How to prepare a whole fish like a professional chef

How to prepare a whole fish like a professional chef

These days most fish are sold pre-prepared.  However, there’s considerable satisfaction in buying a whole fresh fish and doing the job yourself.  First of all you’ll need a suitable knife.  Our 6” boning knife is ideal because the narrow sharp shape of the blade makes it easy to manoeuvre with the required level of precision.  Also, the pointed tip is good for piercing the fish’s tough skin.  Secondly, you’ll need to know the best way to approach the task – read on and we’ll show you how.


Spread a large sheet of newspaper on your work surface – the scales will go everywhere!   Then place your chopping board in the middle of the paper and the fish on top of that.  Fish are slippery, so wrap a piece of kitchen towel around the tail – this will make it easier to grip.  Hold the tail then run your knife along the skin towards the head.  Hold the knife at a 45° angle.  You can use the blade but often the blunt spine works better – either way the scales will be scraped off.  Once all the scales have been removed wash the fish under running water to complete the procedure.  Wash the board and discard the newspaper.


Place the fish back on the board.  Cut off the tail and all the fins.  Cut off the head just behind the gills.


You might assume this was best done before scaling and trimming – but you’d be wrong!  A round fish is much easier to scale and trim with the guts still intact.  With a flat fish following this sequence is less important but it’s still the way things tend to be done in professional kitchens.

To gut the fish insert the sharp point of the blade at the tail end of the underbelly and work it all the way up to where the head was.  Now pull out the guts and discard.  Then wash the cavity clean with running water.


This is the part that requires the greatest skill and dexterity.  A high quality knife with a slender blade is also essential.  A round fish, such as a Salmon or Seabass, will produce two fillets.  A flat fish, such as a Plaice or Dover Sole, will produce four fillets.

How to fillet a round fish:

  • Hold the fish firmly on your chopping board and run the knife along the backbone from head to tail
  • Keeping as close to the bone as possible, remove the fillet with a stroking motion continuing until you you’ve cut right through to reach the other side of the fish.
  • Turn the remainder of the fish over and repeat the process on the other side.
  • Trim any remaining rib bones away from the fillets.

How to fillet a flat fish:

  • Lay the fish on the chopping board with the darkest top side uppermost and the tail end facing you.
  • Place the point of the knife below the head and cut down towards the backbone, then continue cutting down the length of the fish through to where the tail was.
  • Cut away the left hand fillet from the head, away from the backbone and towards the side of the fish. Your knife should be at a very shallow angle.  Cut with a series of short but gently scything motions.
  • Insert the point of the knife into the cut you have just made and separate the flesh from the bones by sliding the knife along the bone with a long, gentle stroking motion towards the tail end. As you do this it will become obvious why a good quality knife, with a narrow blade that has medium flexibility, such as our 6” boning knife  is so essential.
  • Turn the fish around and repeat on the other side of the backbone to remove the second fillet.
  • Turn the fish over and repeat this process on the other side.
  • Use stroking motions along each side of the backbone to remove the third and fourth fillets.
  • Trim the edges to neaten the fillets – these can now be skinned and cooked as required.


Lay the fillet skin down on your chopping board and, moving from the tail end, work the knife between the skin and flesh in a series of short jerky cuts.


If you want to serve the fish whole this is how you remove the bones from a round fish:

  • Lay the fish on your chopping board and cut all the way to the backbone along the entire length (not just the cavity where the guts were).
  • Remove the rib bones from the cavity with a pair of pliers – do it one by one a cut each one free from the backbone.
  • Cut into the flesh on either side of the backbone with the point of your knife
  • Snip the backbone through at the base of the head (if serving the fish whole leave the head and tail in place) and at the tail then pull it away from the flesh.

How to bone a flat fish:

  • Cut it down the centre from head to tail and slice the two top fillets free from the underlying bones – but don’t cut through to the sides.
  • Snip the backbone at head and tail, then bend the fish double in a couple of places to break the backbone.
  • Now lift out the broken sections of backbone and ribs.

What are you waiting for?

Preparing a whole fresh fish is a lot easier than you might imagine when you have a suitable knife and know the correct way to go about it.  Hopefully this article will inspire you to give it a go!

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