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How to fillet a whole fish

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

Fine Cooking Issue 84
Photos: Scott Phillips
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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?

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.


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  • Tomster2 | 02/23/2019

    Another way to scale a fish but not mess up the kitchen is to submerge the whole fish under water in your sink or a deep rectangular casserole... then scale it. The water keeps the scales from flying. When done, you can drain the water from the sink leaving the strainer in place or dump the water from the casserole dish through a sieve. So some clean up required... but not the whole kitchen.

  • Joey Stacks | 01/30/2018

    Good filleting instructions. I would like to add though, that scaling the fish doesn’t have to be a difficult, messy and slow job if you use a reliable fish scaler. I used to overdrive myself scaling fish with a knife, but now that I have an electric fish scaler, it’s no hassle at all. You can make things easier with a regular fish skinner as well, but I prefer an automatic one.

    While searching for good models, I came across an article that reviews very decent fish scalers and helped me choose that one that’s good for me. You can check the article here if you want: https://organicpowerfoods.com/health-topics/most-effective-fish-scalers

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