Cleaning Fish

Cleaning fish can be intimidating to many newcomers. There are different fish, and although they may follow the basic anatomical structure, nevertheless there are differences. Flounder, perch, trout, eel, mullet, all of these are fish, yet they are gutted differently. Cleaning fish does not conform to rigid rules as applied to chicken, pork or beef. Those animals may come in different colors, however, the skeleton and organ placement remains the same for each animal, regardless of its origin. Preparing seafood products can be confusing, take for example mollusks which belong to seashell family. You have clams and mussels, oysters, shrimp, lobster, squid; they all look differently and are prepared accordingly.

The methods of cleaning a fish are as varied as the individual fisherman. The gills and guts of a fish should be removed a soon as possible since they contain the highest concentration of bacteria that cause spoilage. How the fish is processed depends on the planned method of cooking and the size of the fish. Whole fish is certainly easier to clean, hang and smoke, however, it is less appetizing to the eater. There are people who don’t eat fish not because of the flavor, but because they hate playing with fish bones. Well, for them nothing will work, but the fillet. So, to a large extent, the choice of the cleaning method is dictated by by the amount of work you are willing to dedicate to the project. It makes little sense to fillet a small fish as there would not be much left to eat and the fish would be wasted. Small fish should be left whole or split in “butterfly” version which is typical of mullet. Bigger, especially thicker fish like cod, red drum, halibut, sheepshead, king mackerel or jack can be filleted. Very large fish, for example swordfish or tuna are usually cut across into steaks.

Adam Marianski with big jack.

Adam Marianski with big jack.

Very large fish like tuna or the jack above, are usually cut into steaks.

Very large fish like tuna or the jack above, are usually cut into steaks.

Small jacks are thick enough for filleting.

Small jacks are thick enough for filleting.

Filleted jack.

Filleted jack.

Whole fish should first be washed to remove slime, loose scales and traces of blood. Then they are beheaded (if required) and gutted. Washing removes slime, traces of blood and small particles that would otherwise cling to the fish. The belly cavity should be cleaned, some fish contain black belly wall lining which should be removed. The gills, entrails and all traces of blood are removed, especially the bloody kidney line along the back of the fish. The fish should be washed again before brining them. If fillets are cut, they should be trimmed and be reasonably free from blemishes. When filleting fat fish, it is recommended to leave the skin on as a significant amount of fat is deposited between the skin and the flesh. In lean fish, for example cod, the skin can be be removed. Previously frozen fish can be thawed in a refrigerator or under cold running water.

The following procedures and photos describe how to prepare Florida mullet for smoking, however, they can be applied to other fish as well. Mullet is not a huge fish, averaging about one foot in length and just over one pound in weight. You can occasionally catch bigger individuals, up to 24 inches long and weighing 2-3 pounds. Those are better suited for filleting. Mullet is a semi-fat fish and tasted great when smoked. The fish has a strong skin and quite large scales, which can be removed or not. Large fish can be filleted. The tender flesh tends to fall apart when the skin is removed so leave the skin on when smoking. The fish has an oily layer between the skin and its flesh and this oil makes mullet tender and juicy.

Dressing Mullet “Butterfly” Style

Mullet is usually split open “butterflied” or gutted and left whole. In both cases the head is cut off and the entrails are removed. Scaling is messy but you can place the fish inside of a trash bag and scrape off the scales. They will fly left and right so the best idea is to do it outside. Any dull knife, spoon or proper fish scaler will do the job, just make sure that the scales are wet. Wet scales come off much easier than dry ones.

Cutting the head off.

Cutting the head off.

A larger mullet has a stronger backbone and sometimes the knife will not cut through it. You can easily break the fish in two.

A larger mullet has a stronger backbone and sometimes the knife will not cut through it. You can easily break the fish in two.

Gently squeeze the body of the fish and all entrails can be removed with your fingers. It is much easier than it looks.

Gently squeeze the body of the fish and all entrails can be removed with your fingers. It is much easier than it looks.

There are no entrails left, the black stomach lining can easily be brushed away.

There are no entrails left, the black stomach lining can easily be brushed away.

You may keep edible parts such as gizzard or roe. Mullet and shad are the only fish that have gizzards. These can be fried up just like chicken gizzards.  With a little hot sauce they’re wonderful.

You may keep edible parts such as gizzard or roe. Mullet and shad are the only fish that have gizzards. These can be fried up just like chicken gizzards. With a little hot sauce they’re wonderful.

Scrape scales with knife, scaler tool or a spoon from the tail towards the front. Scaling can be done at any time, before the fish is gutted or after. It is easier to remove scales when they are wet.

Scrape scales with knife, scaler tool or a spoon from the tail towards the front. Scaling can be done at any time, before the fish is gutted or after. It is easier to remove scales when they are wet.

Make the incision from the back towards the belly over the backbone. Don’t cut through the belly.

Make the incision from the back towards the belly over the backbone. Don’t cut through the belly.

The back is split but the belly remains intact.

The back is split but the belly remains intact.

Continue cutting through the rib cage towards the vent. The belly is not cut. Come out with the knife through the vent, cutting towards the tail and cutting above the backbone.

Continue cutting through the rib cage towards the vent. The belly is not cut. Come out with the knife through the vent, cutting towards the tail and cutting above the backbone.

Continue cutting to the tail.

Continue cutting to the tail.

Split mullet “butterfly” style. The belly is intact.

Split mullet “butterfly” style. The belly is intact.

The stomach lining is covered with black film which is easily brushed and hosed away.

The stomach lining is covered with black film which is easily brushed and hosed away.

The kidney line runs along the backbone and it must be removed. It is bitter and will promote the growth of bacteria. It can be scraped with a brush or even your finger, then rinsed away.

The kidney line runs along the backbone and it must be removed. It is bitter and will promote the growth of bacteria. It can be scraped with a brush or even your finger, then rinsed away.

Clean split mullet.

Clean split mullet.

Dressing Whole Mullet

Head is cut off and the entrails are removed.

Head is cut off and the entrails are removed.

The knife is inserted into the vent.

The knife is inserted into the vent.

The belly is cut towards the front.

The belly is cut towards the front.

Stomach liner.

Stomach liner.

Stomach liner and the kidney line are brushed away.

Stomach liner and the kidney line are brushed away.

The fish is rinsed.

The fish is rinsed.

Clean whole mullet.

Clean whole mullet.

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