Get to know your fish anatomy!
Whether filleting or serving whole, knowing fish anatomy helps you make an incision so you can get your meatiest fillet, and easily remove guts from the cavity before cooking.
Preparing whole fish
Watch Darina Allen walk you through scaling, gutting, and filleting. All you need is a sink and a sharp knife!
Maybe you’re trying something new or maybe you grew up eating fish whole, honoring their fullest form:
Step 1: Scale the fish. This makes it easier to make cuts later. A scaler is a tool that you drag against the grain of the fish scales. Fishadelphia sells scalers! More on helpful tools and alternatives below. Don’t press too hard that you tear the skin, the fish should feel smooth after you’ve scaled and rinsed it.
Step 2: Make a shallow cut into the belly, right in front of the anal fin with the blade facing the head. Apply just enough pressure to open the cavity working all the way to the jaw of the fish.
Step 3: Roll up your sleeves. Pry open the fish and pull out the guts by hand, you may need to make cuts to connective tissue holding the guts to the cavity wall. Try to pull the organs out without crushing them so they ooze stuff back into the fish. You don’t need to separate guts from gills if you are removing gills. Rinse.
Step 4: Remove gills with a scissor, cutting as much out as you can.
Here’s a video from Titli’s Kitchen with details on how to scale and gut a fish.
Here is a helpful article with images on how to scale, gut, and prepare a whole fish.
Scaling and Gutting Videos
If you choose to try your hand at filleting, you don’t need to be a fancy chef, but getting it right takes patience and practice. There are many different ways to fillet! The best way to learn is to watch someone do it if you can. We’ll describe the steps to get you started and link to a few videos we found helpful. A sharp knife is KEY.
Step 1: Start your cut just behind the pectoral fin on a diagonal angle towards the head. You’ll need to use some pressure, but not so much that you begin to cut through bone.
Step 2: At the dorsal end of your first cut, turn the knife to be parallel along the dorsal fin, and make a slice towards the tail with light pressure, using the dorsal fin as a guide until you reach the middle.
Step 3: Once you’re in the middle, insert the knife through the fish and, keeping the flat edge of the blade pressed along the spine, begin to drag the knife towards the tail to remove the remaining half of the meat off the bone.
Not all fin fish are built the same! Here’s a great tutorial on how to fillet the flat and mighty New Jersey predator in residence, fluke (or summer flounder).
Check out this video by SAVEUR Magazine to get a sense of the outline and steps for filleting the sides of a fin fish. *Note: fillets from small fish especially may contain bones, you can tweeze them out then or deal with them once you’re eating. Either way, eat carefully. When you start out filleting, there’s bound to be some bones.
Here’s another by Sin City Outdoors that’s done slightly differently and it includes a neat technique to easily remove skin from your fillets!
Alternative: The seafood sherpa uses bottle caps on a stick as a makeshift scaler.
Newspapers - for easy guts and scales cleanup
6” and 9” fillet knives - if you’re going to fillet often on different types of fish! Longer knives tend to be more flexible, which can help pull meat off the bones.
Alternative: For smaller fish, a trusty sharp knife can do the job!
Knife sharpener - There is no such thing as sharpening too often, a sharp blade is your friend.
Whole Fish Recipes
How to cook a whole fish
prep time: 10 MINUTES
cook time: 20 MINUTES
total time: 30 MINUTE
yield: 1 SERVING
1 large whole fish scaled and gutted
1–2 tablespoons olive oil*
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 lemon, halved
handful of fresh herbs (such as rosemary and thyme)
sea salt, freshly-cracked black pepper and garlic powder
Heat oven to 450°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, or grease with cooking spray.
Give your fish one final good rinse once you’re ready to cook, then lightly pat it dry with paper towels. Use a sharp knife to lightly score the top of the fish in diagonal lines about 1-inch apart.
Brush the fish generously on both sides with the oil. Then briefly brush the inner cavity with oil as well.
Slice half of the lemon into slices, and stuff those as well as the garlic and herbs into the cavity of the fish (being sure that the garlic is completely tucked in and not exposed).
Season the outside of the fish generously with a few good pinches of sea salt, black pepper and garlic powder.
Roast for 18-20 minutes, or until the fish reaches an internal temperature of 145°F and flakes easily with a fork. (Cooking time will vary depending on the size/variety of your fish.)
Remove from the oven, and squeeze the juice from the remaining lemon half evenly over the top of the fish.
Steamed whole fish w/ ginger, scallions, & soy
By: Charles Phan
1 (1 1/2-pound) whole white fish (such as sea bass, branzino, or flounder), cleaned with head and tail intact
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 by 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely julienned
1/4 cup light soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine
1 scallion, white and light green parts only, julienned
4 cilantro sprigs
1/2 cup canola oil
Rinse the fish in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Season the fish inside and out with salt and pepper. Place the fish on a heatproof plate that is both large enough to accommodate it (a glass pie plate works well) and will also fit inside your steamer, bending the fish slightly if it is too long. Stuff half of the ginger inside the cavity of the fish and spread the remaining ginger on top of the fish.
Pour water into a wok or stockpot and set a steamer in the wok or on the rim of the stockpot. Make sure the water does not touch the bottom of the steamer. Bring the water to a boil over high heat.
Place the plate holding the fish in the steamer, cover, and steam for about 8 minutes, until the fish flakes easily when tested with the tip of a knife.
While the fish is steaming, in a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce, wine, and 1 tablespoon of water. Set aside.
When the fish is ready, carefully remove the plate from the steamer and pour off any accumulated liquid. Lay the scallion and cilantro along the top of the fish. In a small sauté pan, heat the oil over high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Remove the oil from the heat and pour it directly over the scallion and cilantro to "cook" them. Drizzle the soy mixture over the fish and serve immediately.
Image: Eric Wolfinger
Wen Xin’s family recipes
Wen Xin is a Fishadelphia graduate who now works as our bookkeeper and Chinese community liaison. Her family cooks fish often and knows all about how to prepare whole fish in simple, healthy, and delicious ways!
This is a recipe Wen Xin shared with Philadelphia RowHome Magazine. You can read about Fishadelphia in their winter 2021 issue (pp. 48-49)!
Steamed Black Sea Bass
Watch this video of how Wen Xin’s family steams black sea on our TikTok!
What can I do with fish head and bones?
By Gianfranco Becchina
prep time: 15 mins
Total: 45 mins
Yield: Makes 6 cups
2lbs fish bones and heads (rinsed)
6 cups water
1 cup dry white wine
1 medium leek (sliced)
1 medium onion (thinly sliced)
1 celery rib (thinly sliced)
1 garlic clove (coarsely chopped)
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon sea salt
In a large pot, combine the fish bones and heads with the water, white wine, sliced leek, onion and celery and the chopped garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns and sea salt and bring the fish stock to a simmer over moderately low heat. Simmer the stock for 30 minutes. Strain the fish stock through several layers of moistened cheesecloth or any cloth fabric.
Fish head curry
By: Sashi Cheliah
yield: 3 servings
preparation time : 30 mins
Cooking time: 30 mins
80 ml (⅓ cup) vegetable oil
1 medium eggplant, cut into thin wedges
1 tbsp brown mustard seeds
1 tbsp fenugreek seeds
20 curry leaves
3 tbsp fish curry powder (Baba's brand)
200 ml coconut cream
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
2 tbsp tamarind paste, mixed with 50 ml water
500 ml (2 cups) water
1 medium fish head
6 snake beans, cut into 3 cm pieces
1 large tomato, cut into wedges
coriander leaves and steamed basmati rice, to serve
For the curry paste:
10 tbsp red Asian shallots, peeled and chopped
10 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp ginger, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp galangal, peeled and chopped
2 stalks lemongrass, white part only, chopped
6 tbsp chilli paste
1 tbsp ground turmeric
50 ml water
For the curry paste, place all the ingredients in a blender and blitz into a smooth paste.
Heat a drizzle of oil in a large heavy-based frying pan over high heat. Cook the eggplant wedges on both sides until golden and tender, then remove and set aside.
Reduce the heat to medium, add the remaining oil to the pan, then add the mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and curry leaves and cook, shaking the pan continuously until the mustard seeds start to pop.
Add the curry paste and curry powder and cook, stirring continuously for another 5-6 minutes or until darkened in colour and the oil starts to separate from the paste. Add the coconut cream, sugar, salt, tamarind paste and water and bring to the boil.
Add the fish head and beans, cover and simmer over low heat for 8-10 minutes or until the fish is cooked through. Stir in the tomato and cooked eggplant, remove from the heat and serve scattered with coriander leaves and steamed rice.
White perch fish head broth
5 lbs. White Perch Heads, cleaned
10 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 Medium Onions, quartered and peeled
4 Stalks Celery, roughly chopped
2 Medium Carrots, roughly chopped
3 Cloves Garlic, peeled
2 Dried Bay Leaves
¼ Cup Flat Leaf Parsley (leaves and stems), roughly chopped
8 Sprigs Fresh Thyme
2 Tbsp. Black Peppercorns
¼ Cup Dry White Wine
2 Quarts of Water
1. Melt one stick butter in large stock pot, then fry fish heads for 10 minutes over medium-high heat. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, then add remaining dry ingredients to pot, stirring frequently until aromatic.
3. Add white wine and water, then bring to a boil.
4. Simmer on low for 30 minutes, skimming off any foam that surfaces.
5. String through fine-mesh strainer. Will keep refrigerated for 3 days, or frozen for 2 months