My Recipe Box

How to fillet a whole fish

Use a sharp knife and follow our step-by-step technique for perfect fillets

by Allison Ehri Kreitler

fromFine Cooking
Issue 84

While testing the Braised Red Snapper Puttanesca recipe, we occasionally couldn’t find snapper fillets, but we could find whole snappers. No problem—filleting a snapper (or any other similar fish) is easy if you follow these steps. Just be sure to use your sharpest knife, whether it’s a fillet knife or a chef’s knife.

A note on fish scales: Before you fillet a whole fish, it should be scaled. Doing the job yourself isn’t difficult, but it’s messy, because the scales tend to fly all over and you find them in weird places around the kitchen for days after. For this reason, we always ask the fish monger to do the scaling for us. And actually, a good fish monger will also fillet the fish for you, but where’s the fun in that?

Filleting a Whole Fish
1. Rinse the fish under running water and pat dry. Position it on a cutting board with its back towards you. Using a sharp knife held behind the gills and side fin, cut straight down halfway through the fish to the backbone, being sure to include the meaty spot right behind the top of the head. 2. Turn the knife parallel to the board (at a 90-degree angle to your first cut) and cut along the spine from head to tail, removing the belly flap with the fillet. You’ll need to apply a fair amount of pressure at first to break through the rib bones. As you cut, press down firmly on top of the fish to steady it. 3. Finish removing the fillet by cutting all the way through the skin at the tail. Repeat steps 1 through 3 on the other side of the fish. 4. Remove the rib bones and belly flap by cutting under the top of the rib bones to the bottom of the fillet at a 45-degree angle. There is some meat here, but on small fish it is minimal. (On larger fish like tuna, this fatty belly is thicker and very flavorful.) 5. Finally, check for pin bones. Some fish have little bones that run along the midline of the fillet and are nearly impossible to see. To remove them, feel along the fillet to locate each bone and then pluck it out with a pair of clean needle-nose or fish pliers. Pull the bones out in the direction they are pointing, as you would a splinter.
Skinning is optional

Put the fillet, skin side down, on the cutting board. Starting at the tail end and holding the knife parallel to the cutting board, slice between the flesh and the skin, as close to the skin as possible, until you can grasp the tail end of the skin with a paper towel. With the knife angled ever so slightly down toward the skin, slice along the skin, using a gentle sawing motion. As you slice, simultaneously pull on the tail skin in the opposite direction to maintain pressure on the cutting edge of the knife. If you miss a spot, trim it away.

Photos: Scott Phillips

Cookbooks, DVDs & More