How to Clean a Fish
March 18, 2023  Print
Cooked whole fish is commonplace in Asian and many European and Latin American cuisines. In the United States, eating a whole fish is not nearly as popular as it is in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, you can still easily find and buy whole fish at grocery stores.
I have shared quite a few whole fish recipes on my website. For many Asian families, eating a whole fish used to be reserved for special occasions. This was especially true for people who did not live near water. But these days, thanks to advancements in transportation and food storage, people can enjoy whole fish throughout the year.
In my family, we eat whole fish at least once every two weeks. Both my boys love the Chinese style steamed (like steamed branzino) and braised whole fish. I have been training them to pick out and spit out the fish bones and they are getting really good at it. Below is an example of my chili bean whole fish recipe that we enjoy from time to time.
Even though I get most of my fish from grocery stores or from Costco, where the fish has usually already been gutted and scaled, I still need to do some minor cleaning to remove the last bits of blood. This minor step of cleaning is especially important for steaming a whole fish, where the residual blood can cause the fish to have a fishy taste. I know that sounds counterintuitive. Shouldn’t fish taste fishy? Not really! Fish usually shouldn’t taste fishy unless you didn’t clean it properly or the fish has gone bad.
As seen below, all you need to clean a fish are kitchen scissors and optionally a fish scaler. I like to use my Tojiro separable kitchen shears, which can separate into two pieces to allow for easy cleaning and sharpening.
Without further ado, here are four simple steps for cleaning a whole fish. These steps will allow you to clean a whole fish that you just bought or fished up from a body of water. While the steps show how to clean a whole, untouched fish, they can also be applied generally to a fish that has already been cleaned at a store if the cleaning was not done very well.
- Remove the guts. Find the little opening (vent) in the fish’s underbelly. Make an incision using kitchen scissors (depicted are Tojiro separable kitchen shears). Cut straight across the belly to where the front fins are located. Do not cut all the way through. Remove and discard the insides except the fish eggs (if any – not shown here). Rinse the insides.
- Scale the fish. Hold the fish tail and scrape the fish from tail towards the head using a fish scaler, kitchen scissors, or the back of a knife. Wear an apron since the scales tend to fly around while scraping. Rinse the fish thoroughly afterwards.
- Remove the fins (optional) and gills. If preferred, you can remove all the fins and the tail with a pair of kitchen scissors or a sharp knife. Remove the gills which are the reddish, thread-like tissue behind the fish’s head. See pictures
- Remove any residual blood. Look for a thin membrane in the fish’s gutted belly. Remove as much of the membrane as possible. Behind the membrane, look for and remove a thin blood sack. Rinse the inside of the fish thoroughly. There shouldn’t be any blood remaining at this point. The fish is ready to be cooked whole or cut further into steaks and fillets.
Note, when buying fish, look for a fish with clear eyes (see below), firm body, and shiny scales. Avoid buying fish that smells funny or feels slimy or soft to the touch.
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