How To: Fillet Any Fish

Filleting a fish is probably one of the most intimidating kitchen tasks out there. And for a reason – you have to handle slippery objects, (very) sharp knives and tiny bones, all while making it look graceful and effortless. However, if you want to claim to be comfortable enough around the kitchen to cook a nice family meal, you should always be able to get a nice, smooth fish filet out of a whole fish. To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of clear, step-by-step instructions on how to master this skill, straight from the chef Mike Ward.

Why not just buy an already filleted fish?

This was our first thought back when we were just learning to do this. As Mike puts it, “when you buy a whole fish, you tend to get a better quality, fresher fish. The reason being that most stores and markets tend to put out their whole fish first, because they know that the customers are familiar with the idea of the clarity of the eyeballs, meaning fresher fish. And then, when it gets a little bit less fresh, they’ll take it out in the back, fillet it, put the fillets back out, and you can’t tell as easily whether it’s fresh”.

How to know that the fish you’re buying is fresh?

Consuming only fresh fish is extremely important – doing otherwise might result in severe food poisoning. There are 3 easily noticeable features that will tell you whether the fish is fresh or not:

First: The Eyes

The eyes of a fresh fish will be clear, “plump”, with no cloudiness. It’s very easy to recognise fish that’s already been out and about for a while, as its eyes are going to be cloudy, and/or bloody.

Second: The Smell

Fresh fish has a fresh (surprise surprise), seawater smell to it, with just a hint of fish if at all. A fish that should already be on its way to the garbage will have a strong, unpleasant fish odor.

Third: The Flesh

If you can, press on the flesh with your finger. The flesh of a bad fish will feel slightly mushy, and there’s going to be a dent where your finger was, while the flesh of a fresh one will bounce back quickly and feel rather firm.

Extra: If you want to be extra sure, check out the gills inside – they should be nice and pink, with no blood.

How to fillet a fish?

So, we’re finally here – you’ve got the freshest fish you can find, and it’s time to fillet it.

Step 1: Make sure your knife is extra sharp – preferably, a filleting knife. It should be sharp enough to cut through the fillet like a hot knife through butter, with no pulling or tearing. As the knife you’re going to be working with is incredibly sharp, and the fish – slippery, it’s time to put on your cut resistant gloves – just in case.

Step 2: Cut in an angle just behind the first fin, until you can feel the bone – once you feel resistance, you’ve cut deep enough and can move on to the next step.

Filleting fish

Image: Mike Ward 

Step 3: Make an incision just above the central line on the back, and sliiiiiide the knife parallel to it all the way to the tail. Don’t use any force, just let the knife slide through the fish and do its job – this is the reason you sharpened it so much.

Filet Fish

 Image: Mike Ward 

Step 4: As you can see, you haven’t cut all through the fish belly, so continue sliding your knife through the fish until you can fully “open it up” and put the upper fillet to the cutting board. Remember to not use any force, but just slide the knife from the top to the bottom repeatedly, until it gets all the way through. No rush!

Cooking fish

 Image: Mike Ward 

Step 5: Place the upper fillet on the cutting board and simply cut it off the body of the fish. One side is done!

Fish fillet

Image: Mike Ward 

Step 6: You’ll notice that there are little bones left in the fillet around the centre line. If you’re filleting larger fish like salmon or trout, you can simply pull them out with a pair of tweezers. But if you’re working with smaller fish like mackerel, take your knife and cut the centre part out with tiny V incision along the line – don’t cut all the way through the fillet, but just enough to get the central bones out.

Image: Mike Ward 

Step 7: Turn the fish around and repeat the steps 2-6 until you’ve filleted the other side as well!

Image: Mike Ward 

If it doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d hope, no worries – filleting a fish, like anything else, is a skill that gets better with practice. Who knows – maybe you’ll soon be able to fillet big fish as fast as this guy. Definitely give Mike’s video tutorial a watch to make sure you’ve got all the steps down:

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Did you find these tips useful? Do you have filleting hacks of your own? Share in the comments below!

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