter For The Clean Fish
Keep your focus, too, since cleaning a fish can be a hazardous job! You can cut yourself, particularly your fingers, with the sharp knife and scaling tool. You may also have cut from handling the fish, especially when it has sharp fins.
If you’re talking with someone while cleaning a fish, you must keep your eyes on the fish, especially when you have a knife in your hands. Of course, don’t even talk on your cell phone, watch television, or browse social media while you’re on the task.
Also, a fillet knife has a narrow, flexible, and sharp blade that can be difficult to handle for a beginner. You shouldn’t expect to use it like the pros on your first try, but you can always give it a go. However, make sure to put thick gloves on to decrease the risk of getting cuts from it.
One tip for you, if the fish can be cooked whole, then do so instead of filleting it without proper supervision on your first try.
Most importantly, always use a sharp knife when cleaning and filleting a fish! Yes, a sharp knife can be a hazard, but a dull knife is more hazardous. You can slip and slide over the fish with a dull knife and, in doing so, cut your fingers instead.
Before cleaning a fish, you should ideally wear your gloves, so your hands are protected from cuts made by the fish’s fins and by the sharp knife. Plus, gloves are recommended because these make it easier to wash your hands and get rid of the fishy smell afterward. But if you’re comfortable cleaning fish with your bare hands and you have expert skills, then it’s also alright to do so.
The fish to be cleaned should also be in its natural state as much as possible, which means that it shouldn’t be frozen. Be sure to thaw it first to near-room temperature if it’s been frozen before cleaning. Frozen fish cannot be scaled, gutted, and cleaned as efficiently and safely as room temperature fish for obvious reasons.
Scaling A Fish
Most fish have scales that should be removed, such as trout and salmon, before cooking. Otherwise, the scales will feel rough in your mouth, alter the flavor of the fish, and make the dish less palatable than it should be.
But there are also fish species that don’t require the removal of scales before cooking because they don’t have scales in the first place. These include catfish, marlin, eels, shark, swordfish, grayfish, sturgeons, and squab.
Keep in mind that the scales can fly everywhere, so it’s a good idea to remove them in an outdoor area or over a deep sink.
1. Place the fish under cold running water to remove the slime off it; this should take five seconds or so for each fish depending on its size and slime level. Otherwise, its slime will make it more difficult to do while scaling it, resulting in increased risk for injury.
2. Put the fish on a newspaper, cardboard, or parchment paper to catch the scales when these are removed. The newspaper is also convenient because it can be thrown directly into the trash or buried in the ground if you’re at a campsite. The clean-up will then be faster and easier. Place the newspaper on top of the chopping board or deep kitchen sink to catch the scales.
3. Hold the fish by its tail with your non-dominant hand and keep it as flat on the surface as possible; if you’re right-handed, your left hand is your non-dominant hand. Get a firm hold, but keep your hand and wrist relaxed since it isn’t going anywhere.
4. Take the scaling tool in your dominant hand and hold it firmly. Again, keep your wrist relaxed since putting too much pressure while scaling it can ruin its flesh.
5. Hold the scaling tool at a 45-degree angle over the fish.
6. Scrap the fish’s scales starting from its side and moving from its tail to its head. Use long, even, and firm strokes while also applying slight pressure. The rakes on the fish scaling tool should do the job of scraping away the scales with a couple of passes, perhaps even just one depending on the size of the fish and its scale type. Continue scraping until all the scales are removed. Run your hand gently on the surface and feel for any remaining scales, if necessary.
7. Flip the fish over to repeat the same steps on its other side.
8. Rinse the fish under cold running water to remove any remaining scales. Keep rinsing for a few seconds until the fish feels smooth to the touch. Use normal pressure on the faucet to preserve the delicate flesh of the fish.
9. Remove both the scales and the newspaper and dispose of it properly. For non-scaly fish, such as eels and catfish, peeling off the skin is made instead of removing the scales.
10. Using a sharp fillet knife, make a shallow cut along its pectoral fin and continue along the length of its back.
11. With two pliers, peel off the skin in a single, smooth motion.
There may also be a need to remove the fins before removing the scales, especially when these will come in the way of the scaling tool. Use a pair of kitchen shears to remove the fins, including the dorsal fin (the top fin along the spine), the pectoral fins (the fins on the chest), the ventral fins (the belly fins), and the caudal fin (tail fin).
Snip these fins as close to the body as close as possible. You may leave the tail fin on since it will not get in the way of scale removal, not to mention that it’s excellent for presentation once the whole fish is cooked and served.
Gutting A Fish
Fish entrails are neither a pretty sight nor edible parts! These parts include the gills, guts, and intestines. As well as the liver and kidneys, which are slimmer than the scales. Suffice it to say that the removal of guts is the messiest part of cleaning a fish, but it’s a must before it can be cooked.
Gutting a fish comes next after scaling it; this way, it’s less slimy and slippery so you can maintain a firm hold on it. You may want to replace the newspaper, parchment, or cardboard used as a protective covering on the chopping board. You may also skip it since the guts can be placed on the newspaper used as a receptacle for the scales.
- Place the fish on its side and flat on the chopping board. Hold it firmly with your non-dominant hand on its top.
- Insert the tip of a sharp fillet knife into its anus and make an incision to the base of its lower jaw. Pay attention not to apply too much pressure or to plunge the knife too deeply. Otherwise, the intestines can be punctured, and the smell can be a little overwhelming.
- Open the cavity and firmly pull out the fish’s guts, including its gills, entrails, and other internal organs. You can use your hands to remove these undesirable parts, but you may also need tools for an easier task.
You may, for example, use a sharp knife in removing the gill filaments from the head and a spoon in scraping the organs like the liver and kidneys. Your hands, nonetheless, are best for removing the black stomach lining; just detach it from the cavity in a fluid motion.
Rinse the cavity under cold running water until it looks and feels clean. Be sure to keep a low water pressure on the faucet to prevent damage to the delicate flesh of the fish. You may also use your fingers in gently rubbing the cavity, thereby removing the last traces of the fish’s guts.
There’s no graceful way of gutting a fish, so you just have to do it. With practice, you should be able to remove its entrails with fluid motions and without feeling disgusted about it.
Filleting A Fish
While you can cook a fish in its whole state, you may also want to cut it into thinner and smaller slices. Many fish are suitable for filleting, including halibut, salmon, grass carp, red snapper, and Nile perch.
Keep in mind that filleting a fish requires cutting away from the bone in a lengthwise movement and parallel to the backbone. The fish for filleting should have been scaled, if scales are present, and gutted first before filleting it.
Furthermore, filleting a fish requires a certain level of skill in handling the filleting knife. The knife itself should be sharp since the task requires smooth cutting motions, not sawing motions that will only damage the fish’s delicate meat.
The steps of filleting fish can be summarized as follows:
- Place the fish with its dorsal fin facing toward you.
- Cut behind the pectoral fins and gills with the flexible fillet knife. Be careful not to sever the spine; you should only cut down to the spine but not completely cut it.
- Turn the knife flat as soon as its tip reaches the fish’s backbone. Cut the fish’s flesh along and down its backbone, making a flap extending from its head to its tail.
- Using your non-dominant hand, lift the flap and continue slicing until the flesh is wholly removed from the backbone.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Rinse the fillets with cold water, shake off excess water with a slight shake, and pat dry with a paper towel before cooking.
One tip for you, use the carcass, including the bones and head for making fish stock or fish soup. Just make sure to strain the resulting liquid since these parts can become choking hazards to humans and pets.
Making Steak Cuts From Fish
Also known as fish cutlets, fish steaks are made by using perpendicular cuts with the spine. Steak cuts are only suitable for larger fish like salmon, tuna, and mahi-mahi since these are also larger and thicker cuts of fish meat.
Working from the fish’s head to its tail, make a series of cuts on the fish. The cuts should be perpendicular to the spine, and these should result in pieces measuring between one-half and one-inch thick.
Remove the bones and fat from the steak. Keep the backbone and skin intact since it holds the flesh together and adds flavor to the cooked fish.
Fish steaks can be cooked in a variety of ways, too, from grilling to frying.
Disposing Of The Innards
As soon as you’re finished cleaning the fish, you should clean the preparation area immediately. The fish’s scales and innards rot quickly, and when they do, they become so smelly it will make you gag, if not mess up with your home’s environment.
When disposing of scales and innards, you have several ways of disposing of them:
- Wrap them inside the newspaper, parchment, or cardboard where you cleaned the fish. Place it in a garbage bag; double bag it, if you want, to prevent the smell from escaping and attracting pests like rats. Put it inside a sealed trash bin outside of your home, if it’s trash collection day, or keep it in the freezer until it’s time for the garbage collection to pick up your household trash.
- Burry the fish’s scales and innards in the ground. Don’t use a garbage bag since the newspaper and innards will decompose on their own. You can do this method if you’re in a camping area where there are no trash bins and freezers.
That note to ask a forest ranger or other people if throwing the scales and innards into a body of water, such as a lake or river where you caught the fish, is allowed under the law. The local authorities may not allow it since these fish debris can become pollutants. In contrast, others allow it under certain conditions.
Use the innards as bait but dispose of the scales correctly.
Fish scales and innards aren’t suitable as pet food even when these have been cooked well. You should then be careful about keeping these inedible parts away from the reach of pets and children.
Specific Cleaning Techniques For Different Types Of Fish
The above-mentioned steps for cleaning fish can be applied to all types of fish commonly consumed by humans and pets. It is because fish anatomy in most species has more common aspects than differences. However, there are extra tips that apply to commonly consumed fish.
While the above-mentioned steps apply to clean trout, there’s an alternative method used when the head should be kept intact for presentation purposes.
- Insert the tip of a sharp filleting knife on the trout’s vent or anal opening.
- Make a slit from the vent to the head. Be sure that it’s a shallow cut to avoid piercing the innards.
- Make an incision behind the head and toward the backbone, but be sure to avoid altogether cutting off the spine.
- Hold the head firmly, pull it straight toward the tail and remove the innards and fins along with it. The latter parts should come out in a single piece.
- Open the cavity and altogether remove the bloodline either with a sharp fillet knife or your thumb. Use gentle motions so as not to pierce or damage the flesh.
- Rinse the cavity under cold water.
This alternative method can also be used in cleaning salmon.
Due to its tiny scales, there’s no need to remove the scales on mackerel. But it’s essential to thoroughly wash its skin in cold water to remove its slimy texture. Also, check that there’s no remaining bloodline on its stomach.
With lengths reaching up to three meters, cleaning a swordfish isn’t for the faint of heart! It’s a labor-intensive task that demands strength, skill, and ability, perhaps a little help from a friend.
There’s no need for removing the scales on an adult swordfish because there’s nothing to remove. But it’s best to thoroughly wash its body with cold water to remove its slime and to prepare it for gutting.
- Lay down the swordfish in the cleaning area.
- Remove its fins, head, bill, and tail with a sharp knife and kitchen shears, whichever suits the job.
- Create a shallow incision in its belly from its head toward its tail.
- Remove its innards using rigid motions. Put enough pressure that the innards come out in a single, smooth motion. Still, it’s also alright if you pull out any remaining innards.
- Cut down both sides of its spine and remove the bloodline.
- Wash the cavity under cold water until all traces of the innards are removed; pay attention to the bloodline since it can be bitter when cooked.
The beauty of learning these techniques in cleaning a fish is that these are universal. Once you clean a fish well, you will know the steps to clean other types of fish! You may have to learn different techniques for different fish. Still, the necessary skills of removing scales and innards are the same for all fish.
Recommended Products For Cleaning A Fish
You have to be ready with the right tools and supplies for safe and effective cleaning of fish. While you can use whatever existing tools are in your kitchen, such as a standard knife, the task will become safer, easier, and faster with the right tools.
For some people, not wearing gloves while cleaning fish is more comfortable. However, it is highly recommended to wear one. You can only maintain a firm grasp on the fish without crushing it, but you will also be protecting your skin from punctures, cuts, and scrapes from the knife, scraping tool, and fins. You will also be able to get rid of lingering fishy smell easily when gloves protect your hands. Take note to wash it with water and detergent thoroughly afterward.
The GlovePlus Black Nitrile Gloves are disposable gloves with textured fingertips, fingers, and palms for better grip on the fish. These are also thick enough for puncture protection while still allowing for full dexterity. Due to their latex composition, these fit like a second skin and can be used on sensitive skin.
The NoCry Cut Resistant Gloves are made of washable material. These are thicker, too, for more excellent puncture protection, yet these are still lightweight enough to allow dexterity.
Between these two products, we recommend GlovePlus because of its ease of use and disposal. But both of these products work just as well since it’s a matter of preference.
These are versatile knives in the sense that these can be used to make incisions in the fish, remove flesh from it and make cuts and fillets. There are two types, namely, the manual and electric fillet knives.
Which one is the best? Well, it depends on the number of fish you have to clean, as well as their size and type, and your skill level in using a fillet knife in general.
On one hand, manual fillet knives are more straightforward to use and cheaper than their electric counterparts, not to mention that these can be used anytime, anywhere. These are usually made of a thin steel blade with a plastic ergonomic handle and a long bevel. These are razor-sharp, too, but these require regular sharpening for its blade to work well.
On the other hand, electric fillet knives are suitable for cleaning large fish in terms of size and number. These have a design similar to a reciprocating saw wherein two thin blades are mounted side-by-side on its handle. The design allows for better control over the knife and for letting it do most of the work since there’s no need to exert pressure on it.
Electric knives, nonetheless, are more complicated with their batteries and moving parts, as well as the ever-present risk of malfunction. You should then carry a traditional fillet knife in case of emergencies or if you’re a beginner in cleaning and filleting fish.
The Zelite Infinity Boning (Gokujo) Fillet Knife has a stiff, sharp blade with sufficient give for filleting fish, an ergonomic handle, and a precision profile. You can use it for both general cleaning and fine filleting of fish.
The KastKing 7” Fillet Knife has a razor-sharp German stainless steel blade that does the cleaning, filleting and slicing fish easier and faster. It can be used for both small and large fish, thanks to its thin, flexible yet strong blade and comfortable handle.
The Mister Twister 120V Electric Knife also has sharp blades with a reciprocating saw action, a convenient blade release, and a safety lock. If you’re looking for an easy-to-use electric knife, then this may be what you need.
The Bubba Li-Ion Cordless Electric Fillet Knife has a dual-rivet blade design that cuts through fish so well you won’t need another knife for the job. Its non-slip grip makes it easy to maintain a firm hold on it, too.
In a way, there’s no best fillet knife because the more important thing is in the way it’s used and maintained.
Fish Scaling Tool
Also known as a fish scaler, a fish scaling tool makes the removal of scales safer and easier. It is mainly since you’re not likely to be injured with the sharp edge of a knife. You can utilize a butter knife or the dull edge of a kitchen knife, but a fish scaler makes more sense.
Fish scalers have a basic design consisting of either a sawtooth surface or a ridged edge used in removing scales; both designs, nonetheless, are intended to scrape the scales with stroking motions. These come in several types, including scrapers or brushes with a broad head, serrated teeth and handle; peelers with a serrated edge; and electric scalers.
The HIC Fish Scaler features raised nubs that effectively removes scales and a curved handle for a good grip. It’s small enough to be stored in your fishing bag yet sturdy enough to withstand years of use.
The Big Norm-Feets 88111 Magic Fish Scaler has a design that prevents scales from making a mess on the workstation. It’s easy to clean, and resists rust well, too.
You don’t need to have fancy tools in cleaning a fish, but you must use the right tools! You can start with a manual fillet knife, a scaling tool, and disposable gloves; the rest like a chopping board, platter, and bucket are already in your kitchen.
Cleaning a fish isn’t just for the sake of serving an attractive fish dish, far from it. It’s also about decreasing the presence of bacteria, pollutants, and pathogens in the fish and removing its inedible parts.
If you don’t have the knowledge to do it, now is the best time to learn it! It is always refreshing to learn new skills.