Breaking Down a Fish (In Your Spare Time)

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by Chef Jae Bae, JFE Executive Chef, R & D

savvy

If you’re not expanding your culinary skills, you’ll become complacent, and you’ll never know how good a chef you might have become. This edition we’ll try to introduce you to an impressive, but also super practical, skill. In breaking down a salmon, our goal is to end up with a bunch of beautiful fillet blocks that will produce a lot of sashimi and neta (nigiri topping). I think you’ll find that you’ll also feel a new reverence to the animal that is at the heart of some of our most beautiful dishes.
First, if your fish hasn’t been scaled, I recommend scaling it. Over time scales will gradually dull your blade, and a scaled fish will help you make cleaner cuts and avoid having to clean debris off your fish and board. If you like, at this time you can also cut all the fins off the fish to get them out of the way for easier cutting.
Next you’ll cut off the head. For our purposes in sushi, I just make a straight cut, right behind the gills, all the way through from one side to the other.
If you’d like to save the collar for another dish, it follows the line of the collar bone just behind the pectoral fin and roughly parallel to the cut you made for the head. Again, you can make this cut up to the spine, detaching it there, for two collar pieces.

Preparing Your Halves
Your fish, of course, will come with a pre-cut opening, or cavity, down the center of the belly. At this point you can either cut the back end of the fish off, just behind where the body cavity ends; or, to have more meat, you can lengthen the cavity with two additional cuts—one on each side of the spine– almost to the tail. You’ll feel the backbone scraping the tip of your knife.
Your next cut will be to divide the fish in half lengthwise by cutting the top of the fish. Insert your knife from the top of the fish until you feel the backbone, and make a long cut from the tail to the neck, ensuring you feel your knife scraping along the spine. You’ll also hear a clicking sound. Naturally, you’ll be cutting to one side of the dorsal (top) fins.
With two exposed halves now, one with the spine and one without, you can see and remove the spine. In order to be able to grab and handle the fish for the rest of the process, at this point I make a slit on each half of the body. Under the soft dorsal fin (the small fin on top of the fish just in front of the tail), you’ll make a two-inch lateral cut (left to right) midway between the top and bottom of the fish. You can now hold the large fillet with your thumb, for example, in the hole.
The final cut to remove the spine is a little easier since you can see what you’re doing now. With a close cut under the spine from one end of the fish to the other, again you should feel and hear your knife scraping the spine.

Finishing Touches
Now carefully trim all visible excess fat from the top and bottom of your halves. You can make this easier by first cutting the belly off (it’s usually a couple of inches deep) in one lengthwise cut. Depending on the quality of fish, this is a prized cut, though one we don’t use at our grocery price point.
For safety of course, you’ll next need to carefully remove the tiny pin bones that are left in the center of the fish body and run most of the length of the fish. Most people use culinary tweezers, but I’ve also seen a chef or two use the “eye” of a vegetable peeler to hook, twist and pull each bone out. There can often be more than 20 pin bones, so always carefully double-check to ensure you found them all.
Depending on the size of the fish, I generally make four cuts to end up with five 6-inch fillets. With practice, you’ll have added this technique to your culinary skills and can take pride in impressive hand cut fillets. As always, I welcome your feedback and questions at info@jfefood.com (Subject: Magazine).