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How to Clean a Fish before Cooking

No matter how you prefer to fish, nothing is more satisfying than reeling in a great catch. The part you might not look forward to is cleaning it. Prepping fish is a little messy, but it’s worth it. Fresh fish tastes amazing and cooks fast. Follow these steps to prep your catch for dinner!

  1. Gather Supplies

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Until you are ready to clean your fish, it’s best to keep it alive in a bucket of water or on ice. Then find a space you can easily hose down to prep your fish, such as an outdoor cleaning area at a state park, a picnic table with a disposable cover on top, or a large sink. Gather a few supplies before you get started:

  • Sharp kitchen knife or fillet knife
  • Scaling tool or butter knife
  • Cutting Board
  • Spoon
  • Disposable gloves (optional)
  1. Remove the Scales

Fish scales are like nature’s confetti. You will want to remove them outside or over a large sink to stop them from going everywhere. Once you’ve found a good spot, follow these steps:

  • Rinse the fish and dry it with a paper towel, so it’s easy to grip and not slick.
  • Firmly hold onto the head with your non-dominant hand (it’s a good idea to wear gloves since some fish have sharp teeth and fins).
  • Holding the scaling tool in your dominant hand, remove the scales using short, quick strokes.
  • Repeat this down one side, then flip it over and do it on the other side.
  • Once done, rinse the fish under water to remove any remaining scales. (Make sure the stream of water has low pressure, so you don’t damage the meat.)
  1. Gut a Fish

Be sure to use a sharp knife when gutting a fish. If you use a dull knife, you could harm yourself or accidentally puncture the intestine since you’ll have to use more pressure. Cutting the intestines won’t ruin your fish, but it will make it smell awful! To gut a fish:

  • Lay the fish on the cutting board holding it with your non-dominant hand.
  • With the knife in your dominant hand, insert the tip into the fish’s belly near its anal opening and slide the blade up to the head. Don’t press too hard or dig too deep or you’ll puncture the intestines.
  • Spread the body open. Use a spoon to scoop out the entrails and any dark tissue lining in the abdominal cavity. (If you leave the dark stomach lining, it will give the fish a strong, oily flavor.)
  • Slice a V-shaped notch around the fish’s anus.
  • Cut off the head. If the gills are still attached, use the knife to remove them. (If you are preparing trout, you may want to skip this step.)
  • Rinse the inside and outside with a low-pressure stream of cold water.
  1. Cut into Steaks or Fillets

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This step is optional. You can cook your fish whole after gutting it.

If you are preparing a big fish like tuna, salmon, or mahi-mahi, you may want to cut it into steaks. Fish steaks are perfect for the grill. Just follow these two steps after scaling and gutting your fish:

  • Working from the head to the tail, slice the fish at an angle of 90° through the spine. Make each steak one to one and a half inches thick.
  • Leave the skin on and backbone in but remove any other bones and trim away fat from the steaks.

Want fish fillets? It is best to use a fillet knife. It has a long, thin blade that’s incredibly sharp and flexible. You can skip the scaling step above if you plan to remove the skin after filleting the fish. Follow these steps to fillet a fish:

  • Rinse the fish under cold, low-pressure water. Make sure it is not slick and that your hands are dry before you begin the next part.
  • Lay the fish on its side on the cutting board with the dorsal fin facing you. Cut behind the fin and gills. Slide the blade down to the spine, but don’t sever it.
  • Once the blade reaches the spine, turn the knife to cut down along the backbone. When you are done, it should look like a flap that extends from the fish’s head to its tail.
  • Lift the flap and continue cutting the fillet away from the bones. To get the most meat, keep the blade as close to the ribs and backbone as you can.
  • Repeat these steps on the other side.
  • If you would like to remove the skin, lay the fillets on the cutting board. Slide your knife under the skin and use a sawing motion to remove it.
  • Rinse with cold water and pat dry with a paper towel.

If you have ever made roast chicken or turkey, you can clean and gut a fish. The process is a little messier, but it’s worth it. Cooking fish takes less than half the time, and it’s full of essential nutrients. You don’t have to wait until you catch your next fish to practice! You can pick up whole fish at City Fish Market.