Preparing fish - How to clean, gut, scale and skin your fish.

preparing fish
Although your fishmonger will be more than happy to clean and prepare your fish for you before you take it home, if you catch your own fish, or a friend presents you with a huge whopper of a specimen for you to cook for everyone, it would be handy if you knew exactly what to do with it.

There are several stages that must take place before you are able to cook the fish and eat it.

First of all the fish must be scaled and afterwards the guts have to be removed. It is essential that these two processes are carried out first, especially when preparing a whole fish.
Next, it depends on whether or not you are going to cook the fish whole and what type of fish you are cooking.

The fish will then usually be skinned, although some types of round fish are generally cooked with the skin left on, whilst with flat fish, the black skin from one side is always removed but the other side is left intact.

If the fish is not to be cooked whole, it must then be cut into fillets, steaks or cutlets, which can easily be done with a sharp knife. In some cases, such as with plaice, it is filleted first and then skinned after, as it is easier to do it this way round.

When cooking a large fish whole, remember that the gills and fins must either be trimmed or removed completely.

How to remove fish scales

Unless you are going to fillet the fish or remove the skin, the scales must be removed from the fish first thing.
  1. Start by giving the fish a good rinse under cold running water, as the water will loosen the scales.
  2. Then, lay the fish on top of several sheets of newspaper. This is so that the scales fall directly onto the paper, which can then be thrown away.
  3. Grasp the fish firmly by the tail and with the blunt edge of a knife, start to scrape away the scales, moving from the tail end to the head.
  4. Rinse the fish under running water to get rid of any scales that have not fallen onto the paper.
  5. Turn the fish over and repeat on the other side.
  6. Check that all the scales have been removed by running a finger against the grain of the fish. It is important to remove all of the scales, as you won't want them appearing on your dinner plate.
  7. Alternatively, you can cook the fish by your chosen method and then remove the skin before serving, which would also mean that the scales are removed.
For a moist, juicy fish, remove the scales but leave the skin on through cooking, as most of the moisture and flavour is contained within the skin of the fish. If you remove the skin, you may find that your fish dries out quite a lot and becomes somewhat flavourless, particularly when grilling or baking it.

How to clean the fish for cooking

So, scaling the fish wasn't too bad and the job could be avoided if you cook the fish first and then remove the skin afterwards. Removing the guts though, if cooking the fish whole, cannot be avoided. It is not a job for the squeamish either.

The guts and entrails must be removed from the fish in the same way that the giblets must be removed from a chicken. If the entrails are left inside the fish, it will spoil the taste and flavour and could leave you feeling quite ill.

This process is what is known as cleaning the fish and the methods are different according to the type of fish you are cleaning.

Cleaning round fish

In round fish types such as cod, herring or haddock, the guts are found in the belly of the fish. Therefore to gut and clean a round fish you need to carry out the following steps:
  1. With a sharp knife cut along the abdomen of the fish into the flesh to open it up. Start just behind the gills to just above the tail.
  2. Scrape out the guts and discard. Wrap them up in paper first.
  3. Rinse under cold water to clean and remove any traces of blood.
  4. Rub the cavity with rock salt in order to remove any black skin.
  5. The inside of the fish should now be empty.
You may choose to leave the head and tail in place if you are cooking the fish whole but the eyes and gills must be removed. Alternatively, you can cut the head off just below the gills, through the backbone and cut the tail off too or the tail can be left in place.

In some cases the gills can be removed just by pulling them out, whilst in others you may have to cut them out with scissors. Use the scissors to trim off the fish's fins also.

Cleaning flat fish

The entrails of flat fish such as plaice, sole or skate are located in a cavity that is situated behind the head of the fish. To remove them, a semicircular cut must be made behind the head and just under the gills. Open the cavity with your fingers and remove the entrails with your hands or with a spoon. Rinse the fish thoroughly under cold running water. Lay the fish on a board and open the gills. The gills may be either pulled out or severed at the bone and cut off.

How to skin the fish

Not all fish need to be skinned. Leaving the skin on during cooking will help to retain moisture and flavour, which is particularly useful for delicate white fish such as cod. If you leave the skin in tact, remember that you must scale the fish instead.

Skinning a whole round fish

Most round fish are cooked with the skin on, although the skin can be removed after cooking but before serving.

To skin a round fish such as cod or herring, make a cut with a sharp knife across the skin of the fish, just below the head.

Loosen the skin with your fingers and then pull it down towards the tail in one big strip. Cut the skin off with the knife. Repeat on the other side.

Skinning a whole flat fish

The darker top side of the fish must be removed before cooking, but the white side of skin may be left on.
  1. Lay the fish down on a board and cut gently into the skin, just above the tail.
  2. Place your thumb into the slit and carefully loosen the skin around the sides.
  3. Grasp and hold the fish up by the tail and pull the skin down towards the head.
  4. Cut the skin with scissors.

Skinning fillets of fish

The skin may easily be removed from a fillet of flat fish by carrying out the following steps:
  1. Lay the fillet on a clean board skin-side down and with the tail pointing towards you.
  2. Make an incision into the flesh, at the tail end of the fish. Hold the knife at an angle and cut the flesh away from the skin.
  3. Keep the knife almost flat against the skin of the fish the whole time whilst cutting.
  4. In one big cut, separate the skin from the flesh by slowly and gently cutting from side to side and tearing the flesh from the skin. Hold the tail in one hand and cut the skin off by cutting away from your body.

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