I’ve done all these entries, and haven’t done the one that tells people how to fillet a fish. Maybe it’s because there is a lack of whole fish in the Midwest retail market at affordable prices. Maybe it’s because I just haven’t gotten out to get some. In any case, Here’s a tutorial on how to dress a fish from its whole state to fillets.

First, choose your fish. There are flat fish, like fluke, halibut, flounder, sole, etc., and there are round fish, which usually can be broken down into two groups of large and small. Since I don’t want to buy a whole swordfish or tuna (maybe a tuna, but that’s for a later post) and break it down, we’ll be focusing on the smaller fish. Today, I’ll be using a walleye, the jewel of the Great Lakes, but this method of filleting can be used with a salmon, trout, or any fish that you catch in a lake or river that you have to take the guts out from the bottom. I will try to be discreet with the pictures.

As I said, I will be using a walleye. It’s a great fish, cooking up light, flaky, and moist. In general, it doesn’t have the muddy taste that a lot of freshwater fish have, but it does have a good flavor when baked, broiled, or fried in the great North Midwestern Fish Fry tradition. In contrast to its boring cousin, the whitefish, Walleye is more firm and has a higher oil content, which lends itself well to most cooking methods.

Without further ado, here is the walleye:

It weighs about a pound and three quarters, but keep in mind that as you pare it down, a lot of it will be waste.

Step 1: Put it in the sink. Grasp the fish by the tail with one hand, and run the fish under cool water. With the other, take either a fish scaler (available at all fine fish scaling stores and some kitchen implement stores that may rhyme with Billiams Fonoma) or a sharp knife, and rake the scales off using a motion going from the tail to the collar. Hold your blade almost perpendicular to the skin, as the severe angle of the knife will get under the scales and lift them up, separating them from the fish and running into the bottom of the sink. This will be messy, but it is  one of the most important steps if you want to have a crispy skin and nice presentation. If you want to eat the skin, YOU MUST DO THIS. Nothing stinks more than getting a scale in your mouth when you’re enjoying a nice dinner. It’s like getting a popcorn husk stuck on your tongue.

Repeat this process with the other side of the fish. (PROTIP: You can also use a clean steel scouring pad, not Brillo or anything that has detergent in it, to scrape off some scales. It works well) When you’re done, rinse the fish, pat it dry, and make an incision directly below the chin on the underside of the fish, and running the length of the belly all the way back to the anal fins.

Here’s another helpful tip: Fish like walleye, snapper, branzini and many other small species that have spikes on their fins that secrete a toxin to help protect them in the wild from predators. From my experience working in places where they throw and catch fish as part of a daily routine, do not get poked. If you need to, trim these fins off first thing. This includes the dorsal fin (The big one on top) and the anal fin (on the bottom, close to the tail). Anything that looks like it could be a poisonous dagger, try to stay away from. Also, if you’re thinking of saving scraps for soup, you can leave these out. They have next to no nutritional value, and they don’t make the soup taste any better.

So your fish, huh? It has this incision now. Wow. There’s guts. Take them out and throw them away. Don’t be a hero. It’ll all be over soon. Just put them in a bag, and leave it in the sink to put all the other stuff in.

Guts removed, your fish should now look like this:

Pretty Cool. You’re doing it. Rinse out the cavity, and pat it dry, placing it on your cutting board. If you notice, my cutting board in the picture was too small, so I’ve improvised at home by putting two together. This doesn’t really work. If you have a surface that is easily cleanable that is not a semiporous wood, but is stable and can deal with a little slipping around, go with that. You can also put a dish towel underneath if the freshness or sliminess of your fish is too much to keep still.

Okay. Now that your fish is on your cutting surface, sharpen your knife. Get your steel, tri-stone, or whatever sharpening implement out and sharpen your knife. Nobody likes working with a dull knife. If you don’t have one of these, in a pinch, you can use the bottom, unfinished edge of a ceramic mug, holding your blade at a 30-45 degree angle to the surface, and giving it a few passes. It is important as you sharpen your knife, to make sure you use the same basic angle every time. If you do not, you run the risk of creating a wavy, uneven surface on the cutting edge of your blade. It will be dull, and the life of your knife will waste away in sadness, never living up to its full potential.

Do not use a serrated knife. This will rip your fish.

Sidebar: I don’t watch Top Chef. Why? The first season, I saw so many people rip and tear their fish up when they were challenged to fillet a fish. Professionals had never filleted fish before. It was disgraceful. Their technique was all over the place, and they left so much meat on the bone that, as a former coworker once said, “it would feed my family back in Portugal for a week, but they wouldn’t eat it out of protest for a job done so poorly.” You get the right tool for the job, be deliberate in your cuts, study up on how to do it, and just do it.

At the end of the day, though, it’s just a fish. When I started out at the Market in Seattle, I thought I was alright at filleting fish, but I didn’t really even have the basic skills down. For the first few months, I was the hawker, the guy out front bringing people in, the guy throwing the fish over the counter. After a while, I wanted to start filleting, so I watched, asked questions, learned, and tried.

I wasn’t very good at first. I wouldn’t say I tore up the first fish I tried, but I left more than a little bit of meat on the bone. The point though was that I had started learning the right way of doing things. As time went on, I got better. As my boss told me, “As you get more comfortable, you’ll understand that it’s just a fish.” Yes, it had a life, and especially in the Pacific Northwest, where fish is so tied to the culture that you can’t separate the fish from the region, it’s a part of the every day, but it’s just a fish. Once I understood that, my movements with a knife became more relaxed. The motion became more fluid, and I started getting better. After about two hundred fish, I was decent. Not great, but not horrible, either. There are guys out there who have filleted more fish in a week than I have in the past ten years. That’s all they do. I see them at competitions, at Fish houses, cutting events. They’re magnificent. To see someone who has so much control over their craft that they can do it with great practical flourish and agility is a marvelous thing. I don’t care if it’s watching a football game or listening to a panel discussion on the mating habits of primates at the Jane Goodall Center. There’s something to be said for watching a master at work.

Okay, now that we have that tidbit out of the way, look at that picture again. The one right above all that tangential nonsense. Notice the part of the fish closest to the head. The little C shape behind where the gills are is called the collar. At the front of the belly incision, you’ll want to make sure that you have cut all the way up to and through the arrow shaped point under the chin. This is the first cut you will make to make your fillet look like a fillet

Apologies for the following pictures not showing the action of cutting the fish. It’s hard to hold an iPhone with a slimy hand and cut with the other.

Lift up the gill flap, and angle your knife blade toward the head, When you feel the spine, angle the blade edge back, running right along the spine, parallel to the table. Angle the tip down pointing at the table, and lift up the bottom edge of the fillet so that your knife does not catch the flesh and cause any marks or gouges when you run the blade from the collar to the tail.

Are you at that point?

Good.

You should have the handle of the knife underneath the belly incision, and the point of the knife angled slightly downward toward the table along the top edge of the fish.

Now, fish is delicate, so it doesn’t take much effort to fillet it off the bone. By drawing the knife toward you with your strokes while applying gentle pressure in the direction of the tail, you should be able to feel your knife slicing through the pinbones that are along the ribcage.

Guide the knife through until you get past the ribcage, and then flatten it back out so the blade is once again parallel to the table. Finish slicing the length of the fish and set the fillet aside.

Repeat with the other side. Here’s how it should look when you’re done.

Flip the fillets over so they’re skin side down. Trim off the collar, as shown in this next picture.

Those little pieces that are separated are the collar.

Once the collar has been removed, you want to take your knife and trim off the white part that was inside the belly cavity. Get the blade as close to the white part as you can, and angle it down. Do a  quick draw of the  blade under it, and slice the entire part right off. If the swimmer fins on the underbelly of the fish are still attached, you may find it easier to remove the white part if you trim the fins off before you attempt to cut it off.

Okay, now you have your fillets. If you’ve fully scaled them before you fillet, you can leave them just like that. The skin, after cooking, crisps up nicely, and adds a lot of flavor to the finished product. If you have a good skin with minimal scales, season it with salt and pepper, and saute it for about 4-5 minutes with the skin side on the pan.

With fish, the theory of 10 minutes of cooking time per inch of thickness applies here, and as most fillets fall somewhere under the 3/4″ thickness, it’s best to finish by flipping onto the flesh side for two minutes, giving a light brown to the top without hard cooking all the way through. As with steak, it’s good to undercook it just a little bit, as the residual heat from the meat and cooking vessel will gently finish it, leaving you with a product that is still moist.

If you wish to skin your fish, take your knife at a 45 degree angle, and 1/4″ from the tail, make a cut through the flesh down to the skin. All you need to skin a fish is a small enough tab close to the tail to grasp while you wiggle the skin, not the knife, back and forth. Your knife should be sharp enough to handle it. As you grasp the little tab on the tail, angle your knife the other way at approximately 45 degrees, and pull the skin taut, towards you, wiggling it back and forth against the blade, which is resting where the skin meets the flesh. It should easily separate, and you should be left with a nicely trimmed fillet and a skin with next to no meat on it.

Something like this

It’s okay if there’s a little meat left on the skin. You can go back and do a little patchwork to make it look prettier. Remember, it’s not about how it looks, but how it tastes.

With all foods, I look at where they come from and what other items grow there that would be complimentary. With Fish, Alaskan Halibut may be well matched with pineapple, but your tropical fruit has much more in common with a Tuna or an Opah.

Walleye, one of the prizes of the Great Lakes and a staple of the fish fry, is best suited, in my opinion, to flavors such as mustard and pecans. Freshwater fish, while delicious with citrus, never really gets the same bump from oranges, unless it comes in a side of hollandaise. The Fish Fry is about flavors that stick. The most adventurous that most people get with their flavors with lakefish is adding a squirt of lemon to their tartar sauce. By crusting a walleye with a mixture of panko breadcrumbs and crushed pecans or walnuts sticking to a coating of a thick german mustard, it’s a hearty winter flavor in a lighter package than your meat and potatoes.

Of course, when it comes to what is served best with the walleye, always go for a side of boiled potatoes. Maybe a little dill. Maybe a little butter. With all fish from the Midwest, if you want to keep it authentic, keep it simple. And Enjoy.

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