Fish Basics: How to Scale and Clean a Whole Fish Like a Pro

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Whether you live in a state like Michigan where fishing prevails or plan to cook a whole fish you got from the store, knowing how to gut and scale a fish is an essential skill everyone should have. Preparing the fish is like an art. It might seem daunting, but cleaning, scaling, and gutting a fish is easier than it looks.

Like any other activity, you will become adept in processing the fish with some practice and following proper guidelines. Moreover, it is more economical and convenient to scale and gut the fish by yourself at home. Therefore, this article will guide you through the process of preparing the fish step by step.

Understand the Difference Between Fish and Meat

Before you start preparing the fish, you must understand how the flesh of fish differs from meat. The proteins in other animals like cows differ from the ones of fish to a large extent. The flesh differs because of these different proteins and muscle structures. 

The connective tissues and muscle meat in beef and other animals are pretty sinewy and firm. Hence, their ideal cooking methods require a high level of heat or being slow-cooked for hours. The meat of fish, on the other hand, is very delicate in comparison.

The cooking method of fish should be adjusted accordingly. The protein should be treated with care as it can be easily torn or damaged. Take your time and be patient when handling the fish. You should also consider the main categories of fish meat.

There are mainly three broad categories of fish: 

  • Firm
  • Medium
  • Delicate

Scaling A Whole Fish

Scaling Panfish Like Bluegill

The process of scaling a fish is pretty straightforward and can be pretty messy. As the scales will fly up when you remove them, it is best to scale the fish outside or in a place where you can easily clean up. Some people get a special fish scaler, but a simple knife can also do the trick.

Opt for equipment that you find easy to use and convenient. You can find scaling tools in your local fishing store or online. Before getting the tools, it is wise to do some research and purchase the ones you think are ideal for you. In addition, you can read online reviews and ratings regarding various scaling equipment on informative sites like The Nature Insider

It is also wise to do an inventory check and get every piece of equipment you need for seamless fish preparation. The following is the list of items you will need for scaling a fish.

  1. A paring knife or specialized fish scaler
  2. Newspaper
  3. Clean garbage bag (to catch the flying scales and make it easier to clean)
  4. Pan of water or faucet
  5. Large cutting board
  6. Gloves (Optional)

Steps for Scaling A Fish

The following is a step-by-step guideline for scaling the fish.

  1. Place a large section of newspaper below the cutting board. Alternatively, you can place a large garbage bag on top of the cutting board and place the fish flat inside it. 
  2. Hold the fishtail firmly.
  3. While holding the fishtail, run the knife or scaler up and down the fish body. By using small back and forward motions, the scales will come off.
  4. Let go of the tail and then scale the tail.
  5. Flip the fish to the other side and repeat the same scaling process.
  6. After scaling both sides, rinse and wash the fish thoroughly in water under a running faucet. Make sure both sides are completely cleaned of scales.

When scaling, you need to keep a close eye on the top of the fish and the area near the fish. Since the flesh is delicate, try your best not to gash it or press too hard. Also, be very careful around the fins as they tend to be sharp and prick the skin.

The Trick Of Collar Cuts On Whole Fish

Clean a whole fish

You also should pay close attention to the collar, right behind the gills. The collar runs from top to bottom (for ease of scaling sniff off the stiff pectoral fins), with especially rich meat ending in the fatty belly area. Some people overlook this area and can be easily missed. The collar is the most delicious part of the fish, and hence, you should not forget to clean it.

Gutting and Cleaning A Fish

Cleaning a Whole Fish
Cleaning a Red Snapper

For safe consumption, fish must be cleaned of its entrails before cooking. Therefore, gutting and adequately cleaning the fish is a vital step in preparing the fish.

The technique of gutting differs slightly based on the various sizes and shapes of the protein. Fortunately, some gutting steps are the same and are applied on all kinds of fish, regardless of their shape and size.

Ensure you have the necessary tools and set up for gutting the fish for a smooth and efficient process. The following is a list of equipment you will need for gutting a fish. 

  1. Large cutting board
  2. Newspaper
  3. Fish filleting knife
  4. Faucet
  5. Bucket
  6. Gloves (Optional)

Steps for Gutting a Fish (Video)

The following is a detailed step-by-step guide for gutting the fish.

  1. Place a large newspaper on the working bench or counter.
  2. Put the cutting board on top of the laid newspaper.
  3. Place the fish on the cutting board.
  4. Slip the tip of the knife into the belly, the area near the tail end, vent, or anal opening.
  5. Slit open the body by running the knife up and along the body.
  6. Finish the cut at the head.
  7. Make sure the cut is shallow by only using the tip of the knife to run through the body. This will minimize the risk of piercing or cutting through the innards.
  8. Gently spread or split the body open.
  9. Remove the innards by pulling them out. Ensure you do not puncture the guts with your nails.
  10. Discard all the insides into the bucket.
  11. Scrap the bloodline of the fish (if there is any) with the knife or your thumbnail. Be very careful and try your best not to tear or pierce the flesh.
  12. Get rid of the fins by slicing them off and then discard them in the bucket.
  13. Thoroughly rinse the cavity out under the running water of a faucet.

When you run the knife tip upwards from the tail towards the head, complete the cut by carefully forcing the knife through the bony portion at the neck. This bony area lies at the base of the lower jaw and pelvic fins of the fish.

When removing the guts, start by reaching them at the base of the head, where you feel all the innards are connected. Pinch that spot, then grab and pull the entire contents out.

You need to do it quickly with sheer force but make sure you do not puncture the guts with your nails. This grabbing and pulling out the guts at one go is only possible in small or medium-sized fish. You have to carefully use some help with the knife if it is a large fish.

Do not forget to scrape out the liver. This organ is attached to the fish’s backbone. After scraping the liver, cut out the swim bladder. The bladder is a white sack that is attached to the cavity.

It would be best if you also kept the gills in mind. You absolutely can not skip their gills as they taste bitter and ruin the whole flavor profile of the protein. They also accelerate the spoiling process of the fish.

To remove the gills, you need to snip or cut them at either end of their attachment. To do so, you can use a knife or kitchen shears. You can also rip them out if they are small fish. Once the extensions of the arched gills are cut, you can remove the fish. 

Make sure you have washed off and cleaned the fish thoroughly under the running water. Then, to preserve the flesh and taste, pack the scaled, gutted, and cleaned fish on a bed of crushed ice until you are ready to cook it. If you plan to cook it later or the next day, store it in a clean Ziploc or box and place it in the fridge or freezer.

Preparing Different Types Of Fish

By following the outlined instructions above, you can scale, gut, and clean most species of fish. However, there are some different guidelines for different types of fish, and those are also fairly common in the following. 

How to Clean Perch

Yellow Perch Survey From Michigan DNR
Yellow Perch Survey From Michigan DNR

Perch fishing is quite common in states like Ohio and Michigan. Therefore, you can follow the guidelines mentioned above to clean Perch. However, there are some noteworthy differences.

One such difference can be keeping the head intact. Before cutting from the belly, run the knife along the backbone of the Perch and start from the base of the head and end at the tail. This step ensures proper and smooth filleting of the fish.

How to Clean Bass and Bluegill

Since Bass, Bluegill, and Perch have similar features, you can cut alongside the backbone similar to Perch. This achieves a butterfly cut and can also help you keep the head intact with the fish.

Final Thoughts on how to clean a whole fish for cooking

Whether fishing with your dog or going to a fresh market, it is ideal for preparing a fish. Gutting, scaling, and cleaning a fish may seem intimidating as it can be pretty messy. However, in reality, it is pretty simple.

You need a good set of knives and proper set up of cutting board, garbage bags, etc. Cleaning and preparing the fish for consumption is an essential skill and can be very handy, saving you a costly trip to the supermarket.

Resources For Cleaning Whole Fish For Cooking

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