How-To & Diy

How to Scale and Gut a Fish

September 18, 2014

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: We're showing you how to prep a whole fish at home, so you can impress friends, family, and yourself.

How to Gut a Fish

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You may be wondering: Why should I learn how to gut and scale a fish at home when I could easily ask a fishmonger to do it for me? Isn't that the whole point of going to a fishmonger? Why is "fishmonger" such a weird word, anyway?

There are three reasons why you should learn how to scale and gut your own fish:

1. You'll know exactly how the fish has been processed, from where and when it was caught (if you have a local, reliable fish stand) to the way it was cleaned to how it was cooked. You can claim complete ownership over this fish.

2. If you're camping and you catch a trout, you're only five minutes away from a delicious breakfast -- and you won't have to call anyone to help you get there.

3. You'll look really cool. If you tell someone that you scaled and gutted a fish, perhaps the very fish that you prepared for the elegant dinner party you're all seated at, they will be impressed. It's a fact. 

Whether you're planning on making an ocean-to-table meal in the near future or just want to slip this know-how in your back pocket, here's how to gut and scale a fish.

How to Gut a Fish

Before you get slice-happy, you've got to scale your fish. Place the dull side of your blade at a 45-degree angle with the sharp side facing towards you. Make sure your knife is situated against the grain of the scales, then start scraping away from yourself in smooth, steady motions. Fish scales are tightly interlocked, like chain links in armor, so it can be difficult to break through and start removing them. However, once you get started, they slip off relatively easily -- just watch out for rogue scales that might fly towards your face.

A tip: While scaling our fish, we realized it would have been much easier if we'd used rubber gloves to keep our grip on the fish and avoid sharp fins. Though it's too late for us, we now pass this knowledge on to you.

Once your fish is completely smooth and scale-less, wash it thoroughly under cold water. Make sure your knife is sharp and you have a trash can or plastic bag nearby to collect any byproducts, and you're ready to clean out your fish.  

How to Gut a Fish on Food52

Insert the tip of your knife into the anus of your fish (the small hole located above the tail fin). Make a clean, steady cut up to the jawbone of the fish; you'll know to stop when you can no longer cut easily.

Now comes the messy part (bet you thought the messy part was when we said "anus" back there). Pull out the internal organs with your hands -- once again, gloves are encouraged. Dispose of any nasty bits in the trash, and rinse the outside and the internal cavity of the fish under cold water. 

How to Gut a Fish

You can also cut out the gills and snip the fins and tail with scissors, but there's not much need unless you are trying to make your fish fit into a cooking vessel, or if you're feeling extra fancy and channeling a French bistrot.

How to Gut a Fish

From here you can fillet your fish, but this requires a steady hand, a razor-sharp knife, and a zen-like state of calm. You have to be one with the fish. If you want to tackle fillet-ing, here's your guide. However, cooking the fish whole is just as delicious -- and even more impressive. Grill it, crust it with salt, cover it with fennel and lime, or gently lay it over a bed of potatoes. We typically opt for the simplest approach: Stuff the cleaned-out belly of the fish with lemon slices or fresh herbs, place him on a well-oiled pan, then drizzle the whole fish with olive oil and a healthy sprinkle of salt and pepper. Roast him in a 400° F oven for 30 to 35 minutes, until the thickest part near the head is at 135° F, then serve the fish at the table. Brag a little. 

What's your favorite way to cook a whole fish?

Photos by James Ransom.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Neil
  • paczryk
  • Catherine Lamb
    Catherine Lamb
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


Neil January 29, 2018
Indeed, this is a very well detailed guide on how to process fish before cooking. Seafood can taste great, especially if you cook it yourself and you know how to do it properly of course.

By the way, when it comes to scaling, you could do a decent job with a knife, if you’ve had more practice, but using a fish scaler will definitely make things a lot easier. I myself have an electric scaler that makes the whole deal quite effortless and quick. Not all scalers are equally effective though.

You should do a research before opting for a particular model. I came across an article that summarizes great models and found it very helpful. If some of you are interested to read about it:
paczryk September 18, 2014
Ah, one of my favorite childhood chores - bent over the sink with my mother...

Favorite preparation? Simply steamed and seasoned with the holy trinity of scallions, garlic, and ginger - plus some soy sauce, vinegar, and peanut oil for flavor. A staple throughout southern coastal China and thoroughly addictive. Sort of like this, as featured in epicurious - ^.^
Catherine L. September 19, 2014
Oh wow that sounds spectacular.