Eat & Drink

How to cut, skin and cook a whole fish

How to cut, skin and cook a whole fish
Chef Aaron Rock of Friday Harbor House demonstrates how to cut, skin and cook a whole halibut. Chef Rock gets his Salish Sea halibut from Jones Family Farms on Lopez Island. (Image: Joshua Lewis / Seattle Refined)
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Along with Starbucks, planes and tech companies - the Pacific Northwest is commonly known for its seafood. You'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that doesn't serve something from the sea, and quality here is ten times better simply because of our proximity to it. "Fresh" here in Seattle has a different meaning than in middle America, where fish have to be shipped in and are likely frozen several times before they end up on your plate.

We're lucky up here. But one thing that's hard to get around is the price, especially if you care about quality, whether it's pre-frozen, or in bulk packaging. A fillet of halibut, for example, is usually around $26.99 per pound

Chef Aaron Rock of the The Bluff at Friday Harbor House on San Juan Island has a suggestion that is not for the faint of heart.

"If you buy a fish whole and then skin and cut it for yourself, you'll save a lot of money and get three or four fillets out of it that you can freeze for later," said Rock.

I am now going to go into detail on how Chef Rock suggests cutting, skinning and cooking a whole fish (using halibut as an example). I will not take it personally if you stop reading here.

Prep

Firstly, get yourself to a grocery store that you trust as high quality, and buy yourself a whole fish. Pike Place Fish down at the market sells them for $16.99 per pound (as opposed to $26.99 per pound for a fillet). 

"Save yourself some time and buy the fish headed and gutted," said Chef Rock. 

Rock says fish have about five days of life after you buy them from the store. If you can't get to cutting immediately after you buy it, put it in a large container with some sort of draining system in place. Then cover the fish in ice (on the skin side, not the flesh side) to prevent freezer burn. 

Cutting

Once you're ready to get to business, give yourself about half an hour, a large cutting board, and a good attitude.

"Use a knife that's appropriate," said Chef Rock. This means a sharp Chef's knife for a whole halibut sized fish. Use a diamond steel rod to sharpen your knife, and a honing steel to straighten it.

"It's a common misconception that the honing steel rod is a sharpening rod," said Rock. "It's not. It just straightens it."

If you're doing this with a salmon, it will have pin bones. Rock's quick tip? Buy a cheap pair of needlenose pliers from the hardware store to extract them.

Now on to the actual cutting. 

"Cut the fins off first," said Chef Rock, "And then use the natural seams in the fish when cutting."

He says the best fat content of halibut is in the cheeks, and a fun quick way to cook that part of the fish is braising them in some tomato sauce for a quick appetizer. 

Skinning

After the fins have been taken off, cut the middle seam straight down to the bone, following the pin bones. Using a smaller knife, situate the blade underneath.

"Slowly, using fluid movements, slide the knife under the skin so you don't tear into the fish," says Chef Rock.

Once it's successfully skinned, check through the fish meat for excess bones, and separate it out into fillets to freeze.

Correct freezing habits for fresh fish = lots of plastic wrap.

"Food savers are amazing too, if you have one of those," said Chef Rock. "If not, wrap it two or three times in plastic wrap."

Cooking

Once it's time to cook it - unthaw and follow the recipe as you would with any other pre-bought fillet of fish. Chef Rock recommends touching it as seldom as possible, and just doing a simple pan fry with canola oil.

"Make sure the pan is really hot," says Chef Rock, "Then when you put the fish in, keep it at a low temperature to get that golden crust."

If you're not that into the pan-fry, put your fillet in the oven at about 375 / 400 degrees for seven to ten minutes.

There you have it! If you're a 'do-it-yourself-er", buying a whole fish and getting your hands a little dirty can end up saving you a lot of money. 

Then again, if skinning a whole fish makes your stomach turn - keep buying the fresh fillets (or get a significant other, family member or friend to do the dirty work for you)!

Chef Aaron Rock offers a Lunch n' Learn series through September, where participants stop by his restaurant and are treated to lunch, which watching him cook a dish. Tuesdays in July have him teaching participants how to prepare and cook Shoal Bay Shellfish's Neah Bay wild king salmon.

Class is $40 per person and reservations are required. 

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