Thursday, April 22, 2010

How to Gut a Fish (Not for Jessica: it gets bloody)

Say hello to my branzini. You can get this fresh at Wholefoods on Cambie.

Why should we gut and cut fish ourselves?
1. Well, how can we be sure that the fish filets from grocery store came from a healthy fresh fish? Ideally, it is the best to buy the fish alive with gills moving and take it home in this condition. If buying live fish is not possible or out of your comfort zone, it is still important to pick your own whole fish. You want to pick a fish that has a nice shine to it, the eyes are clear, and it is not bleeding everywhere. If the fish has a rainbow shine to it (oily), it is not that good.
2. Filet dries up pretty quickly after it is cut. The salt water fish filet's contact with fresh water can also ruin the flavour. It is better to filet your fish right before you cook them. Also, fishmongers will not pick out the bones for you, so this is something you will end up doing anyway.
3. The right gutting technique is important. Doing it ourselves ensure it is done right.

Now you have select a whole fish from your fishmonger. Ask them to scale it for you. Scaling fish at home can be a nightmare, because scales can fly. I learned it the hard way and I was scraping scales off the walls and floor for a week. You can scale the fish underwater which prevent this problem, but it is still a huge pain. However, ask them to not gut it for you. This part we will do ourselves.

Now time for dinner and you have a whole fish on your chopping board. First, put a disposable towel on your board. You can get 2 dozen of these pink ones for a dollar at safeway. Or have paper towel handy and put some old newspaper under the chopping board. (It gets messy).

While there are many ways to fillet a fish, the following instruction is friendlier to people who are new to gutting fish:

1. Lift a side fin up as far as it would naturally go. Slide your knife underneath the fin and cut parallel to the angle of that fin towards the middle of the fish. (Watch your fingers). You will meet some resistance at the center and you will stop there. If its bloody, it's a good fish. Flip the fish over.

Here is a picture with the knife going through the fish.

2. You will need to do the same thing to the other side. Notice that I am using my usual chef's knife. Ideally, you want to use a filet knife, which I don't have. Any long and sharp knife with a pointed end would do. Just be aware that your knife does go through some abuse when fileting a fish.
3. Now your knife is inserted into the fish like in the picture above. With the knife still in the fish, you want to then turn your knife perpendicular to the chopping board. Press down hard and behead it. I omit the photo here, but don't be afraid. It's dead and won't feel a thing. If you think this is gross, just wait till we start gutting lobster or duck.

View of the belly. I turned the belly up to better show it
4. Locate a dark spot on the lower belly of the fish (where the arrow is pointed). With the fish still on its side and belly facing you. point your knife perpendicular to the spine, pierce the fish. You don't need to cut too deep. Piercing the skin is good enough, and then you want to slice towards the "head" (or the lack thereof), in order to cut open the belly. Make a mental note of the lower fins. We will need to find them later.
5. Once the belly is opened, you will see the unappetizing guts in all sorts of color. Scrape it out, discard. Resist the temptation to wash your fish with fresh water. Some discoloration is normal.

Here is a picture of the cleaned inside. Now we are going to cut the filet off the spine.
5. With the fish on its side and the belly facing you. We want to cut along the spine from head to tail, but first, we want to cut towards the spine at an 30˚ angle from the chopping board. The position of you other hand is quite important here. You want to lift up the lower edge (with the lower fin) with your thumb while keeping all your fingers up. Once the knife is at the spine, you want to apply pressure down towards the fish in order to keep it stable while you cut through it. Your knife will meet some resistance with the rib bones of the fish, but just muscle through it. Your hand will remain in this position until your knife has cut all the way through. (Yes your arms will be crossed at the end).

I made the 30˚ angle incision in the fish to better show how it should be cut.

6. Once we are done this side. We want to flip it over and with its back facing towards you. Again, cut towards the spine at 30˚ angle and then cut along the spine towards the tail. The hand position is a little tricky here. You want to use your forth finger and pinky to keep the belly of the fish up and away from the knife, while keeping your fingers safe and applying pressure using your other fingers and palm. However you do it, just keep pressure on the fish and keep it stable while you follow through with your cut with your knife hand.
Now we trim!
6. Remember that lower fin? Feel around the area around that fin. Cut off all the cartilage around that area. Sometimes, there are an upper fin too. Cut that off as well. Feel free to trim around the edges of the fish to give it a cleaner look.
7. (Optional, but highly recommended) Using a fish tweezer or an old pair of tweezer, pull out the bones. Pull the bones out at the same angle and direction as they were grown. Use your hand to feel for these bones. There are about 14-16 bones in a branzini.


You know you have done a good job filleting your fish when there are very little meat left on the spine.

If the spine of the fish is in the center or if you wish to present the fish whole, there is another way of doing it.
Step 2: Cutting and gutting the gill of the fish. (Be careful to not cut your hand on the tough gills)

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