It’s fun to watch an old-time fisherman work magic with a knife. They are like surgeons, except they had to perform usually on a rolling deck. Any fish I ever caught I could bring to my father or one of my grandfathers and they would make quick work of it. They always say the same thing: It’s all about having a sharp knife. I think there is a little more to it, but having a knife that works with you is half the battle.
Here are some timeless instructions on how to clean fish, taken from the 1896 edition of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer: This book changed the way Americans used cookbooks and also cooking in general. It was a best seller from the very start and newer versions are still in print. Below are Fannie Farmer’s step by step instructions on how to clean, skin, bone, and fillet fish.
To Clean a Fish. Fish are cleaned and dressed at market as ordered, but need additional cleaning before cooking. Remove scales which have not been taken off. This is done by drawing a knife over fish, beginning at tail and working towards head, occasionally wiping knife and scales from fish. Incline knife slightly towards you to prevent scales from flying. The largest number of scales will be found on the flank. Wipe thoroughly inside and out with cloth wrung out of cold water, removing any clotted blood which may be found adhering to backbone.
Head and tail may or may not be removed, according to size of fish and manner of cooking. Small fish are generally served with head and tail left on.
To skin a Fish. With sharp knife remove fins along the back and cut off a narrow strip of skin the entire length of back. Loosen skin on one side from bony part of gills, and being once started, if fish is fresh, it may be readily drawn off; if flesh is soft do not work too quickly, as it will be badly torn. By allowing knife to closely follow skin this may be avoided. After removing skin from one side, turn fish and skin the other side.
To Bone a Fish. Clean and skin before boning. Beginning at the tail, run a sharp knife under flesh close to backbone, and with knife follow bone (making as clean a cut as possible) its entire length, thus accomplishing the removal of one-half the flesh; turn and remove flesh from other side. Pick out with fingers any small bones that may remain. Cod, haddock, halibut, and whitefish are easily and frequently boned; flounders and smelts, occasionally.
To Fillet Fish. Clean, skin, and bone. A piece of fish large or small, freed from skin and bones, is known as a fillet. Halibut, cut in three-fourths inch slices, is more often cut in fillets than any kind of fish, and fillets are frequently rolled.
When flounder is cut in fillets it is served under the name of fillet of sole. Sole found in English waters is much esteemed, and flounder is our nearest approach to it.
The Boston Cooking School Cookbook
By Fannie Merritt Farmer
Little, Brown And Company, Boston 1896