FISH FILLETING 101

Learn to slice and dice your catch like a pro!

Longtail tuna have thick, plate-like skin around their heads and require a stiff, ultra sharp blade and a steady hand to be processed cleanly.

There’s more than one way to skin a flathead, and the same goes for just about any table fish you’re likely to encounter in Australian waters.

Professional fishermen and fish market workers who are preparing dozens of fish per hour have some fairly hard and fast guidelines as to the best ways to liberate slabs of flesh from skeletons, but for us amateurs, the only rule is to do whatever works best.

If you prefer to start cutting from the tail and work your way up to the head, go for it. If you reckon you’ll get a better result doing the reverse, give it a try.

One thing that’s for sure is there’s nothing worse than making a mess of an otherwise great fish with a dodgy filleting job. It’s always worth taking the extra few seconds to ensure you do the best job you can, there’s nothing to be gained by rushing.

Most of us don’t get the chance to fish nearly as often as we’d like to, so it’s doubly important to make the most of a great catch when opportunity strikes.

Here are a few brainwaves that’ve hit in 20 years of filleting fish and allowed me to minimise mishaps and put together some tasty seafood meals at home and on the road.

 

USE THE RIGHT TOOLS

The head and frames of many demersal fish, including this solid tusky, make up a lot of their total volume. Take your time in order to liberate fillets from frame flawlessly.

This can’t be understated. You only need a few bits of gear to do a great job of filleting your catch, but if you’re missing any of them, it makes the whole process pretty hard to do well.

A large plastic chopping board is a good starting point. Wooden boards work fine but are harder to keep hygienic over time.

It helps if you can source a board that’s about double the size of the regular sized chopping boards kept in the kitchen for slicing veggies, to accommodate larger fish.

A pair of quality knives will see you through just about any filleting job. I use an eight-inch filleting knife with a thin flexible blade as well as a six-inch butcher’s boning knife with a much more rigid blade.

The longer flexible knife is perfect for those lengthier, sweeping cuts necessary to produce larger fillets and will stay tight against the fish’s backbone for the length of the cut, reducing wastage.

The shorter blade comes in handy when chopping through rib cages and the hard cartilaginous areas around heads and gill plates.

I experimented with quite a few different knives for this purpose before settling on a Victorinox boning knife on the recommendation of a butcher mate.

When choosing knives it’s worth considering going with a carbon steel blade over some of the more readily available stainless steel options. Carbon steel holds an edge much better and is also easier to sharpen properly.

It’s worth remembering that it’s not as corrosion resistant as stainless steel, so it’s important to rinse carbon steel blades off in fresh water and dry thoroughly after use.

Keep your blades in perfect condition with a sharpening stone and a diamond steel. I like to use a large non-oil stone and give each blade a quick touch up before any filleting job. A couple of swipes on the steel after sharpening and even in the middle of a filleting job will help knock the kinks out of your cutting edge and keep that blade slicing through flesh like butter.

 

PREPARE YOUR CATCH

Unless you’re preparing your catch au natural, at least a basic degree of fish processing proficiency is a necessity.

The one thing that’s just as important as using the right tools is to look after your catch to ensure that it’s in perfect condition come prep time.

Bleed fish by slicing their throats immediately after catching them and the meat will taste much better. Straight after killing them you want to put your catch into a chilled icebox or cooler, ideally into a slurry of ice and saltwater.

You want to reduce the amount of contact that saltwater fish have with freshwater in order to keep them in the best possible condition. Allowing saltwater fish to sit in freshwater for too long encourages bacteria growth, which can cause the fish to smell bad.

Putting your catch on ice for even half an hour before preparing allows the flesh to firm up, which allows for a cleaner filleting job. Ideally you’d cook your fillets immediately after cutting them, but otherwise store them in the fridge or icebox on a plate with plastic wrap over the top.

 

TAILOR YOUR APPROACH

A 10″ butcher’s steak knife is perfect for prepping everything from calamari rings around camp, to flathead and whiting tails, or fresh tuna steaks and cutlets.

There are a few different techniques like skinning and removing rib bones from your fillets that can really improve their eating quality – no one likes yucky bits like skin and bones, after all – but it’s knowing when to deploy these techniques that takes a bit of practice.

Basically, for large fish with fillets weighing over a kilo each, it’s generally worth taking the time to skin and remove all rib bones.

It’s a bit fiddly, but greatly improves the eating experience and the overall wastage is not too big of a deal when you’re cutting up large pelagics like kingfish, tuna, and mackerel and bigger demersal species like flathead, jewfish, drummer and snapper.

When you’re dealing with smaller table fish like whiting and bream, the wastage factor is often too great. These fish often weigh just a kilo or so at best, so by the time you’ve filleted, skinned and de-boned them, you’re barely left with enough meat to bother cooking, certainly not if you’re trying to feed more than one or two people.

For the most part, it’s nice to just avoid dealing with small fish altogether, but if that’s all you’ve got, then it’s probably better to just scale them and cook them whole, or at least leave the skin on the fillets.

Properly preparing your catch is an art that takes years of practice to perfect, but anyone can get pretty competent at it in no time at all.

The best way to work on your technique is to pay close attention whenever you’re watching someone more experienced fillet a fish, this is a great way to learn, as people love to share their knowledge.

If you don’t happen to know anyone with much filleting experience, there’s a practically unlimited amount of information out there on the Internet with tutorial style videos available on YouTube to help prepare just about any type of fish.

Watch a few videos, get yourself the right tools and keep them well maintained and you’ll be slicing and dicing your catch like a pro before you know it.

A brace of bonito atop the chopping block, moments before filleting, skinning and hitting the frypan.