How-To & Diy

How to Break Down a Whole Fish

August 26, 2013

Once you've perfected basic techniques like frying an egg and cooking rice, it's time to move on to those things that may have initially scared you off. Every other Monday, we'll be going beyond the basics to help you tackle even the scariest cooking techniques.

Today: Camille Becerra teaches us to fillet a whole fish. Just remember: practice makes perfect.

Filleting a Fish from Food52

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When buying fish -- especially for crudos, ceviches, or other raw fish dishes -- I always find it best to buy whole fish. I like to think it's been more protected from bacteria. Most fish have been gutted, but certainly always check; that’s one messy process you don’t want to have to do a home. I also prefer to have it scaled, even if I’m not planning on eating the skin. Scales have a tendency to slip into the final product when still attached to the skin. And nobody wants that.

More: After you're done filleting your fish, learn all about ceviche.

If you’re new to this technique, it's important to take your time with it; it’s a technique based mainly on feel. Keep in mind that fish needs to be kept cool; put your fish on ice or in the refrigerator immediately after you’ve broken it down.

First: using a sharp knife, make one incision near the head under the pectoral fin and one near its tail fin. Do this on both sides of the fish.

 Filleting a Fish from Food52 Filetting a Fish from Food52 

Make another incision on the top of the fish coming as close to the dorsal fin as possible and down the entire length of the fish to the tail. The dorsal fin is the top fin that runs the length of the fish. All three incisions should meet.

Start cutting through the body using the bones to guide your knife. Lean your knife gently on the bones and make small swipes.  With each swipe, pick up the fillet, look to see you are coming as close to the bones as possible and continue.  The bones are your guide, so it is important that you have a feel for them.

Filleting a Fish from Food52

When you’ve reached the middle you’ll need to point the knife every so slightly upward to move past the vertebral column, the main bone that all the smaller ones attach to. The whole length of the knife will angle upwards a bit to pass the spinal bone; the knife should rest on the bone as a guide.  

Once you're past that, continue the swiping motion with the knife pointed a bit downward until you reach the bottom end. Once the knife reaches the bottom, you will find the fillet is held by the skin on the bottom belly area. Then, you can simply make a clean cut to separate the fillet from the body.

Camille Becerra on Food52 Filetting a Fish

Feel the fillets for any stray bones that might have been left behind; a tweezer works well at pulling them out. And remember: practice makes perfect. 

Do you have any tips for filleting a fish? Tell us in the comments!

Photos by Tara Sgroi

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Randy McCoy
    Randy McCoy
  • Moura Maun
    Moura Maun
  • Trine Milner
    Trine Milner
  • George Pearce
    George Pearce
  • Philip
Camille Becerra

Written by: Camille Becerra



Randy M. August 12, 2015
When removing the skin, lay the fillet skin side down. Then use the knife tip to slice an arc around the rib bones. Then slide the knife blade between the fillet and skin
Moura M. September 27, 2014
I filet and skin my fish with an electric knife , as do all the serious anglers I know. This way is slow and a lot of work.
Trine M. September 25, 2014
Nooo! Many small cuts=ragged filet. Start near the head behind fin and cut down across the body. Angle the knife towards the tail and follow the backbone towards the tail. Stop just shy of the tail and flip the filet over, skin side down. Slip the knife against the skin and slice to remove.
George P. August 2, 2014
Sushi knife still not flexible enough to perform job as well as SS filet or boning blade!
Philip January 12, 2014
Perhaps you should also show how to skin the filets.. Using the flexible blade filet knife. Place the filet skin side down, grasp the thin/ tail end of the filet and the knife blade at a shallow 40 degree angle... Pull in a slight cytting/ sawing motion and you will get skin free filets with little flesh left on the skin.
foodie-pretense August 27, 2013
Using a filet knife, as opposed to the rigid chef's knife pictures, will make this task much easier.
Camille B. August 31, 2013
The knife pictured is a Japanese carbon steel fish/sushi knife from Kikuichi. Long and thin making it ideal for filleting for sure ;)