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How To Fillet A Fish? ( The Best Way )

post #1 of 41
Thread Starter 
 It takes a certain amount of touch to fillet a fish, but expending a little more effort at the cleaning stage is worth it because it means no bones at the eating stage. When you get the hang of filleting, you can zip through a pile of fish pretty quickly, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment that you can do something as well as the old-timers.

So, let's begin the work:

*Hold the fish on the cutting board with the back of the fish toward you. Using a thin flexible knife, cut through the back of the head to the backbone and turn the blade so it's running along the backbone.

*Hold the fish by placing your non cutting hand over the head. Push the knife along the backbone to the tail using a sawing motion.

*Pull the fillet away from the body of the fish while making small careful cuts with the knife to retain as much flesh as possible.

*Using small strokes of the knife, remove the fillet from the rib cage, feeling your way around the bones with the knife.

*Turn the fish over and repeat steps 1 through 3 on the other side. Using a flat bladed knife, slice a bit of the skin away from the flesh. 

*Cut a hole in the loosened skin so you can fit your finger through it.

*Hold the skin through the finger hole and pull the skin away from the fillet, using the knife to hold the fillet down. Hold the knife at a 45 degree angle.

*With your fingers and a clean tweezer, feel for any pin bones and pull them out of the fillets.

Take it slow on your first few to make sure you get the hang of it. Once you do, you’ll start to zip through your stringer like a pro.
post #2 of 41
I filet slightly differently. You can find the instructions here: http://www.the-outdoor-sports-advisor.com/cleaning-fish.html, along with other fish prep methods.

There are two major differences. First, as you slice towards the tail, actually cut through the rib bones etc. It's faster and easier to cut them away afterwards than to do all that sawing-with-the-knife-tip stuff.

Second, there is no reason to cut the filet off if you're going to remove the skin. Cut down towards the tail, but leave the skin intact to serve as a hinge. Flip the filet over. The weight of the fish will serve as an anchor as you slice the flesh off the skin. Much quicker. And much easier than wrestling with a flap of skin.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #3 of 41
Way I learned KYH was the same as you. Some fish I don't bother removing the rib bones because they are so easy to pick out once cooked and they get sort or crunchy on the edges after being fried and are good to chew on. Northern pike will have a line of Y bones that is very difficult to remove unless the fish is pretty large. I know they are there when I eat the fish and leave them in. This is home cooking though and not serving to customers.
post #4 of 41
Yeah, the pikes are a little different, Mary, because of the Y bones.

I can't imagine cleaning pickeral for that reason. But with Northern and Musky it's relatively easy.

Start by putting the fish on its belly. Then cut down to the backbone and use it as a guide to cut a filet off the top of the fish. Looking down on it you'll see the backbone flanked on each side by a line. Those are the tips of the Y bones. Using them as a guide, remove the filets from the sides. As you move back, the Y bones disappear. At that point you cut a little deep, just like cutting a regular filet.

What you mind up with from a pike is 4 filets and the back piece. If you split that you have five filets.

This really sounds a lot more complicated than it is.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #5 of 41
I just pick out the Y bones as I eat  bones in fish don't bother me as long as I know they are there.
post #6 of 41
A lot of people want to know how to cut fish to get it ready for sashimi and sushi.  Of course, cutting the actual portions requires blocking as well.  But it might be interesting for some people to learn how to get the fillets.  So, here are:

20(!) steps steps to fillet a medium sized, round fish Japanese style:

(You'll need a chef's/gyuto or deba appropriately sized for the fish, and a long slicer/sujibiki or yanigaba.  The first 14 steps are with the chef's/gyuto or deba, the last four with the slicer or yani.) 
 
  1. Scale the fish, using the edge of your .
  2. Check to make sure scaling is complete, pick up any scales you may have missed because they were hiding under fins, etc.
  3. Rinse fish and board, making sure there are no scales left on the board.
  4. Cut a vent in the belly
  5. Turn fish so it's back is towards you, and it's head towards your knife hand.
  6. Make the first head cut:  Cut down to the spine without cutting all the way through it.  The cut should be located just behind the pectoral fin (behind the gill vent), and end right behind the skull.  It should be angled so that the top of the head will be distinctly shorter than the bottom.  The cut should be made mostly by "push cut."  In any case, it should not require more than a single draw.  Sawing is bad fish technique.  Don't do it. 
  7. Turn the fish over, belly facing you, head still towards your knife hand.  Repeat the previous cut, but this time go just barely through the spine.
  8. Put down your knife and remove the head.  If you weren't too rough, the gill structure should come with it. 
  9. Clean the guts from the vent.  Check to make sure the belly is completely cleaned.
  10. Rinse the fish and board, washing off any blood.  Check for scales again. 
  11. Orient the fish as it was before you cut off the head -- head end facing your knife hand, back towards you.  Starting at the head end, use your tip to find the spine, and your edge to find the backbones. 
  12. Keep your knife as horizontal as possible and run it down the length of the fish.  Allow yourself a little room from the exact center of the back.  You should pass the dorsal fin easily.  Use the spine as the guide for the knife tip.  Make the cut quickly.  Don't be hesitant and don't saw.  Better to leave a little flesh than to create rough surfaces.  Cut through the skin when the knife is very close to the tail. 
  13. When you've completed the cut. turn the fish around so that the belly is towards you and the head faces your off hand.   Use your offhand to fold back the flap of flesh at the tail, insert your knife there and make a single cut down the entire length of the fish -- right through the rib bones. 
  14. The first fillet should be free.  Lift it off, set it aside and repeat the process.  Remember, always fillet with the second side, flesh up.
  15. Lay the fillets out, skin side up, and cut off the dorsal and anal fins -- if you didn't already remove them because they cut in the way during the filleting.  
  16. Turn the fillets (again!) skin side down with the belly towards you, and the back  away.  Use the point of your slicer or yanigaba to carve behind the rib bones.  You'll have to use several passes to completely cut it out so you can lift the rib cage in one piece.  Try to make as few cuts while preserving as much as possible. 
  17. Keeping the fillets with the same orientation, use your slicer or yani to cut a very thin slice off the head end -- on the bias.   Cut into the flesh between the skin and the flesh, angling your knife slightly down so it gets right down to the skin but doesn't cut through it. 
  18. When you've got the entire width of your knife in the fish, grab the skin (where you made the entry cut) with your offhand.
  19. Keeping the edge angled very slightly down toward the skin, wiggle your knife while you pull the fish into the edge.  You can move the knife forward if you're working on a short board.   Keep pulling until you've pulled the entire fish past the edge, and the skin will come off very cleanly -- while the fish flesh itself will be slick as glass.
  20. Keep the fillets oriented so that what used to be the skin side is down on the board.  Close your eyes and use your fingers to feel for pin bones.  Use a special pin-bone remover (which is like a pair of flat end tweezers), flat end tweezers or needle nose pliers to pull out all of the pin bones.  You may of course open your eyes, but most people find their finger tips are their most sensitive without visual distraction.  Try and pull the bones out in whichever directions do the least damage to the flesh.  This can vary from fish to fish and even bone to bone.    

Some additional notes:


It seems like a lot of steps, but once you've done it a few times, the whole process goes very quickly.  Once the scaling is done, the whole process shouldn't take more than a few minutes -- at most.  Less than a minute for the head, and about the same for the actuall filleting.  Another minute for trimming and skinning.  Taking the pin bones takes as long as it takes -- take your time and do a good job.    Unless you're really well set up for it, it's keeping the board and fish clean that will take most of your time.

The particular type of knife matters less than its sharpness.  Fish cuts should be glass smooth, and that means a very sharp knife.  While I mentioned the types of knives used for this kind of filleting, they only make it easier.  You can work with anything -- so long as it's sharp.  FWIW, I use a chef's and a slicer. 

Sharpness and sharpening are key to doing a good job.  Fish sharpness is a little different from meat sharpness.  If you reserve separate knives for meat and fish, they both should be sharp -- as sharp as you can cut.  But red meat cuts better with a little more coarseness, "tooth" if you will, while fish -- especially for raw presentations -- wants a very polished edge.  This has to do with the structures of the different flesh.

At any rate, a 6000# polish (using the JIS grit standard) is about as coarse as you want to get for fish cutting.   

Since I know the questions are going begging:  (A) It's not a big issue either way with poultry; and, (B) Vegetable prep wants polish, just like fish.

It would be unrealistic to expect experienced people to switch from whatever they're doing to the Japanese technique, unless they have a huge interest in raw fish.  But I hope this was at least interesting.

BDL
Edited by boar_d_laze - 4/10/10 at 11:01am
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post #7 of 41
bones in fish don't bother me as long as I know they are there.

For me it really depends on the kind of fish and how it was prepared. For instance, a whole baked or poached salmon is fine. I just slide portions right off the bone structure. But most of the time I don't want bones hidden in the flesh.

That's one reason I don't eat fried sucker, for example. I'm not up to fighting those bones. On the other hand, I'll half-cook a sucker, strip the meat off the bones, and then use it to make a chowder.

If we're talking filets, I don't want any bones, period. Nor should there be any if the fish was fileted right.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #8 of 41
This is great.  My secret in filleting fish or just about anything that needs filleting is the fillet knife.  It should be bendy and sharp! 
post #9 of 41
Unless your name is Morimoto; in which case you use a 12 inch chef's knive.

Seriously, Nichole, I'm always surprised at the number of cooks who don't use filet knives. Not just for fileting fish---they have a myriad of uses. For instance, you can't beat them for cutting citrus supremes.

Many people prefer an electric knife for fileting. I've never been able to get the hang of them. And, the fact is, a manual filet knife is at least as fast.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #10 of 41
I have a 20+ year old rapala brand filet knife that I use for fish mainly but it gets used to debone chicken too. The thin flexible blade works great. The primary fish I run into here are walleye, northern pike, and the various panfish and the only one with tricky bones is the northern.
post #11 of 41
 when it comes to fish like salmon, i have noticed when i lay the filet over a 2 liter Coke bottle,
the pin bones stick waaay up and are easier to find than when laying the filet flat on a cutting board.
btw: when i filet a fish, i use a deba knife and i don't cut through the rib cage.  why stress a knife's
edge by popping it through bones??
i generally follow b_d_l's instructions except after step #13 i cut the flesh off the ribs instead
of cutting through the ribs.
post #12 of 41
Good tip about the coke bottle, Crimson. Any round surface will do, even a mixing bowl.

I disagree, however, with the idea that something like salmon rib bones will stress a good knife. I've used mine that way for more years than I care to count, and have yet to hurt a blade.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #13 of 41
Good tip on the Coke Btl to remove the bones. I have a cook that will ask me if its OK to us a Pepsi btl instead. Of course being the good training Chef that I am, I will tell him to follow the directions, its says Coke btl...........................................Billyb
post #14 of 41
 Every fish is slightly different, you don't clean and fillet a Dover Sole same way as Salmon. Key is long thin extremely sharp knife. 
A snapper for example , after removing both fillets then the skin is removed by sliding knife from the tail side up towards head side  between skin and flesh starting with skin side on bottom.  In some fish there are no pin bones.
    One of hardest to do is Real  Chilian Sea Bass because bones go in all directions. I butcher about 15 or 20 different species per week in season . The smaller the fish ,the harder and the older the fish the harder.to clean and fillet.
    Trick to scaling for volume is use a curly coat stainless steel scrubber  under cold running water scales come right off. Fingers find pin bones and needle nose pliers take them out. Put on ice as soon as possible but don't let ice or water touch fillets .Either put ice in plastic bags or fish in plastic bags ,if fillets get wet they get water logged and mushy and also change color. .

Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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post #15 of 41

I definitely agree with Ed that every fish is at least slightly different.  I think it helps a lot to have an assortment of filet knives to fit the species and the size fish you are working with.  With redfish and large snapper, I will usually make the first cut behind the head through to the backbone to the fish throat with a filet knife with a serrated blade.  These fish have thick scales and will dull a regualar filet knife pretty quickly.  From there I will use a standard filet knife of a length that is proportional to the size of the fish. After the first cut you can work under the skin of the fish and get a smooth cut.  My longest blade is probably 14 inches, and my shortest around 8 inches.  On large snapper I generally use three knives, and I always start with very sharp knives.  Speckled trout are pretty easy, and one good standard filet knife will knock them out. 

I'm not bad at fileting fish as far as amateurs go.  In fact, I thought I was pretty good until I watched some pros that made their living cleaning fish in Cabo - and some here in the gulf coast area.  They are REALLY good, and REALLY fast.  I watched them filet some mahi and blackfin tuna quicker than I could peel a shrimp. 

If any of you are just learning, it would be time well spent to go watch some pros do their thing.



 

post #16 of 41
If any of you are just learning, it would be time well spent to go watch some pros do their thing

If nothing else it will teach you humility!

But as with all things in life, the more you do it, the better at it you become. And those guys do a lot of fileting.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #17 of 41
There are a lot of different ways to do fish.  If a long, thin, knife is necessary, or serrations for that matter, pity all the sushi guys who are doing it wrong.

BDL
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post #18 of 41

I don't think anyone is claiming a particular blade is necessary, BDL. They're talking about what they use, and why it works for them.

Take OldPro's last post. I don't think I've ever even seen a filet knife with a serrated edge. I've certainly never used one. But if that's what works best for him, then it's the best tool for the job.

I know many fishermen---both sport anglers and professionals---who don't use anything for fileting except an electric knife. They are neither right nor wrong. They're just using what works best for them. And if they belonged to this community I'm sure they'd be explaining why their choice makes sense. But they wouldn't be claiming that an electric knife is necessary to do the job.

I've fileted more than my share of fish using a chef's knife. Would I reach for one as my first choice? Not on your life. For me, a filet knife (smooth edged) is the first choice, followed, in certain situations, by my 8" slicer. Are those necessary? Absolutely not. But for me they make the job faster, easier, and more precise.

All that aside, however, there is a reason why they're called filet knives. No, they're not necessary. But they were designed to perform that specific task; and do it very well.

FWIW, no matter what you choose, knifewise, if you want the ultimate test of your fileting skills, work on a triggerfish or three. You might decide that a straight razor and a Skill saw are actually necessary tools.

 

 

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #19 of 41
Ditto on cleaning triggerfish.  We will usually keep a few when we fish the rigs offshore because of their quality on the table.  Another tough one to clean is the sheepshead, which is also worth the trouble.  A good friend was in New Orleans recently and got the "bay snapper" on the special.  It was so good he asked the waiter what it really was.  Turned out to be sheepshead.

But the absolute heavyweight champion of difficult fish to clean is the alligator gar.  My coonass friend wanted to keep one recently to show me how good they were.  We caught one in the 40 pound range and flopped it up on the cleaning table.  He went home and he came back with his Skil saw, which he said was his weapon of choice for cleaning gar.  It worked.

BDL - I certainly don't think the sushi chefs have it wrong in their choice of knives.  I've just made some personal choices that have worked best for me after a lot of trial and error.  And I've burned up more electric knives fileting fish than I'd like to admit.  Now, I pretty much clean Amish (no electricity), and I go to the cleaning table with a pretty good assortment of knives. 
post #20 of 41
Another tough one to clean is the sheepshead.....

For the same reason. Both fish make their livings off of barnacles; and their leather-like skin protects them from getting cut by those razor-like shells.

And you're right about it being worth the effort of cleaning them. Triggerfish, in particular, is one of the most underused fish going. And yet, it's one of the best on the table.

One benefit is that at places like Avalon Pier, near Kill Devil Hills, most anglers think of them as trash fish, and gladly give them to you. Their loss, as the poet once said.....
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #21 of 41
when i worked in a fresh fish market we got everything whole, undressed, and had to do everything ourselves. of course you clean the fish and if your not sure how to do that i would suggest learning that one first. but then we cut the heads off with a scimitar and cut the fillets from the tail to (what used to be) the head with a fillet knife. it worked but it took some practice to actually come out with a nice fillet every fish. i actually used this technique in class when we were learning meat n seafood fab. didnt have a scimitar though, so i used my 12" chef knife for the whole thing, even the fillet, and it worked great. we were cutting some huge fresh drums and salmon. not too big on the fillet knife personally unless it is a smaller fish. but everybody is different and has their own technique. the best thing to do is try out a couple different techniques, with a couple different blades, whenever you get the opportunity, and decide which one is more comfortable for you.
post #22 of 41
 One tip I will pass on to all you fish cleaners. When scaling fish, throw away the scalers and knives. Get yourself a Curly Cote ( stainless steel sponge. Hold fish under cold running water proceed to wipe down both sides of fish with the Curly Cote . Fast and clean and no scales flying all over. I am not talking steel wool pads or Brillo here  . A Curly Cote or S/S Sponge ONLY .EJB

Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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post #23 of 41
Great thread.

Anyone have any tips on skinning and filleting eels?  I love their taste, but find them very finicky to prepare.
 Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy.
Robert A. Heinlein

 
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 Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy.
Robert A. Heinlein

 
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post #24 of 41
I know to skin one you hang it on a nail by its lower jaw having cut through the skin round the neck. A little vertical cut from here down the underbelly lets you get hold of the skin with pliers and strip it downwards, coming off cleanly...then there's just all them little bones to deal with.
No help there I'm afraid!
"Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans."
Allen Saunders, 1957.
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"Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans."
Allen Saunders, 1957.
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post #25 of 41
Anyone have any tips on skinning and filleting eels?

That's why God gave us fishmongers.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #26 of 41
I caught about a 3 foot eel last week and started to post asking for this type of information.  We catch about six or seven a year, mostly in our crab traps, but they will take live or cut bait. 

My sons have been wanting to clean one and give it a try, but there are several questions I need some answers to before I skin one of those slippery (yes, they really are) rascals. I would skin them like a catfish, hanging them from a hook we have for that purpose as Titomike recommended. 

Are all species of eels a desirable food source?  We have eaten them in sushi and oriental dishes for years.  I recently had fried conger eel at a Chilean restaurant and it was delicious.  But is this gulf coast eel the same as you find in restaurants?

Would you filet them after you skin them?  I haven't noticed a bunch of bones when I used them as cut bait. 

I'll be anxiously awaiting some responses.  KYH - I assume you're dealing with freshwater eels in your neck of the woods.  These are coming from the Colorado River on the Texas coast.  We usually catch the eels when the river is in a brackish state.  
.  I
There was a pretty interesting thread on a Gulf Coast fishing website this past summer about a group that caught a 60 pound eel offshore that chased them around the boat trying to bite them for quite awhile after they brought it aboard. It made some of the outdoor columns and had some pictures on the website.. It wasn't a moray eel.  I wonder if those are edible as well?
post #27 of 41
OldPro, what you are catching are most likely American eels (Anguilla rostrata), which is classed as a catadromous fish. This is the opposite of anadromous, in that these common eels are born in salt water and then migrate to fresh water, where they spend most of their lives. They then migrate back to the salt, where they mate once and die.

All the tales you've heard about the Sargasso Sea are basically true. All the American (and their European counterparts) eels mate and breed in the same area of the southern Atlantic Ocean, near, but not actually in, the Sargasso.

Common eels are considered to be a very desirable food fish, and many cultures have incorporated them into their cuisines.

Eels are special in many ways, not just their life cycle. For instance, next time you catch one, try standing on it (make sure you have a buddy to help maintain your balance). Incredible how a two or three pound fish can lift a man weighing a hundred times its weight.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #28 of 41
 I  don't like eel myself, but have served it as smoked eel. I tasted that and it was pretty good., but then almost anything smoked is good. For me a hard fish to clean is Real sea bass, because  the bones go all different directions. Dover sole because the skin at times is almost impossible to strip down., lastly makerel because the pin bones are so abundant and tiny. Opening some oysters is difficult at times but I have tricks I learned to do this.

Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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post #29 of 41
The one and only eel I have caught while fishing was in a local river here in MN. 3 feet of slime with teeth, it got tossed back after a picture
post #30 of 41

Just a couple notes here.

 

1. Knives

BDL's mildly snide crack about sushi chefs and the like isn't about a distinction between big chef's knives and thin filleting knives. The complex Japanese technique he sketched also depends on a thick, heavy, and totally inflexible knife called a deba-bocho. The idea is that the freakishly sharp, hard, and durable edge combines with the technique to produce a series of cuts that perfectly conform to the shape and structure of the individual fish you're working with. And I will say that the results speak for themselves: nobody can produce that glass-smooth surface with a flexible fillet knife and the French technique. But it takes an awful lot of practice, a good (and rather expensive) knife, and a lot of practice sharpening.

 

2. Eels

Here I would really advise some approximation of Japanese technique. The knife you want is quite short-bladed, thick, inflexible, and frighteningly sharp. Japanese cooks use eel knives, oddly enough, which come in several regional forms. It would also help a lot to have a glove made of wire wool or the like, so you can hold onto the slimy thing. Anyway, using this knife, follow BDL's directions for a roundfish. Think of it as three cuts (not including removing the head): down the back to the bone, on top of the bone, and down the belly to -- but not through -- the skin. Repeat the cut, laying the fillet flat, cut-side down, to remove the backbone and main skeleton.

 

Now at this point it's going to depend on the eel. With most eels, just pull out every crosswise bone you can find, using a needle-nosed pliers or the like. Don't expect them to come easily or leave the surface glass-smooth, and expect to spend a good long time at it. But then there are some eels that have zillions of little bones running every which way -- the pike conger eel is the standard example here (known as hamo in Japan). With eels like this, pulling with a pliers will leave you a very small pile of minced meat and no fillet. So before pulling any bones, ask yourself what you're going to do with this fish. If you're going to roast it or something like that, cook it on the bone and remove the bones afterward -- they'll come easily. If you're going to broil it (a la Japanese unagi places), you need to pull all the bones you can, but fortunately broiling it with sauce will cover up the roughness of the fillet surface. Normally you would not eat eel raw -- my impression is that the Japanese consider it unsafe, but I'm not sure.

 

If on the other hand you're dealing with a pike conger eel (hamo), with a zillion bones everywhere, there are only two solutions that I know of. One is to use it exclusively for making soup and stew -- and you strain all the meat and bone out before serving. The other is to purchase a hamo knife, which is about a foot long, very slightly curved, single-edged, and weighs a ton. Then practice for many months or years: lay the fish skin-side down, horizontally on the board. With your knife, use a steady push-motion beginning slightly above the fish surface and finishing without cutting through the skin, in one smooth cut shearing through all bones. Repeat this cut about 1mm to the left, and then again, and again, and again. Every three inches or so, complete the cut through the skin, so you get roughly 3x3 squares. In the end, you should have sheared every bone into very fine pieces, so that you can eat the flesh with the bones in. Blanch each square fillet briefly, until just barely done, then cool and serve.

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