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May 8, 2008 11:09 AM

I need seafood lessons...

I blame my mother, who rarely served fish when I was growing up. I am making up for lost time. I like buying local seafood at the farmer's market. I would like to buy whole fish but they don't scale them and gut them and I don't know how. Last year I bought a live conch as an experiment but I had no idea how to prepare it. I usually buy squid aready cleaned, but last weekend I bought some that hadn't been cleaned and did it myself. I made a mess with the guts and ink sacks. Plus I was freaked out by the eyes. I'd like to buy oysters but I don't know how to shuck them. Is it hard? I could go the easy route and just get fish filets, cleaned squid and shucked oysters. But I'd feel more like a real cook if I cleaned and shucked myself. I'd just like someone to give me a few pointers.

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    1. re: hannaone

      Thanks. I know there are on-line resources. I think I'd learn more from a hands-on demonstration.

    2. Gutting a fish is easy. Take a sharp knife and make an incision through the skin from the lower jaw to the anus, then dump / pull out the innards and rinse the cavity with cold running water. There may be a blood line along the underside of the spine; if so, use a fingertip to squeeze the blood out while you're rinsing. If the gills are intact (you'll see deep red striated things under the gill plates if they are) snip them out with a pair of kitchen shears. Et voila!

      Scaling is even easier, although it can be quite messy. You can use a fish scaler, or just the back edge of a knife. Either way, spread a bunch of old newspaper to catch the scales, then scrape the fish against the grain (from tail to head). The scales will pop right off.

      Fileting is somewhat more of a challenge; it requires some familiarity with the fish's skeletal structure, and can create an ugly filet and a lot of waste if you don't know what you're doing. For the time being, why not just cook the fish whole? You can remove the head and/or tail if you like, but pay attention to the bones when you serve it; their size, shape, and location will dictate how you you would filet that particular kind of fish should you choose to.

      For a 100-second lesson on how to clean a squid, I'll defer to Alton Brown. Check out the portion of this Good Eats episode from 7:20 to 9:00.

      Shucking oysters is also something that works better with visuals. It takes some practice, but with a decent oyster knife you should have the knack of it after a dozen or two. Here's a video of how to do it:

      You should be able to master all of these things without great difficulty. Just a little patience and practice and you'll be cleaning and shucking like a pro. Good luck.

      3 Replies
      1. re: alanbarnes

        I love Alton Brown, he is my favorite TV chef. Not only does he help you with real food, but he makes it fun, without adding a ton of garlic and screaming BAM BAM BAM!

        1. re: alanbarnes

          The only thing I would add is that it is sooooooo much easier to scale a fish before you gut it. Don't know if this is traditional, but it's the way I was taught when I was a kid.

          Fileting a fish shouldn't be that difficult *IF* you have a good sharp fileting knife. Lay the fish down flat, start the incision down the back (top of the fish when it's swimming) next to the dorsal fin and slide your knife along the ribs. It will probably have little bones that stick out "sideways" from the spine, so if it's a "big" (relative term) fish I often do a "half filet" and then finish the other half on the other side of the bones. For smaller fish I just cut on through the bones (they're usually thin), then use a pair of pliers to pull them out of the flesh before cooking. You can feel the bones by running your finger down the cut side. Anyway, turn the fish over and repeat. Make stock with the head, fins, and bones. Or if you goof the first time and the filets are not quite what you had in mind, poach them and make fish tacos! Life is a learning experience. '-)

          1. re: Caroline1

            My father was an avid fisherman, and often caught brook trout and rainbow trout in the swift streams up Northern New Hampshire. He could de-bone and gut a fish in less than 2 minutes. He could literally pull the entire skeleton of the fish out in one movement. He was amazing.My mom would have a perfect boneless fish for lunch nearly every time he went out. I hated it back then, but the smell and taste of a fresh trout now is a thing of beauty to me.

        2. NYCkaren, alanbarnes is quite right! Going from a whole fish from the water to fillets (and stuff to make stock) or steaks is an important but easy and fun thing to learn how to do. A little practice in cleaning, filleting, skinning, and so on will give you an enviavble lifel-ong kitchen skill.

          1. One thing you could do is see if you can pay a fishmonger to give you a lesson at your house. That's what I'd do, since a lot of what you want to learn how to do requires hands on practice.

            1. Here are some NYC classes which cover filleting and/or cooking with seafood:

              Take this:
              Then follow it with:


              There are so many options - many private chefs will teach in your home or at a party with your friends. Also, most knife skills classes cover filleting.

              I found that I needed more repetition that just practicing on one fish at a time. I finally purchased a 1/2 dozen and the benefit of being able to correct my technique with each fish was very worthwhile.
              Have fun!