How to Clean a Fish for Cooking

Are you thinking about cooking some fresh, whole fish but aren’t sure where to start? Well, the first step to cooking fresh fish – after catching it, of course – is learning how to clean it!

How to Clean, Scale and Gut a Fish

Though the exact preparations will vary slightly depending on your final goals, the basic process for cleaning fish is straightforward and involves scaling and gutting. But, before we get into how to clean a fish, let’s talk about the equipment needed to get the job done – your knives.

The Best Knives for Cutting Fish

As with any kitchen task, cleaning and breaking down fish into different cuts calls for using the best knife for the job. In this case, the best knife will depend on the precise task at hand.

If you’re working with a whole fish and the recipe calls for removing the head and tail, then you’ll definitely need the heft of the traditional, western-style chef’s knife – not to mention it plays double-duty by offering its spine as a scaling tool! This workhorse of a knife also makes a great tool for slicing fish fillets into smaller pieces.

Knife Knowledge 101: Why Every Kitchen Needs a Chef’s Knife

F.N. Sharp Paring Knife with shrimpWhen it comes to gutting a fish, you’ll want to keep a small, sharp knife on hand to ensure you avoid nicking any internal organs. With a blade measuring between 
 2 ½ and 4 inches long, the paring knife is the perfect tool for this task, along with any other kitchen tasks that involve intricate hand work like deveining shrimp.

Knife Knowledge 101: 5 Big Uses for the Itty Bitty Paring Knife

F.N. Sharp Boning Knife with salmon

For skinning, filleting and deboning tasks, you’ll want to reach for either a fillet knife or even a boning knife, depending on its design. Though boning knives are usually reserved for removing skin and breaking meat down into different cuts, some are designed to tackle both meat and fish prep, like this beauty from F.N. Sharp.
Knife Knowledge 101: The Boning Knife vs. The Fillet Knife

F.N. Sharp Santoku Knife with salmon

When slicing fish into steaks or supremes, the Santoku knife comes in handy. This Japanese-style chef’s knife features a Granton edge, which refers to the dimples or scallops that are ground into the blade to create little air pockets that keep ingredients from sticking between cuts. Check out this F.N. Sharp guide to learn more about the top uses for a Santoku knife.

Also, keep in mind that the meat of fish is very delicate and will tear easily with a dull knife, so make sure those babies are sharp and ready to go! 

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When to Clean a Fish for Cooking

F.N. Sharp Boning Knife with fish

When working with a fresh, whole fish, you’ll want to make sure you clean and gut it as soon as you possibly can as it can spoil within a couple of hours. Don’t just catch fish and throw them on ice or in the fridge until ready to cook, either!

You’ll want to either keep them alive in water for the duration of your fishing trip, freeze them right away (just rinse and pat dry first), or clean and gut them before cooking or placing them in the fridge for later. Check out this article from Tiny Kitchen Divas ahead of your fishing trip for all the tips you need for killing, cleaning and refrigerating or freezing your freshly caught 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 that can lead to food poisoning.

How to Scale a Fish

How to scale fish with a chef's knife

When preparing fresh fish for cooking, you’ll want to inspect it first. Make sure it has clear eyes, bright scales and no fishy smell. The fresher the fish, the firmer the flesh and the easier it will be to prepare. 

If you’re not planning on skinning the fish, begin by removing the scales with a scaling tool or the spine of a knife. A chef’s knife works great for this task – just don’t use the sharp edge as the scales will quickly dull your knife. This can be a very messy task, so keep scales contained by taking the operation outdoors, or removing the scales with the fish submerged in water. 

When scaling your fish, start by firmly holding the tail with your non-dominant hand and, using the spine of your knife, begin scraping the length of the fish from tail to head until scales are removed on all sides. Once all scales are removed, wash the fish thoroughly and pat dry.

How to Gut a Fish

F.N. Sharp Paring Knife for gutting fish

In order to properly gut a fish, you’ll want to open up the body cavity and remove its innards without nicking any of the internal organs as they can contaminate the flesh. 

Start by inserting the tip of a paring knife into the fish’s vent, located on the belly near the tail. Then, make a shallow cut through the belly from the vent to the head to open the body cavity. Remove and discard the internal organs, as well as the gill assembly, then thoroughly rinse the body cavity and blot with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. 

Your fish is now scaled, cleaned and ready to be cooked or broken down further, depending on the intended final result.

How to Skin and Debone a Fish

F.N. Sharp Boning Knife for skinning fish

For recipes that call for skinning and deboning fish for certain cuts, like fillets, you’ll want to use your fillet or boning knife.

How to skin a fish fillet

To begin skinning, place the fillet skin side down on your cutting board. Starting at the tail end, make a small, shallow cut that allows you to work the knife downward until it’s horizontal between the skin and the flesh of the fish.

Then, firmly grasp the skin with your non-dominant hand and use it to pull the fillet toward the edge of the knife, cleanly slicing away the skin. 

As you work, you can flip the fillet up to check that you’re not removing too much flesh. If you spot a problem, re-adjust your knife before continuing. 

After your fillet is skinned, you can easily remove the pin bones by scraping the spine of your knife down the length of the fillet. This will make the tops of the bones stand up so you can easily find and remove them using tweezers.

And that’s it – your fish is now cleaned, scaled, skinned, deboned and ready for cooking!

How to Use the Different Parts of a Fish for Cooking

F.N. Sharp Boning Knife next to fish in baking pan

You might be surprised to learn that fish can actually be broken down into at least 15 different cuts. But, what’s even more surprising is that nearly every part of a fish can be cooked and eaten!

From the head to the tail – and even scales and fins – there’s more to enjoying fish than just its meaty insides. According to this article, chefs across the U.S. are creating delicious dishes out of the frequently discarded parts of fish. 

Check out this F.N. Sharp guide for more on the different fish cuts used for cooking, plus a long list of recipe ideas, from fish tacos to bacon-wrapped trout!

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