How to Clean Fish Whole

Posted by MNAngler On April - 14 - 2011

When I was a kid, I rarely ever ate fish fillets. The fish I ate were always cleaned and cooked whole. And they were rarely dipped in batter and fried. My mom would fry up smaller panfish in a frying pan, but most of the fish were steamed.

Below is a step by step tutorial on how to clean fish whole. It’s a very simple process and you’ll be surprised how much meat you’ll be able to get by steaming, frying, or grilling your whole fish.

Caution: Some of the pictures in this post may be inappropriate for some readers.

Preamble: The Tools

Cleaning a fish whole requires only one additional tool. And that is a fish scaler. There are many types of fish scalers including electric ones, but I find a manual one works fine.

Step 0: Kill the Fish

It’s always best to kill a fish as humanely as possible before starting to clean it. After all, you wouldn’t want to be alive while someone guts you. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall just gives fish a good whack in the head. That may do the trick, but I like to be a little more sure.

Hold the fish upright as if it’s swimming in the water. Hold your fillet knife vertically and put the tip of your fillet knife at the top of the head on the same plane as the eyes. Push down through the head and then toward the tail slicing the skull. That should ensure you’ve gone through the brain and that the fish is dead.

Step 1: Take off the Fish’s Scales

First start by scaling the fish. Filleting takes the skin off, so in that process you don’t need to do this step, but when you cook a fish whole, the skin typically becomes part of the meal, and crunching on scales doesn’t add to the culinary experience.

Hold the fish at the head and run the scaler from the tail to the head, taking off as many scales as you can. As you take scales off, you’ll feel less resistance where the scales have already been removed. Be sure to get as close to fins as possible because that’s where it’s easiest to leave scales.

Step 2: Remove the Gills

If you ever go to a Chinese grocery store where they sell fresh fish (the non-swimming kind), the fish may be gutted, but the gills will still be attached. They aren’t removed because they are an indication of how long the fish has been dead. Gills lose their color and disintegrate (get mushy) the longer a fish is dead. So if you ever buy a fish like that, check to make sure the gills are red and firm. Once you’ve chosen your fish, you can still ask for the gills to be removed.

The gills are only attached in two places. At the top and bottom of the gill plate opening. Put your fillet knife where the gill meets the head a few inches from the tip of the knife and slice the joint apart. Fillet knifes are best used in a slicing motion rather than pressing down, but it’s easy to want to just chop the joint. I’ve been guilty of it, too. But pressing down doesn’t cut as well and dulls the knife. After you cut the top and bottom joints, grab the gills and pull. They should come right out.

Step 3: Remove the Offal

This is the part that most people are squimish about. Start your knife at the anus and slice all the way to the head. Cutting out the gills probably detached the head at the bottom side of the gill plates, so you can slice all the way through to the opening. (By the way, the gold paint on my thumb in the picture below is just that, gold paint. It’s not fingernail polish. I had spray painted my son’s model rocket the day before. Really. I’m not lying.)

Put your fingers into the body cavity at the back end of the fish, feel for the spine, and just run your fingers down the spine. The offal should just pull out. Be sure to pull out the membrane that sticks to the spine area. That’s part of it’s air bladder and is also not good eating.

I always find it interesting to see what the fish has eaten so after taking out the guts, I cut open the stomach. It’s usually the biggest pouch in the mess you just pulled out, kind of like a deflated balloon. I’ve found crayfish and half digested yearlings in stomachs. One time, I found a crayfish in the stomach and one in the throat. Since it also went after my lure, it was greedy and paid for it.

Once the guts are out, you’re done. Just rinse out the cavity.

If you say you won’t ever clean a fish whole because you don’t know how to cook it, stay tuned. My next post will be about how to steam a whole fish in a microwave. If you have a problem cooking fish with the head still on and you think the fish is looking at you while you eat it, get a grip and get over it. It’s dead.

9 Responses to “How to Clean Fish Whole”

  1. Great post on how to clean a fish. This is how I do it every time. If I want to cook up some fillets, I just fillet the cleaned fish right before cooking.

    Also, I have a question. Why remove the gills? I usually cook the fish with the gills. It’s kinda a pain to remove them, so I just leave them in. I certainly don’t eat them and I don’t believe it affects the flavor.

    And about the “inappropriate images”… It’s not a big deal. It’s just a fish being gutted. Anyone reading this blog is most likely an angler or outdoors man/woman.

    I personally gut the fish right in front of my young children, they help pull the guts out and look at what the fish ate with me. Fun fun fun…

    William @ AnglerWise

    • MNAngler says:

      That’s a good point about the gills, William. I’ve never thought about it. I’ve always watched my parents remove the gills, so I’ve always done the same. I guess the only thing would be their disintegration over time. Mushy gills are not pleasant. I also wonder if they would affect the taste in the way I cook them. We steam them, so the gills might give an offal flavor with the steam going through them and everywhere else. But I’ll have to try it.

      As for the inappropriate images, while you’re right, most of my readers are outdoors(wo)men, I do get hits from searches from non outdoorsy types. I just wanted to be cautious. But I may just be oversensitive.

  2. Bob Benditzky says:

    Outstanding! Great description of the entire process! Great photos!

  3. Yeah, you’re right. Mushy gills sound really nasty. But I (my wife) usually cook up the fish right when it comes back from the lake or river. And if I (my wife) don’t, the fish is in a cooler full of ice on the body of water, and then in the freezer as soon as I clean it.

    Also, why not just chop off the head? I don’t think there is any meat on the head. It’s much easier to just chop the head right off, rather than removing the gills.

  4. Jamie says:

    This is fantastic! My husband and I just started fishing together as a family hobby (I know it is rare!) and it had been so long since either of us had caught a fish we did not know what to do once we finally did! This is the best “how to” I have found so far in all my research online!

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us! We will be back for more!

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