The Right Way to Clean and Prepare a Fish for Cooking

Learn how to scale, clean, and fillet a fresh, whole fish, courtesy of a cooking teacher and fishmonger.

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Baked sea bass with lemon and rosemary
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If you love to cook with fresh, whole fish, then you likely already know that there are several steps to prep the protein for a meal. There are three, to be exact: scaling, cleaning, and filleting. Scaling refers to the process of removing the scales and slimy coat from the fish, cleaning removes its innards, and filleting cuts the meat of the fish from its bones.

Each part of the process might seem tricky (and a little gross), but it's actually simpler than you think. "Fish is one of the easiest proteins to handle and prepare," says Trish Whetstone of Trish Talks Fish, a seafood educator, event host, and fishmonger. "While there is definitely an art to cleaning and filleting a fish, for the home chef and seafood lover, it's an easy and empowering skill to master."

Learn these expert-approved steps to scale, clean, and fillet a fish so it's ready to cook.

How to Scale a Fish

In addition to removing a fish's scales, it's important to remove its slimy coat. "This coating provides [the fish] protection while swimming in the open sea, making it more agile when sliding away from predators, but also makes it harder to hold on to," says Whetstone.

What You'll Need

  • Knife
  • Kitchen shears
  • Dry cloth or paper towel
  • Parchment paper
  • Apron
  • Rubber gloves

Fish Preparation

  1. Using your cloth or paper towel, grip the fish by the tail over the sink and rinse it under cold running water.
  2. Scrape the back of your knife along both sides of the fish from tail to head, removing as much of the slime coating as possible. This will make the fish easier to hang on to while scaling and filleting, and the running water helps loosen the scales, says Whetstone.
  3. This is also an ideal time to remove fins from the fish. "With your kitchen shears, simply snip the fins off as close to the body as possible," says Whetstone. "This will make scaling a lot less challenging, as your knife or tool won't get caught on the boney flippers."

Workspace Preparation

Scaling is a messy process, so wear an apron and rubber gloves to protect yourself from the rough scales, says Whetstone. Also protect your counter or cutting board by covering your workspace with parchment paper, so you can easily collect the scales when you're done. "It takes some serious scrubbing to remove them from surfaces, clothing, even skin," she says. "The more you can cover up, the happier you will be when it comes time for clean up."

Scale the Fish

Follow these expert steps to remove the scales from the fish:

  1. Hold your knife in your dominant hand and grip the fish firmly by the tail in the other.
  2. Place the back of the knife at a 45 degree angle at the base of the tail and scrape down from tail to head. Scales will pop off as you rake the back of the knife over the skin.
  3. Repeat scraping down from tail to head until all of the scales are removed.
  4. Flip your fish over and repeat on the other side. Once the fish is de-scaled to your satisfaction, rinse with cold water to remove any stubborn scales from the body.
  5. Toss away the parchment paper, and use your cloth to pat the fish dry.

How to Clean a Fish

If you purchase a whole fish from a market, it is typically already dressed, meaning that the guts and head are removed. "Having this done makes the process a lot easier, and you can skip the cleaning step," says Whetstone. "If you've purchased a fish directly from a fisherman, or are preparing your own catch of the day, you're going to want to roll up your sleeves and keep that apron on."

What You'll Need

  • Parchment paper
  • Cutting board
  • Knife

Follow Whetstone's steps to clean a fish:

  1. Put down another piece of parchment paper atop your cutting board. (This will catch all of the innards and make for easy cleanup.)
  2. On the fish's belly, you'll find a small hole about 2 to 3 inches from the tail, depending on the size of your fish.
  3. With the tip of a knife, draw a shallow cut along the belly of the fish from this hole to the base of the gills.
  4. Cut deep enough to slice through the flesh, but do not pierce the innards.
  5. Once the belly is opened, use your fingers or a dull edged spoon to scoop out the insides. It should all come out smoothly, but check for any remnants, as some fish have kidneys near the back.
  6. Rinse out the inside of the fish with cold water and toss out the parchment paper and innards.
  7. Once the fish is rinsed, there should only be clean flesh in the belly behind the rib cage.

How to Fillet a Fish

After scaling and cleaning your fish, the final step is to fillet it so it's ready to cook. To do so, you'll need a sharp fillet knife, says Herve Malivert, director of culinary affairs at the Institute of Culinary Education. "Fillet knives have long, thin blades that are flexible so they can slide along the fish bones without cutting them," he says.

What You'll Need

  • Filleting knife (also called a boning knife)
  • Plastic cutting board
  • Parchment paper
  • Damp cloth
  • Large freezer bag

Remove the Head

Before filleting the fish, you'll need to remove the head. Here's how to do it, says Whetstone:

  1. Use your finger to feel for the bony ridge behind the gills.
  2. Gripping the fish by the jaw, use your filleting knife to slice deeply around this collar ridge from the jaw to the top of the head.
  3. Flip the fish over and repeat on the other side.
  4. Once both sides have been cut, grip the head, twist, and pull to remove it cleanly from the body and add it to your freezer bag for bones and scraps.

Don't just toss out the head of the fish—it can be a delicious addition to your meal. "The head is the most flavorful part of the fish and is excellent to add into seafood soups or stews," says Whetstone, adding that you can even grill the whole fish with a marinade or spice rub. "Think of it like a big, savory chicken wing of the sea."

Fillet the Fish

Here are Whetstone's steps to fillet a fish:

  1. Using a cloth, wipe up any excess blood on the cutting board.
  2. Place the fish diagonally on the cutting board, with the ridge of its back facing you.
  3. Holding the collar of the fish with your less dominant hand, insert the tip of your knife blade into the back of the fish and cut in along the spine from the top to tail.
  4. Continue to slice along the natural line where the bones connect to the tissue, using your hand to pull the meat back away from your knife as you cut until the flesh is completely released from the bones.
  5. Put the finished fillet aside, flip the fish over and repeat on the other side.
  6. Add your bones into the freezer bag to save for making soup stock or for future fishing bait, says Whetstone.
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