If you want to be a master at making fish dishes, you must learn how to fillet a fish. It may seem intimidating at first, especially because the steps vary depending on the shape of the fish you’re handling. But once you get the hang of it, filleting flat, round, and larger fish with bulging rib cages is easy.
Here’s all you need to know about filleting fish so you can do it yourself next time!
What You’ll Need
- Chopping Board / Cutting Board
- Fillet Knife (manual or electric)
- Fish Bone Tweezers
- Serrated Knife
- Kitchen Scissors
- Cooler / Fridge
- Freezer Bag
- Fresh / Clean Water
- (Optional) Fish Scaler
Salmon has a unique buttery texture and savory taste once cooked. To make things even better, salmon has high levels of astaxanthin that helps with skin elasticity.
King Salmon is particularly a favorite due to its high-fat content and rich flesh. Still, there are other types of salmon worth trying. So if you wonder how to fillet a salmon, here are steps to save the meat and avoid a bony mess.
1. Cut the Belly
After washing the salmon:
- Place it on its side on a large cutting board.
- Hold the tail down using your non-dominant hand.
- Take a sharp fillet knife and insert it through the salmon’s vent (or anus). You will find it near the tail. Do not insert too deep.
- Then, smoothly run the blade from the tail to the head, just a couple of inches past the pectoral fin.
Pro Tip: Maintaining a firm grip when filleting or deboning prevents the fish from slipping.
2. Slice From the Backbone to the Belly
After making the first slice at the belly, make another cut from the back to the salmon’s belly. The cut should run from the backbone, above the pectoral fin, and meet up with the first cut.
- Press the knife down until you feel the spine. However, be careful not to press too hard because you’ll damage the organs.
- Slice downwards until the cut meets the slice at the belly. Don’t slice all the way through; your fillet knife is no match to the salmon’s spine!
- Flip the salmon over and make a similar cut from the backbone to the belly.
3. Remove the Head
When removing a salmon head, using a serrated knife or a cleaver over a fillet knife makes a better, cleaner cut since its thicker blade can slice through the salmon’s thick spine.
- Position the cleaver over the cut from the backbone.
- Push your knife downwards until the head detaches from the body
Pro Tip: Salmon head makes an umami fish stock, but don’t forget to remove the blood and gills, or else you’ll end up with a bitter soup!
4. Discard the Innards
The intestines are still attached to the vent after removing the head. So, go in with your knife and slice that off. Next, remove other organs like the gills and kidney (the long, dark, and red organs along the backbone) and discard them.
5. Slice the Meat Off
This is where the filleting process starts.
Use the tip of the fillet knife and run it along the spine, starting from where the fish head was all the way to the tail.
Always use a sawing motion with long strokes to get through the ribs and separate the meat from the spine. You should also cut as close to the backbone as possible to avoid meat wastage.
Once you finish filleting one side, flip the fish and remove the meat on the other side.
6. Remove the Ribs
To remove the ribs:
- Lay the fillet skin side down.
- Put the sharp fillet knife under the first few ribs.
- Work the knife slowly under the ribs to detach them from the meat. Ensure you angle the knife toward the thicker parts of the salmon as you head to the tail.
You can discard the scrap or include it in your homemade fish stock.
7. Extract the Pin Bones
Using fishbone tweezers, remove the remaining pin bones on the tail end of the fillet. Ensure to pull the pin bones at an angle to avoid tearing the meat on the fillets.
Pro Tip: If you can’t see the pin bones, run your fingers along the fillet.
8. Remove the Skin (Optional)
When filleting salmon, you might wonder how to take off salmon skin. This step is optional since some prefer to cook the fillet with the skin on. However, if you’re not a fan of it, slide the sharp fillet knife between the flesh and skin.
Use long, even strokes away from you, and keep your knife just above the skin until it comes off.
Walleye gets its name from its unique pearlescent eye. It is also popular for its fine-flaked, buttery fillets and sweet, subtle flavors.
Here’s how to fillet a walleye as you learn how to fillet a fish to get perfect fillets:
1. Slice Behind the Gills
Put your sharp knife behind the fin and angle the knife blade as you cut straight down. Stop cutting once you feel the blade touching the spine. Ensure you don’t cut through the backbone.
2. Cut Towards the Tail
Once you get to the backbone, turn your knife to the other side and start slicing toward the tail. Use the backbone as a guide as you cut through.
Once you reach the tail, the fillet comes off easily. Flip the walleye on the other side and repeat steps one and two.
3. Take the Ribcage Out
When the meat is off the fish, removing the ribcage is next.
- Place your knife at the edge of the ribcage and slice along it.
- Leave about one inch between the ribs and the fillet. Also, keeping the blade close to the ribcage prevents cutting too much into the meat.
After cutting down the whole length of the ribcage, it becomes easy to grab and rip it out.
4. Remove the Skin
The fillet has a thin and fat side. To remove the skin:
- Hold the thin side and insert the sharp fillet knife between the flesh and the skin.
- Cut straight along the skin but keep the knife closer to the skin than the meat.
5. Extract the Tiny Bones
At this point, you have the fillet ready, but with a few tiny bones in it. Use your finger to feel the bones. Then, take the knife and cut right where the row of bones is.
Bass are well-known for their resilience, withstanding various temperatures. They are also among the most delicious freshwater fish you can serve for dinner!
Since bass is a popular fish in many cuisines, here’s how to fillet a bass in quick, easy steps:
You can descale sea bass using a descaler or a long, sharp non-serrated knife. We don’t advise using a serrated knife because it will likely shred the bass’ delicate meat.
We recommend picking up the GiniHome Fish Scaler Brush if you prefer a descaler. It is lightweight, easy to maneuver, and hassle-free to clean. You can also use it when learning how to fillet a catfish.
- After placing the fish on its side on a cutting board, hold it by its tail using your non-dominant hand.
- Grip the knife with the other hand and turn it on its blunt side.
- Scrape off the scales using the blunt edge of the fish scaler, beginning from the tail and heading to the head.
- When you finish one side, flip the fish and do the other side too.
Pro Tip: Don’t put too much pressure when descaling, and scrape slowly to prevent the scales from scattering over the kitchen counter.
2. Rinse the Fish
After descaling your catch, rinse it under cold running water to eliminate the slime and any loose fish scales. Then, use a clean kitchen towel or paper towel and pat dry.
3. Gut the Fish
The next step is to slice open the belly from the tail end towards the head.
- Start by piercing your sharp knife at the tail end.
- Then, run it along to open up the stomach and show the innards.
- Use the same knife to remove the entrails and stomach contents.
- Using your fingers, pull and remove the gills.
- After removing and disposing of the innards, rinse the fish once more. Again, pay attention to the inside and outside while cleaning the sea bass.
4. Run Your Knife From the Head to the Tail
Bass, specifically sea bass, is tricky to fillet because of their bulging rib cage.
- Insert the fillet knife’s tip through the spine.
- In a slicing motion, run the knife toward the tail end.
- Repeat step 2 until the first fillet detaches itself from the body.
- Then, flip the sea bass and do the same on the other side.
5. Remove the Rib Bones
Tweezers are the best option to remove the rib bones. Look for five or six bones along the middle of the fillet. When you finish, wash your fillets one last time to ensure it’s clean and ready for cooking.
Flounders and other flatfish have unique features about them. When they become adults, they turn into one-sided fish with both eyes on one side. In terms of taste, flounder has a slight sweetness to it. It’s also delicate, flaky, and slightly fatty.
If you’re curious about how to fillet a flounder as you are how to fillet a trout, here’s the best way:
1. Cut the Fins
Use a sharp pair of kitchen scissors to cut the fins. Alternatively, you can slice them off using a cleaver or a kitchen knife.
2. Cut Along the Lateral Line
Using a sharp knife, cut behind the head, go over the backbone (located in the middle of its body), and follow the lateral line down toward the tail.
3. Slice From the Center
To fillet the fish:
- Insert the blade at an angle and slide it along the backbone.
- Start from the gill as you go along the ribs to the tail. Do so until the fillet comes off. Be careful not to damage the organs as you slice.
- Turn the flounder on the other side, follow the lateral line and separate the fillet from the bones. This process will give you a fillet from either side.
The Final Catch
Filleting a fish is easy! With practice and applying the proper techniques, you can have bone-free, clean-cut fillets in no time.