How to remove the bones from a whole fish.
There are several ways in which you can debone your fish and below we will describe the two most common and easiest methods.
If you are cutting your fish into fillets, as with larger types of fish, and in particular, flat fish, the fish is cut in a way in which the flesh is easily removed from the bones and you are left with several boneless portions of fish.
However, smaller types of round fish may be deboned whilst still whole, so that the fish is then ready to be stuffed or butterflied prior to cooking.
The head and tail may or may not be kept intact, depending on your preference, yet rather than filleting a small fish such as herring, trout, mackerel or red snapper, it is probably easier and less tricky to prepare the fish whole.
To debone your small fish you will need a clean board or surface to work on, a sturdy and sharp knife with a flat edge to cut through the fish and a small pair of tweezers to remove stray bones.
Deboning fish through the belly
This method is used if you want to stuff or butterfly the fish with the head and tail removed.
For small round fish, the insides must first be removed. This is done by making a slit along the belly and removing the guts. For detailed information on how to do this, see our section on preparing fish for cooking - cleaning round fish.
Once the fish has been cleaned and rinsed, take the fish, place it on a clean board and cut off the head. Do this by slicing the head just behind the gills and cut in a big and swift stroke.
Do the same at the tail end and remove the tail. Also remove the fins at the same time.
Next, open the fish out like a book, and place it flat down with the skin facing upwards. With your fingers, press down along the backbone, in order to loosen it.
Turn the fish over, so that the skin is touching the board and then try to lift the whole of the backbone and rib cage out in one piece with one hand, whilst gently freeing the bones with a thin, sharp knife with the other. Hold the knife parallel to the board, sliding the knife underneath the bones.
Once the backbone and rib cage have been removed, check for any stray bones and remove them with a pair of tweezers.
Rinse the fish under cold running water and then dry with some kitchen towels. The fish may then be folded back into its original shape and filled with stuffing or left open and cooked under the grill.
If you are not going to cook the fish immediately, return it to the refrigerator, where it will stay fresh.
Deboning through the back
Use this method if you want to keep the head and tail intact. It may be slightly trickier than the previous method, yet for presentation purposes this way of preparing the fish may be more suitable.
Rinse the whole fish and place it with the belly on a clean board.
Take a very sharp knife and make a slit all the way along one side of the backbone, from one end of the fish to the other.
Gently slide the knife down the side of the rib cage, detaching the flesh from the bone as you go along.
Carry out the same procedure on the other side of the backbone.
Take a pair of scissors and cut the backbone free at both ends of the fish and carefully lift out the backbone with the rib cage, stomach contents and the gills.
Rinse the fish inside and out thoroughly under running water.
Your fish is now ready to stuff and cook.