How to turn a whole salmon into fillets.

Perfect Fillets

Great salmon is a real treat; delicious tender and juicy meat that is almost difficult to pick up with a fork. It carries flavors well and can be cooked dozens of ways. Poached with citrus and red wine yields a refreshing and light result that couples well with salads or spring vegetables. Hot smoked salmon creates a rich, full bodied, hunk of meat that is almost steak like in its texture and depth of flavor, yet still carrying that wonderful salmon flavor.

The best salmon is wild. No, let me put it more succinctly: Farm raised salmon sucks, bad for you, often laced with tons of food coloring, and just a completely disappointing waste of money.

The one problem is that wild salmon typically carries a premium price. It isn’t uncommon to see wild salmon filets pushing $15 a pound. The more refined the cut, the higher the cost.

However, if you are willing to exercise a bit of knife work, it isn’t hard to breakdown a whole fish into fillets. What cost $15/pound fully processed, can be had — typically much fresher — for well under $10/pound.

In my case, I get my fish from Patrick O’Shea of Mission Fresh Fish. His crew shows up at the Mountain View farmer’s market, but I go to the market on Saturday mornings in Saratoga; no craft vendors, all food.

Patrick was kind enough to show me exactly how to clean a salmon. Whereas I had shredded the meat previously, I can now take a fish apart into perfect fillets in a matter of minutes!

Click on through for a photo tutorial on exactly how to do so…

Whole Salmon

You’ll need some tools and a really good fish.

Pictured is about a 7 or 8 pound fresh salmon. Fresh wild salmon.

You’ll want a big cutting board, a bowl to toss bones and such, and some freezer bags or something to put the processed fish in. I put down a really big towel, too, as there is guaranteed to be fish scales everywhere.

You will need two knives. One that can cut through bones, most likely serrated. Or just a heavy cleaver.

The second knife is critical. You will absolutely need a boning knife. The one pictures is actually a Montana Knife Professional 8″ Fillet Knife that has been ground down such that the blade is about 1/3rd the width it originally was. Pat gave it to me– I have no idea where to pick one up, but I’ll ask Pat next week.

Update: Gritmonkey commented that CostCo carries the Montana 8″ fillet knife. Sure enough, they do. For a whopping $6.07. At that price, I might just pick up several and experiment with grinding ’em down to the thin blade that Pat gave me. Awesome!

Divide Salmon Into Roasts (keep the head!!)

Last weekend, I spent some time watching Pat fabricate some salmon. The real first step is to take the serrated knife and cut off the fins of the fish. Cut into the fish just slightly to remove the cartilage that is just under the spot where the fins connect to the fish. Not strictly necessary, but does make subsequent roast and fillet cuts a little bit easier.

The first second step is to divide the fish into roasts. Make sure each roast is less than the length of your boning knife (you’ll see why in a moment).

Now, you might be thinking: “This is a whole fish? Where are the guts? Why isn’t gutting the first step?”

When salmon is caught, the fish is typically bled out through the gills and then gutted. This increases shelf life and decreases the amount of weight the boat has to haul around.

Anyway, “whole” salmon is typically sold without the guts inside. Convenient.

The cut right behind the head is the trickiest. Cut as close to the head as you can, likely at a slight angle and then angling back to the front of the fish as you cut just behind the frontmost set of fins.

Insert Skinny Knife Next To Bone And Cut to Top Of Fish

You could always stop here and enjoy some fine salmon roasts. Or you could continue removing bones to yield perfect fillets.

Take the boning knife and slide it into a roast right along the backbone until the point sticks out the other end of the roast. If you do it right, the point will stick out right next to the backbone in about the same position as the entry point.

Angle the knife blade down — against the bones in the salmon — and press down on the roast with your other hand. Saw with the knife all the way through the skin on the top of the salmon. Done right, the knife will slide right against the fish’s bones and you will live behind almost no meat!

Clean cut, Now Run Knife Along Backbone and Cut Across Bones To Bottom Of Fish

The photo shows about what it should look like when you lift up the top half of the roast.

Taking the boning knife, gently slice the meat away from the backbone until you can the knife is against the bones below the backbone. Slide the knife against the bones to cut the meat away from the bones below the backbone.

Just like the top half. The end result is that that one side of the salmon roast has now been freed as a near perfect filet. It will still have pin bones in it, easily removed with a pair tweezers.

It may also have some of the bones from the fins. Easy enough to remove with the boning knife.

Half a Fillet, Note that Fin is Actually Split

Now take the half that still has the bones on it and repeat the steps above.

Slide the knife along the backbone and cut against the bones of the spine to separate the meat from the bones. It helps to flip the half over so you can press down on the skin of the fillet while sliding the knife along the bones.

In that photo, the bottom part of the fillet actually has 1/2 of the fin. Yes — when I cut that, I managed to split the fin in half. Useless skill, that, but it made me happy. Easy to cut away by simply running the boning knife underneath the fin bones.

Perfect Fillets

If done right, the end result will be a perfect set of salmon fillets (or steaks). You might need to pull out a few of the small bones. Not hard to do, just poke the boning knife under ’em, lift, then grab and pull.

I haven’t given it a try, but apparently salmon bones don’t make great stock. Too oily.

However, the heads are delicious roasted. There is lots of amazing meat on the head, including the cheek meat. Splitting them is quite easy with a heavy knife, the trick is to wedge your thumb in an eye socket to prevent the head from getting away from you (another trick Pat showed me).

There you have it. Clean a salmon in only a handful of easy steps.

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4 Responses to “How to turn a whole salmon into fillets.”

  1. gritmonkey says:

    The Costco Buisness stores carry Montana knives, at least here in Washington. I watched my Aunt fillet a rockfish, with the same knife (though not ground down). She used to work in a fish processing plant, and she had lost none of her skills. In the plant, they had running water to keep the fish from getting sticky.

  2. David says:

    Run your fingers along the bottom edge of the fish to find the ends of the pin bones sticking up. Lift them up as you suggest, then grab them and pull them straight out the same direction that the bone is jutting out with a pair of pliers.

  3. bbum’s weblog-o-mat » Blog Archive » Feast of the Seven Fishes says:

    […] the fish, I tossed some butter into a couple of cast iron pans, brought them up to temperature, and then laid in two beautiful hunks of salmon that were from a batch of wild pacific salmon I had fill… a while […]

  4. L. Peritore says:

    Thanks for the instructions on cleaning a whole salmon and breaing it down to steaks and fillets.
    You started with about an 8 lb. salmon. What was the net weight of the final steaks and fillets?
    L. Peritore

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