Filleting Fish

In most modern markets, you can get the fish department to prepare the fish just about any way you want it. But you should still know the basic techniques for filleting and skinning a whole fish, just in case you have the need.

Traditionally, fish are classified as either a round fish or a flat fish. Round fish, those with rounder, larger bellies and an eye on each side of their heads, have a backbone along their upper bodies, with a fillet located on each side. Round fish include cod, trout, bass, snapper, salmon, pike, haddock, hake, and whiting.
How Much to Buy?
The amount of fish to purchase per serving varies according to the cut. Here are some general guidelines to follow:
  • Whole fish -- 3/4 to 1 pound per serving
  • Dressed fish -- 1/2 to 3/4 pound per serving
  • Pan-dressed fish -- 1/3 pound per serving
  • Fillets -- 1/4 to 1/3 pound per serving
  • Steaks -- 1/4 to 1/3 pound per serving

A flat fish has an oval-shaped, flat, and narrow body. As a flat fish matures, its swimming style becomes horizontal rather than vertical and its eyes move to one side of the head. Flat fish include sole, flounder, and halibut.

Flat fish are generally sold already filleted. For this reason, this section focuses on filleting round fish:
  1. Leave the head and tail intact. Cut the fish along the backbone from just behind the head to the tail with a sharp utility knife. Then make a cut just behind the head to the backbone.

    Filleting a fish begins with a long incision down the fish's backbone.
    Filleting a fish begins with a long incision down the fish's backbone.

  2. Holding a utility knife flat and parallel to the body of the fish, carefully cut away the delicate flesh along the backbone to the tail. Cut over the rib bones to loosen the flesh completely. Remove the fillet; turn the fish over and repeat this procedure.

    To remove the fillet, cut along the rib bones.
    To remove the fillet, cut along the rib bones.

  3. To skin a fillet, place it skin side down on a cutting board. Holding the blade of a sharp utility knife almost flat, insert it between the skin and flesh at the tail end. Then hold the skin in one hand and cut the skin away from the flesh using a sawing motion. You should be working away from you.

Carefully cut away the skin using a sawing motion.
Carefully cut away the skin using a sawing motion.

Once you've got the filleting technique down, you're ready to start cookin'! See the next section for tips on pan frying fish.

Want more information? Try these:
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.
  • Cooking Seafood: Get your feet wet by exploring the best ways to prepare seafood.
  • Fish Recipes: Reel in dozens of amazing fish recipes from this article.
  • Shellfish: From shrimp and lobster to clams, mussels, and more, you'll find valuable information on shellfish at HowStuffWorks.