As any fisherman can tell you – there’s nothing quite like that first taste of a freshly caught fish. If you catch a fish worth keeping for a meal (which is the hardest part!), the next thing you need to do is get it ready to cook.
This guide will give you helpful tips and step-by-step instructions on how to clean the fish, prepare it, and cook it.
How to Clean a Fish for Cooking
Unlike fish from the grocery store, your fresh catch will need to be cleaned before you can cook it. Here’s how to clean a fish:
Step 1. Bleed it out.
If you’re on a boat and just caught the fish, you should bleed it out right away to prevent it from spoiling. Use a sharp knife to cut a slit under the fish’s gills and hold it headfirst over or in the water. Massage along the spine until the flow slows down. You can then continue to prepare the fish or store it in a cooler over ice.
Step 2. Remove the scales and skin.
Some fish, like trout, do not need to have the scales or skin removed because their scales are small, and their skin is thin. For other fish with thick skin, you need to learn how to remove it completely, and for fish with tough scales, like salmon, you will need to learn how to descale them.
To remove the skin from a fish, use a filet knife and carefully cut between the skin and meat.
To remove the scales from a fish, use the back of a filet knife and run it down the scales, starting from the tail.
Step 3. Remove the innards.
To remove the innards, you need to open the fish’s belly. Use your filet knife to cut from the end to the neck, taking care not to cut any organs. Starting from the neck, use your fingers to remove the innards (they can be discarded). When you are done, wash out the belly with cold water and rinse the fish.
How to Prepare a Fish for Cooking
How you choose to prepare and cook your fish depends on what type of fish it is, what your goals are, and your personal taste preferences – there’s no one “best” way! For example, do you want the easiest method, or the healthiest? Are you on a boat, or at home (this will likely impact how you cook your fish, based on what cooking tools you have at the ready)? No matter how you answer these questions, there are some general guidelines you should follow to get a tender, flaky filet.
Let’s start by answering some frequently asked questions about cooking fish:
1. Should you filet the fish?
You can keep the fish whole (just remember to remove the tail if you do), cut it into steaks, or filet it. This is mostly determined by your culinary preferences, but each option does pose its own cooking challenges.
Fish filets are more likely to overcook, but they are easier to portion and serve. Whole fish is harder to serve but is less likely to overcook. Steaks fall somewhere in the middle but offer benefits of both. There’s really no wrong choice!
2. Should you remove the skin?
If you have the option of keeping the skin on (see Step 2 in the previous section), the general recommendation is to keep it. Leaving the skin on provides a layer of protection to help keep it from overcooking, makes it possible to pan-fry it, and helps prevent waste. Plus, you can easily remove the meat from the skin after it’s cooked!
3. Should you brine fish before cooking?
Brining fish is not necessary, but there are some reasons why you may want to. Brining changes the consistency and can make the fish firmer, making it less likely to fall apart while cooking, and can amplify the flavor. To brine, soak the fish in a 10% salt solution for about 10 minutes.
How to Season Fish
There are so many ways to season fish! The best thing to do is experiment and find out what you like best. Just remember to season the fish right before you cook it, as seasoning it too soon can break down the proteins in some fish and make it dry.
Here are some common and popular ways to season fish:
- Salt, pepper, and lemon (a classic!)
- Garlic, lemon, rosemary, and thyme
- Breadcrumbs, Italian herbs, and parmesan cheese
- Chile flakes, dijon mustard, and soy sauce
How to Cook Fish
The most important thing about cooking fish is not overcooking it! It’s easy to overcook fish, especially if you fillet it, and most cooks will leave the fish on the heat for too long for fear of undercooking it, but this causes it to dry out. In fact, it’s better to undercook the fish, since you can always put it back in the oven, on the grill, or in the pan.
Your goal when cooking fish is to cook it just enough. It should be fully cooked, but still moist and flavorful. It should be oily. You will know when it’s cooked perfectly because it will have a glossy sheen and a flaky, tender texture. A good rule of thumb? If the fish looks dry, it is overcooked.
Perfect Your Culinary Skills
If you can catch fish to eat, then you’ve already mastered the difficult part! There may be some trial and error involved as you learn how to cook fish, but it’s easier than you may think. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ways of cooking and switch up seasonings to see what you like best on different types of fish. You should also have fun with sides since those can really complete the meal! With a little practice, you’ll become an expert fisherman and a cooking pro.