How to Gut a Fish

The key to gutting a fish is finding the freshest fish possible. One that was caught five minutes ago is ideal, but if the fish is store-bought, it should have red gills, clear, bright eyes and should not have a fishy smell. It should smell of the ocean.

The Process

First, scale the fish. Use a scaler or the back of a knife. Hold the fish by the tail and scrape the scales away while working towards the head. If the fish is going to be cooked whole, the gills need to be removed for they are bitter. Put the fish on its back, and gently open the gill flaps. Push the fans of the gills out from between the gill flaps, then cut them off and discard them.

Trim off the fins with kitchen shears, then use a filleting knife to slit open the fish’s belly, and gently pull out the gut. Be careful not to burst the viscera because they will give the fish a bitter taste. After the fish has been gutted, rinse it thoroughly with cold water from the faucet.

To fillet the fish, cut into the back right behind the head. Slide the knife closely along the fish’s backbone. Slice down the length of the fish, and sever the fillet just below where the gills used to be and at the tail. Cut the fillet from the opposite side of the backbone, then skin the fillets.

To skin a fillet, hold it by the tail and work the filleting knife down its length. Make sure the blade of the knife is kept as close to the fish’s skin as possible. If a whole fish is to be used, make a nick in the skin across the end of the tail then run a finger up either side of the fish between the flesh and the skin. Gently but firmly pull the skin away from the flesh, pulling toward the head. If the skin is slippery, dip fingers in salt.

Fish with delicate skin should be placed skin down on a damp cutting board with the tail pointing away from the cook. Hold the tail edge of the skin with the left hand, then cut just above the skin and pull the knife forward. This takes away more of the flesh, but the fillet is intact.

To bone the fish instead of filleting it, use a knife to slice down into the fish’s head. Then, before the knife cuts all the way through, pull the head away from the body. This should take the guts out.

Slice down the back of the fish while keeping the blade of the knife close against one side of the spine. Be careful not to puncture the belly. Just before the tail, open up the fish’s carcass. Turn the fish skin side down, and cut away the backbone and any small bones. Discard the head, guts and bones.

Tsubo-Nuki Technique

The Japanese tsubo-nuki technique is another way to gut fish and is used for fish that are to be served and eaten whole. It is only used on small fish.

First, cut the bone under the fish’s lower jaw, then find a pair of cheap, disposable chopsticks. Insert a chopstick into the fish’s mouth to a place just behind the gills, the insert the other chopstick. Grasp both chopsticks in one hand and twist for a few turns until both the gills and the innards are twined around them, then pull them out. This method, which is as much an art form as a skill, requires the fish to be absolutely fresh. The guts of a fish that’s been frozen, for example, may be stick to the body cavity. The best thing to do in that case is to slit open the belly, and pull the guts out. Another way to gut fish that’s not completely fresh is to cut the head off, and take the guts out through the cut, or use the technique described above.

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