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Filleting Fish

My local fish purveyor (Santa Monica Seafood, for those who are interested) has absolutely stunning offerings. The problem is that all the really good stuff is $20+.

For the first time ever I actually looked at the whole fish for sale, which included sardines, seabass, salmon and others. I noticed that these are selling for about 10 bucks a pound. Assuming that I could actually manage to clean and fillet a whole fish on my own, would this be worth it, given all the waste from the head, fins, tail, etc. I know you can use these for stock, which I guess I would do if I actually bought the whole thing.

I am just not sure if the whole thing would be worthwhile, and must admit to some performance anxiety about failing to produce the beautiful filleted steaks ready to be selected in the refrigerator section. Also, I'm not sure how much to ask the fishmonger to do. Would they cut and gut the fish for me?

By the way, Joy of Cooking has helpful info on this topic, but I'd like to hear from someone who never prepared their own whole fish, then learned how to do it to see how involved and/or worthwhile this is.


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  1. Definately worth learning the skills, been doing since I was a kid, fishing in the lakes. Piece o cake once you practice. Recently went out deep sea fishing with our banker and several others (all guys and me, one lady) - fabulous day, caught 22 haddock and cod but only two fileters on the boat until I told them I could. They handed me a knife and I impressed them all with my skills. :-) It comes in handy. When you love eating fish and don't enjoy the thought of maybe getting a bone, fileting is a great skill to learn.

    1. Many larger fish places will weigh your selection and then fillet it and give you what you want/toss out what you don't. Some places will add a nominal charge for this service, others do it gratis. If the place is not too busy and the work area is not too hidden you can get a good idea of which fish it makes sense to try out at home.

      BTW I think those prices are quite high. There must be places that are more competitively priced, I'd suggest that spending less would be more conducive to your starter efforts, as whole fish at $10/lb could easily cost far more than I'd be willing to turn into "fish burgers"...

      1. I also grew up fishing and filleting a fish was a skill I learned early. With a mother that would not tolerate any waste of meat on the bone, everyone in the family learned very well. My cousin learned so well that he amazed his professors in medical school with his scalpel skills. They were incredulous when he told them he developed his knife skills cleaning fish!

        Filleting a fish is not hard if you have decent knife skills. The key is to get a very good fillet knife and keep it VERY sharp. A sharp knife makes for easy work and a beautiful fillet. We would sharpen our knives every few fillets. It makes a difference

        Good Luck.

        1 Reply
        1. re: aeros

          Ditto - the knife is soooo important!!!

        2. jono37, I'm your guy. Went fishing and hunting a lot growing up. I did more of the game prep, leaving the fish prep to my cousins. I liked hunting more than fishing then; but that changed. Now I live where there is no hunting. My wife and I are now fishing freaks.We went fishing today, came back with six cachama (Amazon fish) averaging about three pounds each. My wife is going to take one whole fish and the heads to the in-laws next week.

          As to the rest: I filleted the other five (10 fillets for future use) and quick froze. After removing all tails and fins, the remains went into making a clear, protein rich stock. And the remaining meat was stripped from the bones to make a Lao laab, which we had for dinner.

          All worth doing and knowing how to do!

          1. Absolutely you should try to learn this skill. A good knife is important as well as technique. As far as waste if you use the head, fins and bones to make stock as Sam suggested you are getting the most for your $ and will have some great stock to work with. I bet you could search YouTube for some videos on cleaning fish.

            1. Hi Y'all,
              There is an excellent book called The Essentials of Cooking by James Peterson. It is loaded with photos and very good explanations of how to do things like fillet a fish.
              There are basically two types of fish: round, like salmon; and flat, like sole. Therefore, if you can fillet one round fish, you can fillet all round fish. It is a good skill to have if you eat a lot of fish.
              If you are buying the fish from a fishmonger it will already be gutted. You don't have to worry about that part. If you get to know your fishmonger they will more than likely give you lots of tips on filleting.
              There are a lot of slightly smaller fish (trout, snapper) that are great cooked whole. Then you can fillet them before serve them.
              Yes, a good sharp knife makes a huge difference!
              Good luck and Good eating!

              6 Replies
              1. re: cheftori

                I know this is a really dumb question, but here it is anyway. When you cut a fillet, you produce a nice boneless (hopefully) piece of fish. When you cut right through the fish to make a steak, is there a way to bone that piece of fish, or do you just have to remove the bones while you are eating it?

                1. re: jono37

                  You cut the steak in two along the axis of the spine, then "fillet" from top to bottom. You can get your fillet knife really close to the ribs and in so doing, waste very little.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    and get a pair of tweezers, the ones with the flat blade end, NOT the pointy ones for pin bones.

                    And a good scaler... and a dedicated outdoor bench to scale on... those little suckers fly EVERYWHERE.

                    It sounds like a lot of bother, but as a life long fishing nuts, Mr Pg and I have it down to a fine art....

                    You will get the hang of it very soon.

                    Except for shark... it's a bloody nightmare to "skin" and you lose a lot of flesh. If your planning to by any non-scale fish like gummy or elephant (or the US equivalent), get your fishmonger to do it for you.

                    1. re: purple goddess

                      pg inspires me to say more, as usual: there is nothing better than going fishing in the morning, having the fun of catching some fish that really, really fight (to the point that you loose hook, line and sinker several times) and converting your catch into clean fillets, perfect steaks, clear gelatinous proteinous clear stock, and great memories!

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Ah, Sam.. you and the missus have GOT to come out to OZ... the gummies run in Port Phillip Bay in summer.... they're a bugger to skin, but the taste of fresh gummy (also known as flake) is beyond sublime!!!

                        Squid are running at the moment, too... and a few weeks ago we went diving and got 83 fresh scallops....

                        And we've just got a secret tip on abalone beds, too....;)

                        1. re: purple goddess

                          pg, thanks! The dream vacation for the three of us.

              2. Jono37...

                Take a tour of the Stories part of the site.. I just found a video there on pin boning fish..

                It's called "Pin Pone Wizard"

                1. My only piece of advice is to get a good electric knife. Make sure you get a good one and not a cheap piece of crap. Just cut straight down to the bone just behind the side fins. Then turn the knife and go down the back bone to a couple of inches above the tail. Do not cut the filet all the way off so you've got a good way to hold the filet when you're cutting the skin off. Just flip the filet over and start on the tail end and cut the filet off of the skin.
                  Also, buy something small and cheap to start with. Smaller fish are generally harder to filet than larger fish. When we catch a mess of fish that I have to filet I always start wih the less desirable fish and work my way up so that buy the time I get to the grouper and other good ones I'm warmed up. It takes practice but is not a hard thing to learn how to do. A good electric knife is important though.

                  1. OK, everybody, I tried to fillet my first fish yesterday. I picked up a 1.5 lb. snapper from the fish market. Scaling went fine. Filleting the pieces became a mess; there seemed to be no way to cleanly cut the fish from the bones. I ended up with a lump of chopped snapper meat, which I proceeded to use for fish tacos instead of the nice grilled filets I had desired. This is OK, since I saved the head and carcass for fish stock. Interestingly the head and carcass weighed 1 lb., so it seems that this fish didn't have too much meat on it.

                    I'm not discouraged and will try this again. It now occurs to me that snapper is probably an especially difficult fish to fillet because the meat is so thin that it is hard to separate from the bone, and also hard to skin.

                    Any recs for good fish that fillet more easily?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: jono37

                      I became a fishmonger a year or so ago and the first fish I became comfortable with filleting quickly was a spanish mackerel.. the oilier the fish, the easier to fillet (in my opinion):

                      1. Gut it! Don't have to worry about scales here.

                      2. Lay the fish on one side and cut a "v" just in front of the dorsal fin with a freshly sharpened knife.

                      3. Make your incision at the top of the fish and slide your knife all the way down to the pelvic fin.

                      3. Hold the head and gently slide your knife all the way to the tail.. and ta-da! One fillet down, flip that bad boy over and repeat.

                      If I'm not in a hurry, I leave one fillet attached and completely fillet the other side first... it'll keep your knife steady and you won't have to worry about cutting yourself.

                      Snapper is a different story entirely, instead of letting my knife slide down one side of the fish you have to carefully "peel" the flesh away from the ribs and spine. It REALLY helps to leave one side attached here, don't know how I'd manage to sell a decent fillet without doing so. I've thought about cutting off the head first with a serrated knife so I could easily see the spine and ribcage, but I haven't tried it out yet.