Knowing how to fillet a fish like a pro is one of those skills that will not only impress your dinner guests, but will also improve the quality of your cooking. Pre-cut fillets begin to dry out as soon as they’re cut, and freezing them can affect the texture. By learning how to fillet a fish yourself, you can be sure you’re working with the highest quality ingredients available.
How to Fillet a Fish Like a Pro
To get started, you’ll need only a whole fish, the proper equipment and a bit of practice. But before we get into filleting that fish, let’s talk about that proper equipment – your kitchen knives.
The Best Knife for Filleting Fish
Since your knife is your most important tool for fish filleting, it’s crucial to use the right one! A long, flexible fillet or boning knife is your best option for most of the process, from cleaning to skinning to filleting.
It’s also a good idea to have a knife-resistant glove on hand (no pun intended) for delicate work. Not only does it provide an extra layer of security for your non-knife hand, it can also help you keep a grip on your slippery fish!
For the heavier-duty tasks of fish preparation, like removing the head, you’ll want a sturdy chef’s knife. A traditional western-style chef’s knife will work, but if you plan on slicing your fillets, you may also want to opt for a blade with a Granton edge – that is one with scallops ground into the edge. This type of edge, commonly found on a Santoku knife, will keep the fish from sticking to the blade between cuts.
As with any task, filleting is much easier with a sharp, properly cared for knife. Be sure your knives are sharpened regularly – especially before filleting fish.
Knife Knowledge 101: Tops Signs of a Dull Kitchen Knife
The Best Cutting Board for Fish
When working with fish and other raw meats, you might think plastic cutting boards are the way to go. Wooden cutting boards are often avoided, but they’re actually a much more sanitary option compared to plastic boards. When it comes to sanitation, studies have shown that wooden cutting boards actually outperform plastic.
One such study conducted by the University of Wisconsin involved placing three different types of bacteria on both plastic and wooden cutting boards. When comparing results, the researchers found that 99.9% of the bacteria placed on the wooden cutting boards died within three minutes after contamination. The plastic cutting boards not only remained contaminated after three minutes, but the bacterial numbers also increased overnight, whereas the bacterial numbers of the wooden cutting boards were nonexistent.
If you do plan on using a wooden cutting board, make sure it has a smooth, sealed surface – like this Acacia wood one from F.N. Sharp – and is sanitized after each use. Now onto filleting that fish!
More on Cutting Boards: How to Clean a Wooden Cutting Board
Tips for Filleting Whole Fish
When it comes to filleting fish, experts might opt for only scaling the fish before jumping right into the filleting. But for beginners, it’s really best to clean and gut your fish first to avoid rupturing any organs. If you rupture the liver, you’ll most likely end up with a smelly, not-so-tasty fish. You’ll also really want to know your fish, too – some species have digestive enzymes with the potential for food poisoning.
If you’re planning on filleting a freshly caught fish, you’ll also want to make sure you clean and gut it as soon as you possibly can. Don’t just catch fish and throw them on ice or in the fridge until ready to cook – you’ll want to either freeze them right away (just rinse and pat dry first), or clean and gut them before cooking or placing them in the fridge.
Check out this article from Tiny Kitchen Divas ahead of your fishing trip for all the tips you need for cleaning and storing your freshly caught fish.
How to Fillet a Fish: Option 1
With your fish gutted and cleaned, grab a sharp fillet or boning knife and place it on an angle from just behind the fish’s head to behind the side fin. Draw your knife toward you and apply light downward pressure until you feel the knife connect with the spine.
Now, angle the blade until it’s parallel with the spine and remove the fillet, rib cage and all, by drawing the knife toward the tail. Flip the fish over and remove the other fillet in the same manner.
The next step is to debone your fillets. Slide your knife under the top of the bones and gently work them away from the fillet, lifting them with your other hand. This task requires almost no pressure on the knife, so be gentle! Some types of fish, like snapper and salmon, have pin bones running along the fillet just above the midline. These can be removed using tweezers.
How to Fillet a Fish: Option 2
Alternatively, you can first remove the head and tail of the fish, and then cut down the length of the spine, gently lifting away the fillet as you cut, leaving the ribs attached to the spine. This method requires less cleanup of the fillet after it’s removed, but it can be a bit more challenging to remove an intact fillet from the ribs than to remove the ribs from the fillet. Try both methods and see which you prefer!
If you plan to skin the fish, wait until you’ve removed the fillets then skin each separately. The process is very much like filleting, except you’ll work from the tail toward the head.
Start by laying the fillet skin-side down on your board and angle your boning knife parallel to the board, resting the blade just between the skin and the flesh.
Next, hold the skin with your non-dominant hand and use it to provide counter-pressure while drawing the fillet toward your knife as you gently work the blade between the skin and flesh. You’ll basically be using your non-dominant hand to pull the fillet towards you as you work the knife in the opposite direction to remove the skin.
As you cut, you can flip the fillet away from the skin to make sure you’re not losing too much flesh and, If necessary, re-adjust the angle of your knife before continuing.
If the type of fish you’re working with has pin bones, it can be easier to remove them from the skinned side of the fish using the spine of your knife and some tweezers.
To do this, simply scrape the spine of your knife along the fillet, which will cause the ends of the pin bones to stand away from the flesh, then use the tweezers to remove them.
That’s it – you now have skinned fish fillets!
More on Fish Prep: The F.N. Sharp Guide to Fish Cuts
Try These Fish Fillet Recipes
Need some recipe ideas for your fish fillets? Check out these F.N. Sharp recipes!
Oven-Baked Salmon With Citrus Cucumber Salad
The only thing better than a healthy weeknight meal is an easy recipe that lands on the dinner table in under 30 minutes. This recipe for paprika-spiced baked salmon topped with a lemony-orange citrus cucumber salad sings and dances off the plate with flavor. Get the recipe from F.N. Sharp.
Mahi Mahi Fish Tacos With Mango Salsa
This deliciously unique, yet healthy (and gluten-free) fish taco recipe will give your Taco Tuesday dinner guests something to taco’ bout! Breaded with coconut flour and sweetened corn flakes, the perfectly crispy fish is topped with homemade mango poblano salsa for a sweet and spicy kick! Get the recipe from F.N. Sharp.
This recipe features flaky trout fillets wrapped in bacon and topped with a sweet and buttery beurre blanc sauce that perfectly complements fish. And if the timing is right, you can actually have this gourmet-at-home recipe ready in 20 minutes! Get the recipe from F.N. Sharp.
Pan-Seared Salmon with Mint Pea Risotto
If you love salmon, then you’ll love this seared salmon recipe by MasterChef Contestant Chef Jeff Philbin. Perfect for a deliciously healthy weeknight meal, this gourmet-at-home recipe features a refreshing and zingy risotto to perfectly complement the seared salmon.
Get All of the F.N. Sharp Essentials: The 6-Knife Set & Magnetic Knife Block