How to Fillet a Fish- and not die trying!

Paris Fish Market


Why should I learn to fillet a fish, do I hear you say? “It’s too messy, too much reality!”  Well, the answer is you can make fish stock from the bones, which in turn makes the most delicious sauce. Just ask Julia Child, where would her Lobster à L’Américaine be without real fish stock?

If you go to a fish market in the United States (at least the ones I’ve been to), you rarely see any whole fish. They’ve all been filleted, with the meat already trimmed and nicely packaged- you’d hardly know that what you’re buying comes from a living creature from the sea!

However, the fish markets in France are full of whole fish ready for you to fillet yourself: trout, sole, John Dory, sea bass and salmon, to name a few. Why, I’ve even bought a live lobster myself in Paris in order to make Lobster à L’Américaine. The French are famous for their delicious fish dishes and sauces and the secret is they use the fish bones to get their flavors.

Filleting a fish is not very difficult- you need to first make a cut behind the head, then run a sharp knife closely along the back bone to release the meat. You’ll need a sharp knife and special tweezers to remove the small ‘pin bones’ after filleting.

If you give filleting a try, you will then be ready to try my next recipe Fish Fillets in White Wine Sauce.

Step 1: Lay the fish flat and remove any scales by scraping the back of your knife along the fish, going towards the direction of the head.

Step 2: Use kitchen scissors to remove the fins on the top and bottom of the fish, cutting in the direction of the head.

Step 3: Starting from the belly side, make a diagonal cut along the head of the fish to the very top.

Step 4: Starting from the head end, insert your knife on the top of the backbone and begin to cut towards the tail- keep your knife very close to the bone. As you cut, gradually pull back the flesh away from the knife.

Step 5: After you have cut half way along the backbone, insert the knife all the way through to the other side, still staying on top of the bones (skeleton). Now slide the knife all the way towards the tail and release the flesh near the tail.

 Step 6: After you have released the flesh from the tail, you will notice that the flesh is still attached to the fish at the ribs. Working on top of the ribs, gradually cut the meat away from the bones, pulling the flesh away.

 You have now finished filleting the top part of the fish. One more side to go!


Step 7: Turn the fish over and repeat the exact same steps. Run the knife along the top of the backbone, going from the head to the tail. Pull the flesh away from the knife as you continue to cut.

Step 8: Half-way along the backbone, insert the knife through to the other side, staying on top of the bones. Then cut towards the tail, releasing the flesh from the tail. Finish by cutting the flesh away from the ribs.

 After you have finished, there should be almost no meat left on the fish! You are now ready to make some fish stock with the bones. Stay tuned for my next recipe.

Fish Fillet


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  • Reply
    [email protected] Riffs
    April 20, 2015 at 12:23 am

    Good post! And you’re right that in the US most fish markets feature fish that’s been filleted. Although there are fish mongers who feature whole fish (and will filet them for you). Fun read — thanks.
    [email protected] Riffs recently posted…Easy Homemade Corn TortillasMy Profile

    • Reply
      April 20, 2015 at 7:25 am

      John, thanks for your comment. I’ve been wanting to do this post for a long time- a rather technical post, but essential for those wanting to make their own fish stock.
      Fran recently posted…How to Fillet a FishMy Profile

  • Reply
    Joanne T Ferguson
    April 20, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    A very interesting post and love seeing the step by step Fran!
    Perhaps your can put a Bouillabaisse recipe on your list to do soon too!

  • Reply
    Maureen | Orgasmic Chef
    April 21, 2015 at 9:53 pm

    Many fish here are whole – staring at me through the window or from atop the tray of ice. Good post to learn from.
    Maureen | Orgasmic Chef recently posted…South American Lamb StewMy Profile

  • Reply
    April 23, 2015 at 5:11 am

    Fran, your posts always manage to surprise me.
    Its very interesting for a foodie like me, who loves seafood, to learn this technique.
    Thanks so much for sharing and I’ll start practicing, it doesn’t seem so difficult after all 🙂

  • Reply
    Gourmet Getaways
    April 23, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Nicely presented! Never thought it wasn’t that scary! Really, this is veyr handy and informative. Love it!!! Thank you so much! *Pinning*

    Julie & Alesah
    Gourmet Getaways xx
    Gourmet Getaways recently posted…Grand Canyon – A view from the TOP!My Profile

  • Reply
    Lynn @ Oh-SoYummy
    May 10, 2015 at 9:41 am

    Ooh you make this look quite easy with the pictures! Every time I’m walking through the seafood at the asian stores, I keep my distance from the whole fish, but just maybe… I’ll get one of them in the future! I’m pretty sure my mom and aunt know how to filet their own fish though. Those two are so resourceful! =)
    Lynn @ Oh-SoYummy recently posted…Puerto La BocaMy Profile

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