SCALING, GUTTING AND PREPARING FISH TO BE COOKED WHOLE
Many fish recipes call for the fish to be prepared with the guts and gills removed. Most fish can be purchased this way from the market. If you don’t want to deal with cleaning fish, you can certainly avoid it, but it is a good skill to learn. I do it because I like to fish and in that case, it is my only option. Beyond that, I feel it gives me more options for how to prepare my fish and it allows me to more closely control the quality. A whole fish gives more clues regarding freshness and I believe I can do a better job than some of the fish market guys. I also believe that a fish keeps better in whole form than filleted. I highly recommend you learn how to do it. If nothing else, you’ll get an interesting lesson in fish anatomy.
To process a whole fish, start by determining what you want to do with it. In this lesson, we are preparing a fish to be roasted whole. That means it should have the scales, guts, and gills removed. If you prefer, you can also remove the head. If possible, I always leave the head attached because every bit of meat that is exposed will dry out. Leaving the fish intact with the fewest possible cuts will produce the best end product.
Remove the Scales
Do this before you make any cuts on the fish. It is much harder to work around cut edges.
There are many commercial products available to help with this. There are metal devices that look like a comb that work by raking across the scales and stripping them off. There are devices that look like rakes that are dragged against the grain of the scales to remove them. There are even electric tumblers that look like a rock polisher the tumble the scales off the fish. You can use high pressure water to blast the scales off. A stiff bristle brush will also work. I have a fish scaler that I like, made of a stick and three bottle caps. If you don’t do this often, the back of a knife is totally adequate. If you plan to do it regularly, get a tool designed for it. They can be purchased for under $5. For the hand tools, the process is simple. Just hold the fish by the head in the sink, and scrub it with the device. Be careful to get close to the gills and all the way to the edges. Change angles until you find a direction that works best. This varies by species. Make sure not to press too hard as this could damage the meat. If the skin tears or gouges, you are pressing too hard. Rinse it when you are done and feel it to check for scales that are still attached. The fish should feel soft and smooth.
Start by inserting a knife shallowly into the belly of the fish, just in front of the anal fin and facing toward the head. Try not to cut anything inside. The goal is just to open the cavity. Cut all the way to the base of the jaw of the fish.
Sometimes the bone between the pelvic fins can be hard to cut. It is OK to go around it as needed.
Open the fish like a book and start pulling out the viscera. It can be a little gross. Use a glove if it bothers you. Try to avoid puncturing anything. Make cuts as needed to free anything connected to the fish body. Often it will come out in one piece. You will have to cut the esophagus on the front end. If you are removing the gills, you can leave the guts attached to the gills.
Once you have removed the viscera, rinse out the cavity. There may be some dark matter on either side of the spine that resembles blood. These are the fish’s kidneys. Scrape it with the point of a knife or brush it with a stiff brush to break it up. Rinse it out with water. It is not critical that you get all of it out, but get it as clean as you can.
Removing the Gills
Using a pair of scissors, cut attachment at the base of the jaw, under the tongue.
Cut around the gill plate where the gills attach.
Work around the entirety of the gills and cut every place where it is attached. The gills and the tongue will come out, along with any viscera that is attached to the gills. Rinse everything thoroughly. Your fish is now ready to cook.
Another step that I often take is to make several cuts down to the bones on each side. You can pack these cuts with spices when you roast the fish.