Great Land of Alaska
How to Clean and Filet a Salmon
READ THIS FIRST! We're living in a society where I can stick a fork in my eye and sue the manufacturer of the fork, so I feel compelled to post this warning.
FILLET KNIVES ARE SHARP! Always use caution when using a fillet knife. It's very easy to give yourself a very nasty cut if you're not careful with your knife. Use these basic common sense guidelines whenever you handle any kind of knife:
- Cut away from yourself, not towards yourself. I know I violate this rule many times when I clean a fish, but at least I can say that I've warned you.
- Take your time. Attempting to clean your fish quickly can cause carelessness and injury.
- Your knife isn't the only thing that is sharp. Most of the scratches, cuts, and puncture wounds I've recieved while handling and cleaning a fish haven't come from a knife, but rather have come from the fish's teeth, bones, or gill rakers. Use caution around the fish's mouth, gills, and bones.
GROSS-OUT WARNING! The pictures further down this page show close-up graphic pictures of a large salmon being cleaned and filleted. As is to be expected, there will be lots of fish innards and blood (as well as a bit of my own blood as an example of why you should be cautious when using a fillet knife). If you don't like the site of fish innards or blood, click your browser's BACK button now.
Parts of a Salmon
Before you begin, it's helpful to know the names of some of the outside parts of a salmon:
Insert your knife just in front of the vent (anus) of the fish. You don't want to actually cut into the vent because the intestine may contain bacteria and acids that may damage or affect the taste of the meat.
Cut along the centerline of the belly towards the head. Take care to not cut into the internal organs since some organs may contain acids or bacteria that can contaminate the meat. It's better to cut too shallow since you can always go back and cut a little deeper if necessary.
Keep cutting until you get to the area about where the two gill covers meet at the bottom of the head. At this point you should check your cut and make sure you've cut all the way through the meat. If there are any areas where you've not cut deep enough, go over them again a little deeper until you've cut all the way into the body cavity. If you accidentally cut through any of the organs, the meat is not necessarily ruined--it'll just require extra rinsing sooner.
With your fish still laying on its side, start cutting behind the head on the top of the fish. Cut down until you hit the backbone and extend the cut down the side of the fish behind the pectoral fin. You may cut in front of the fin if you wish, but the fin will be cut off later anyway so cutting behind it now saves you a later step.
The meat on this side of the fish should now no longer be attached to the head. Once again, take care to not cut into the internal organs.
Turn your fish over and make a similar cut in the opposite direction--start behind the pectoral fin and cut from the bottom to the top. Like in previous steps, take care to not cut through any of the organs.
Continue this cut until your knife hits the backbone. At this point the head should be connected to the body only by the backbone and the internal organs.
Place your fish on its belly (or in whatever position is most comfortable for you to cut) and cut through the backbone. Having a good sharp knife at this point is important. It may be necessary to sharpen your knife before and after this step. This is where having a serrated knife would be handy--use it to cut through the backbone.
The only thing still keeping the head attached to the body at this point is where the intestine is still attached to the vent. This can be either pulled off or, more neatly, cut off with your knife. The head and most of the organs should now be separated from the body. You may deal with the head and organs as specified by your local laws or customs.
The only organ that is still in the body cavity at this time is the kidney--the long, dark red organ running along the top of the cavity underneath the backbone. To ease removal of this organ, cut through it along its length.
After you've cut through the kidney, you may scrape it out with a spoon, your knife, or your fingers.
It's handy to have something to hold on to when you cut the fins off as salmon and most fish are rather slippery and therefore normally hard to hold by the tail. This cut can be made at the very beginning if you wish. It is not an essential part of cleaning a fish, but it does make it easier. It is a small cut through the meat to the backbone at the base of the caudal fin. This cut is made on both sides and simply meant to be a place where you can easily grip the fish by the tail without it slipping from your hand.
Holding your fish by the tail, remove the dorsal fin by placing your knife behind the fin and cutting downwards with a sawing motion. The removal of this fin and the anal fin may be eased by using your serrated knife again.
Cut the anal fin from your fish using the same technique as you used for removing the dorsal fin. You can also remove the adipose fin the same way. Notice how I'm using the cut on the tail to prevent the fish from slipping out of my hand.
A similar cut can be used for removing both pelvic fins. If your cut back in the second step left the pectoral fins on, you may cut them off with a similar cut.
At this point, you have a large, mostly finless fish. If you wish, you may remove the tail fin and keep the fish whole, or cut it into steaks and roasts. If you wish to fillet you fish, the following steps show how to do that.
You'll be cutting through the rib bones at this point so you may want to sharpen your knife again.
Lay your fish on it side and and start a cut where the head was removed, just above the backbone.
Using a sawing motion, cut along the backbone towards the tail. You may need to hold up the meat at the bottom of the cavity to keep it from accidentally getting sliced by the knife. As you can see in the picture here, I'm cutting towards my fingers. USE CAUTION IF YOU HAVE YOUR HANDS POSITIONED LIKE I DO!
Keep cutting with a sawing motion, keeping the knife along the backbone. After a bit of practice, you'll be able to tell by feeling whether you're too close or too far away from the backbone.
Keep cutting until you reach the small cut on the tail that was used as a grip.
You now have a large fillet.
Removing the fillet from the other side is very similar. After turning the fish over, begin your cut just above the backbone.
Cut with a sawing motion towards the tail, keeping the meat up out of the way of the knife. Again, WATCH OUT FOR YOUR FINGERS!
Continue cutting, adjusting the knife as necessary if you get too close or too far away from the backbone.
Cut all the way up to the small cut that was used as a grip.
You should now have two large fillets. This method of filleting a fish takes longer than other ways I've been taught, but it minimizes the amount of meat that's lost. If done properly, the only meat that doesn't get recovered is a small layer along the backbone. If you wish to use as much as possible, you can boil the backbone until the meat falls off and use the meat for fish soup, or bake the backbone and pick the meat off with a small fork and eat it. I cut a little too high in my last cut so I didn't get all the meat off the backbone that I could have possibly got.
Some people recommend removing the bottommost portion of belly meat on the fish. This meat often tends to be oilier, tougher, and more strongly flavored than the rest of the meat. If you choose to remove this portion, cut it off just below the ribs that are still attached to the fillet.
This is the trickiest step--removal of the ribs that are still attached to the fillet. Begin this step by inserting the point of your knife into the meat at the first rib's mid-point, just beneath the rib. The meat and membrane between the ribs is semi-opaque so you should be able to see the knife blade through the meat. If you cannot see the blade then you've inserted the knife too deeply.
With a slow, gentle sawing motion, carefully cut towards the bottom of the fillet while keeping the sharp part of the blade angled slightly upwards to avoid getting too deeply into the meat. Your knife should be cutting right along the ribs.
If cut properly, you should have a small flap with the ribs, membrane, and a very minimal amount of meat. Using this technique, slowly work your way towards the thicker part of the fillet and towards the tail portion. You should eventually end up with a long flap attached lengthwise to your fillet. This piece than be easily cut off.
You know have a nice, large fillet. The only bones remaining are the pin bones that were cut off when you cut the fillet from the backbone. You can feel these in the meat and may remove them with needlenose pliers, or may prefer to leave them in the meat like I usually do. When cooked or smoked, the meat shrinks a bit and the bones become very apparent and are much easier to remove.
Why Should You Be Careful With Fillet Knives?
Remember the warning at the beginning of this section, where I told you to exercise caution with fillet knives? This picture pretty much shows why that is. The blood on my finger isn't from the fish, but is my own blood from when my knife slipped as I was cutting a fish into steaks. It was a deep cut (I felt the blade hit the bone) and it bled profusely for several hours before finally slowing down. There's always a risk of infection when you're using a fillet knife like this since there may be bacteria in the fish and, if you're like I am, you rinse your knife in the probably not-so-clean lake/river water between uses. This wound bled for quite a while before finally slowing down and it healed quickly without any sign of infection. Despite the quick heal, I'd rather not have cut myself at all so this demonstrates why you should use caution when cleaning a fish.