How to Fillet a Fish the Easy Way – Step by Step Tutorial

Everyone knows that fish is a healthy thing to eat. It has all sorts of great benefits; from high amounts of protein to healthy fats and a very satisfying eating experience. There are so many great recipes to make with the different kinds of fish that you may never tire of eating it.

Here at home, I prefer to butcher my own fish. It saves a little money and gives me some great bones to make stock for sauces and soups. Below you will find a simple step-by-step walkthrough of filleting a small fish. I have also included a couple simple cooking techniques that can be made on any occasion.

The type of fish that is available may differ from state-to-state and town-to-town. For me, I found a couple small sea bass that are great for a nice dinner paired with a fruity white wine. Choose what you like but pay attention to a few things. First of all, choose a fish that has clear eyes, a firm flesh that springs back when you touch it and red gills. Of course, it shouldn’t smell fishy at all. It should smell like the sea.

Not only is fish healthy, but it is very versatile. It can be used for lunch or dinner and, in some cases, breakfast! White fish can be cooked in any number of ways; from frying to poaching to roasting to searing. It can be simmered in stews, stuffed and roasted whole and, as with sushi, can be eaten raw. There are so many great things we can do with this amazing protein, I hope that you find the two ways that I am including useful.

Below, I have included a quick and simple recipe you can use with your now filleted fish. Cooking this fish only requires a little olive oil, salt, pepper, a knob of butter and a little squeeze of lemon juice. I have also included a handy fish broth recipe where you can utilize the bones you will have acquired from your new-found butchery skills. Fish broth is great to keep in the freezer for a nice fish chowder in the cold months of winter or a hearty bowl of cioppino when fresh seafood is plentiful. Of course, let us not forget risotto. Fish broth is great with a seafood based risotto dish!

Simple Seared Fish Fillet

Course Main Course
Cuisine American
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 8 minutes
Total Time 28 minutes
Servings 4

Ingredients

  • 2 1-2 pound small white fish
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh lemon juice to taste
  • Splash of olive oil

Instructions

  1. Remove the fillets from the fish (see step-by-step instructions below).
  2. Remove skin from each fillet (see step-by-step instructions below).
  3. Salt and pepper both sides of each fillet and set aside.
  4. Pour a splash of olive oil into a hot skillet over medium high heat.
  5. Place the flesh side down on the hot oil and sear for about 3 minutes.
  6. Carefully flip over with a fish spatula and cook about 3 more minutes.
  7. Add a knob of unsalted butter and allow it to melt, swirling the pan around so that both fillets get buttered.
  8. Turn off the heat and squeeze the juice of fresh lemon to taste.
  9. Remove from skillet and serve.

Recipe: Simple Fish Broth (many great uses!)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Servings: 2 quarts

Total Cooking Time: 20-30 minutes

Ingredients:

  • Carcass of 2 1-2 pound small white fish (include bones, skins and heads)
  • Cold Water

Instructions:

  1. Toss bones, skins and heads of recently fillets small fish into a soup pot large enough to hold 3 quarts of water.
  2. Cover the fish scraps with cold water by at least 2 inches.
  3. Bring to a boil then turn down to a simmer.
  4. Simmer for 20 – 30 minutes, removing any scum that may float on the water.
  5. When head easily falls off the carcass, strain into freezer-safe quart containers.
  6. Allow to cool on the counter for about 3 minutes.
  7. Cover the containers, label, date and freeze for future use.

Step 1 – Choosing a Fresh Fish

Choose a fish that has clear eyes, a firm flesh that springs back when you touch it and red gills. Of course, it shouldn’t smell fishy at all. It should smell like the sea. These are Mediterranean Sea Bass.

Choose fish that have a firm flesh that springs back when pressed with your finger


Choose fish with clear eyes, red gills and no “fishy” smell

Step 2 – Remove the Innards

Start a slit from the anus of the fish up towards the head. Expose the innards, pull them out and rinse under cold water.If possible, get fish that have not been gutted yet. This will ensure the fish is the freshest.




Step 3 – Cut off Fillets

Starting behind the fin at an angle, cutting down until you hit bone, do not go any further. Using the tip of a flexible boning knife, follow the spin from the head towards the tail, carefully scraping to the bone so as to not remove any more flesh as is necessary. Remove the fillet, flip the fish over and repeat on the other side. Save carcass for fish both. Recipe included.

Step 4 – Remove the Skin

Though this is not necessary, it makes for an easier eating experience. Remove the skin by holding onto the tail end of the fillet with the first two fingers of your non-cutting hand. Carefully push down with the knife until it bends slightly. Follow the contours of the fillet ensuring that you only remove skin and not flesh in the process.  Slowly wiggles the knife away from yourself until the skin is removed. Save the skin for fish broth.

Step 5 – Consider Using the Bones

Using the bones for broth is a frugal way to make a meal in the future. This can be used for soups or sauces in the future. Make a couple quarts and toss it in your freezer until you need it down the road. Just cover the bones, scraps, heads and skin with cold water by about two inches. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let it bubble slowly for approximately 30 minutes. Strain, cool and freeze. Simple as that!

Step 6 – Cook the Fish

Salt and pepper both sides of each fillet and set aside. Pour a splash of olive oil into a hot skillet over medium high heat. Place the flesh side down on the hot oil and sear for about 3 minutes.

Carefully flip over with a fish spatula and cook about 3 more minutes. Add a knob of unsalted butter and allow it to melt, swirling the pan around so that both fillets get buttered.

Turn off the heat and squeeze the juice of fresh lemon to taste. Remove from skillet and serve.

Butchering your own fish is a great way to eat the freshest product possible. Fresh is always better than frozen and seeing the whole fish will ensure that you are eating the best possible product available.

These recipes can be changed up a bit to fit your needs or food taste. For example, the fish broth can become fish stock with the addition of mirepoix (celery carrots and onions), a couple bay leaves, some fresh thyme and a few whole peppercorns. Follow the recipe the same way but the end result will be a bigger flavors liquid that you can strain and make a nice soup with.

The seared fish can be served with a nice garden salad, a baked potato and, of course, a nice white wine. You can put on a jar of your favorite tomato sauce and a few capers and have a nice dish you can toss on top of angel hair pasta. A quick and easy dinner on those nights where you just need something fast for your hungry family.

Whatever you choose to do with your new-found knowledge, I hope that you enjoy this recipe and feel free to comment with any questions.

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