04.08.08–Traditional Foods and Recipes–Pt.1–Dressing Fish In The Field And In The Kitchen


Cited From Tundra Comics–“The Funniest Cartoonist In Alaska”

Tundra Comic Strips By Chad Carpenter



That 10-pound (4.5 kg) burbot or sculpin or dogfish or king salmon may look and act tough when you pull it from the water, but it isn’t. Its flesh is the most delicate invented by Mother Nature for the human palate, and it merits respect. Because fish bruise easily, don’t let them flop around any more than necessary and don’t toss them in the bottom of a boat where they will dry out and become coated with slime and dirt. And DON’T store them unrefrigerated in plastic bags. Warmth, plastic and fish make a sure formula for quick spoilage and possible food poisoning.

DO Kill fish as soon as they’re caught. Cut out the gills and gut them, taking special care to remove the kidney tissue that clings to the backbone. Gills, guts and kidney tissue are fine media for growing the bacteria that cause spoilage or off taste, so removing them quickly after the fish is caught is essential. Salmon and trout ferment especially rapidly, and fish that are caught while feeding tend to become soft and flabby unless tended quickly.

However, fish should not be washed with water until you’re ready to cook or freeze them as dry fish last longer. Simply wipe out the cavity with grass or a paper towel. All these initial steps, as well as others to be undertaken later in the kitchen section are described in detail as they apply to both round fish–such as salmon, trout and rockfish–and to the flat ones–flounder, halibut, sole.

After initial cleaning, keep fish as cold as possible and away from sunlight, preferably in an ice chest filled one-quarter full of crushed ice or cooled with dry ice. If you’re using crushed ice, pack some inside the fish cavity also.

If ice isn’t immediately available, sprinkle the gutted cavities with salt, wrap the fish in grass to keep them separated, and keep them as cool and ventilated as possible until you can follow one of the following procedures for short-term storage–proper refrigerating, brining, or field smoking.

A respected catch won’t smell or taste ‘fishy.’


…at least bleed it. Lift up the gill cover and stick your knife down behind the gills into the throat area. This will cut the blood vessels and arteries around the heart. Let the fish bleed freely for 20 minutes or so. Then wipe it as clean as possible and keep it cool and away from sunlight until you can clean it more thoroughly and refrigerate it.


Some fish will keep up to 10 days held on ice at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (Zero degrees Celsius). When the temperature rises to 37 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius), storage time is reduced to five or six days, and a temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) narrows the time to about two days. The average home refrigerator ranges between 37 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit (3 to 7 degrees Celsius).


If immediate icing isn’t going to be possible, it’s a wise fisherman who carries along a good quantity of salt when he goes fishing. IT can be flavored with some pepper if desired–1 tablespoon (15 mL) pepper to 1 cup (340 mL) salt. As soon as a fish is gutted and wiped clean, rub cavity and skin well with the salt mixture.

Place salted fish in a basket or box and loosely pack green leaves around them. Cover the container with several thicknesses of burlap, leaving air space between it and the fish. Moisten the burlap and keep it moist. The constant water evaporation will lower the temperature in the container.

Fish treated this way should stay in good condition for at least 24 hours. At cooking time, rinse the fish thoroughly to remove excess salt. If fish must be held unrefrigerated longer than 24 hours, roll them one at a time in salt and pack them away in the container with as much salt as will cling to them. They should keep for about 10 days. Fish this heavily salted must be freshened before cooking. Soak them about 12 hours in two or three changes of fresh water.



If you’re going to cook a fish with its skin intact, you may have to scrape away tough scales first. If so, you can avoid having a very messy kitchen to clean up afterward in a couple of ways: Either spread out plenty of newspaper that can be thrown away or scale the fish underwater.

One knowledge source, Robert Candy, author of Getting the Most from Your Game & Fish [Charlotte, Vermont, 1978], says he likes to scale fish right in the kitchen sink, pressed down under at least 2 inches (5 cm) of cold, sometimes iced, water. “The scales don’t fly at all. They just settle to the bottom, and I catch them in the strainer when I let the water out.”

His advice about icing the water is also good. Some people suggest dipping a fish into very hot water until the scales curl, making it easier to sluff them off. but since fish is a delicate meat that cooks quickly, hot water at this early stage of preparation is to be avoided. With the convenience of curling scales, you may also invite spoilage, at least of taste. So, with your fish under water or on newspapers:

  1. Grab hold of it firmly with one hand.
  2. With the other, use the dull edge of a knife, the edge of a heavy spoon or a fish scaler to scrape the fish, working from tail toward the head, holding your implement almost at right angles to the fish.
  3. Rinse the fish thoroughly and pat dry with toweling.

If you’re scaling on newspapers, remember that a wet fish is easier to scale than a dry one. And a slippery fish will be easier to hang onto if your dip your fingers with salt, hold it with a piece of paper towel, or, better yet for some spiny fish particularly, wear a cloth glove on the hand that does the holding.

For an improvised fish scaler that works great, take the advice of Mamie Jensen of Juneau and use a steel-bristled paint scraping brush. “Just be sure to hold the fish under water while you scale.”

The fine scales of smelt can be removed with a toothbrush, and some fish, such as trout and smaller salmon, do not require scaling.


Cleaning a fish is more than just slitting its belly and zapping out its insides. How you do it–and how soon–is the difference between a good-tasting fish and a spoiled one. Start with:

  • A sharp knife with a 5 or 6 inch (12.5 to 15 cm) blade and a plastic or other hard–surfaced handle. Wood is more difficult to clean.
  • A solid flat cutting surface. Again, stainless steel and plexiglass are easier to keep clean than wood. Wood, however, can be sanitized by scrubbing it with a chlorine solution–2 tablespoons (30 mL) per gallon (3.8 L) of water. Salt sprinkled on any cutting surface will help cut the slime and sanitize.
  • A teaspoon.
  • Plenty of clean cold water.
  1. Insert the point of your knife into the vent opening, just deep enough to cut through the skin. Then run the cut smoothly the length of the belly to a point just below where the pectoral fins (near the throat) join the body. Keep the cut shallow so you don’t damage the flesh or the egg cases or puncture the viscera.
  2. Carefully cut the connecting tissue at both ends of the digestive tract (throat and vent) and the viscera will fall right out. Wash the eggs (if there are any) put them in a clean plastic bag and refrigerate to await further treatment. Just remember, eggs are, if anything, more perishable than the rest of the fish. So do something about them soon. They’re worth saving.
  3. Next remove the gills. Reach in under the gill cover. Cut through the connecting tissue at the top of the gill and run your knife around the jaws to the bottom. Then twist the gills out.
  4. Now all that is left is the kidney. This looks like a line of clotted blood running along the spine from the head to the vent. Some fishermen simply slit the kidney down the middle and then scrape out the dark material or push it out with a thumbnail. But a better way is to make two long slits through the membrane down either side of the kidney. This makes it easier to remove and also does away with the ‘ribbons’ of membrane, which many processors object to, that are left behind if you cut ‘fisherman style.’
  5. Scrape out the kidney blood with a spoon. Get every trace of it. The hardest to reach is the blood in the small bones of the back, called knuckles. Use the tip of your knife very carefully to pry out this blood, trying not to puncture the flesh.
  6. Now wash the fish well, inside and out, with clean cold water, pat it thoroughly dry and it’s whole-dressed–ready to be cooked, put on ice or freeze for later or dressed in a slightly different way.

For instance, though it is not necessary, some cooks also like to remove fins before cooking whole–dressed fish. If you want to, cut into the flesh along each side of the fin. Take hold of it and give it a slow steady pull toward the head to remove bony attachments with it.

To fit the frying pan, whole fish are often tailored before being breaded or fried. To pan-dress remove head, tail and fins.

Steaks are cross–section slices cut from large whole-dressed fish. Steaks are generally about an inch (2.5 cm) thick and the skin is left on to provide stability during cooking, unless the skin has a very strong flavor.

Fillets are the sides of the fish cut lengthwise away from the backbone. Cut the sides in separate pieces and you have single fillets. Cut so that the two sides remain joined after the backbone is removed and you have a ‘butterfly’ fillet. Some people leave the skin on fillets of some kinds of fish. If you plan to, the fish should be scaled, if necessary, before you fillet it.


  1. Use a knife with a thin, straight–edged blade. Place fish flat on a cutting board with its back toward you.
  2. Hold the knife diagonally close to the head. Cut down and in toward the head to the bones.
  3. Then hold the fish by the head and drive the knife away from you, cutting along the backbone toward the tail, keeping the knife edge flat against the bone.
  4. Opening the fish with one hand, continue to cut the flesh loose from the spine, using the tip of the blade to clear the flesh from the ribs.
  5. Continue the cut through to the belly side of the fish and–viola–the first side is filleted.
  6. Turn the fish over, holding the head away from you, to begin the first cut on the other side.
  7. Drive the knife toward the tail, still holding the head away from you.
  8. Then holding the fillet with one hand, repeat steps 4 and 5 above.
  9. To remove the skin, place the fillet skin side down. Cut into the flesh until you reach the skin, then turn the blade nearly flat, grasp the skin in one hand and pull slowly while working the knife with a slight sawing motion.
  10. Drop the head, tail, and bones into the cooking pot to make a delicious soup to eat right away–or the stock for a soup or sauce for the weeks ahead.


Fish don’t come conveniently packaged in the same sizes and shapes, but besides generally roundish ones, there’s only one other shape so radically different to call for some tailoring of the rather simple rules of dressing.

These are the flatfish–huggers of the ocean floor whose most startling characteristic is the presence of both eyes on one side of the head. It’s the topside when the fish is burrowed into the sand, and the eyes bear the same relationship to the backbone that they do in most other creatures. but because flatfish are exactly that–very flat and nearly as broad from dorsal to anal fin as they are long between nose and tail–the placement of the eyes seems most peculiar–at first glance. There are some 300 species of flatfish worldwide, and they range in size from the tiny sand dabs to the giant halibut. Naturally, there are a few differences in dressing and cooking techniques that are also dictated by size. Try finding an oven in which to bake a whole–dressed 800–pound (363 kg) halibut.

But, with a little adaptation, the following guidelines should suffice for dressing most of them–the various flounders, sole, turbot and halibut.

  1. Cut off the head on a diagonal (to get most recovery of fish), and gills and some attached viscera will come with the head. Slit the belly pouch and clean thoroughly, removing kidney, and in the case of halibut you will find two lumps of flesh about the size of walnuts or bigger at the tail end of the body cavity lying on either side of a sturdy bone dividing the area into two pocketlike areas. These fleshy items are the gonads and must be removed.
  2. Alaska halibut, sole, flounder, and other flatfishes have such minimal scales you can ignore them insofar as any need to scale. Halibut are slimy, however, and washing and scraping away excess slime will make a neater product. In cooking, many cooks like to keep the skin on all cuts because much fat of the fish lies under the skin. Other cooks believe the skin imparts a ‘fishy’ taste. Whatever, this is a matter of choice. Some may prefer to skin both sides of fillets. Either way, the skin itself is thoroughly edible.
  3. To open up a cavity for stuffing…White side up, cut to the backbone along the backbone line, leaving a little flesh uncut at head and tail.
  4. Then, holding the knife flat and pressed against the bone, slide it underneath the flesh on each side of the backbone to form a pocket large enough for stuffing. Use the fingers of your other hand to help lift flesh from bone as you cut. Want an elegant dinner? Try a stuffing that has shrimp as a main ingredient. Bread or rice stuffings are nice too.


The following will describe cutting fillets from sole, flounder, or smaller sized halibut.

  1. One may begin either on the white side or the dark side. Make a diagonal, meat saving, cut with the knife blade angled from head towards the tail end, then laying the knife blade flat along the backbone. Flatfish have basically one flat backbone and ribs system running clear across the fish with no other bones except in the body cavity to be concerned with. Begin a long sweeping cut to the tail, allowing the knife blade to ride on the backbone.
  2. At this point you can either cut through the bones of the belly wall and remove these afterward, or carefully follow along and over these bones you are clear of them at the tail end of the body cavity when you can let you knife blade go clear across.
  3. Repeat on the opposite side. And remember on halibut there are choice cheeks on the side of the head. For skinning fillets, some people can hold the fillet skin side down and run a flat fillet knife from tail to head between skin and flesh. If there are many fish to handle, a flat nail head drive into the cleaning board and left just above the board a hair makes a handy ‘hanger-on’ to the slippery tail skin piece by simply pressing the skin against the nail head and holding firmly.


A premium commercial fish and the largest fish sought by sport fisherman in Alaska, halibut ranks as a favorite seafood for any table. The giant flatfish favors deep, cold water and swims the depths from California to the Norton Sound. Sometimes plunging even farther north. Halibut achieves its great size rather slowly, taking about five years to grow to 20 inches (50 cm) in length. Mature females may weight four or five times as much as males and can reach 8 feet (2.4 m) in length and weigh around 500 pounds (227 kg) after about 15 years of growth.


Any basic method for cooking fish is appropriate to halibut except that few cooks would attempt to bake a whole one! Roasts, however, are delicious, as are steaks, fillets and chunks–baked, steamed, poached, batter–fried, broiled or sauced.


In the fish trade, filleting the ‘whales’, as big halibut are called, is referred to as fletching. Now, anybody who has ever fletched a big halibut, working on a conventional or larger table area, knows that rolling back and lifting increasing weights of boned out fish can be a chore.

The smart way to do the big ones is to tail–hang them against a building or from a tree or cross–piece, backing up the fish with a sheet of plywood. If you don’t have a handy wall backup, the plywood sheet will prevent the halibut from spinning on you, and if you do have a wall, it will make later cleanup easier.

So your fish is now hung by the tail, presumably the tail around eye level with our or a bit higher. It doesn’t matter which side of the fish is to you.

  1. First cut to the backbone vertically down the lateral line from tail to throat.
  2. Second, begin a cut at the tail from outside, the knife laying flat on the dorsal and backbone fins to the backbone.
  3. With a few inches of fillet started, throw a cinch loop around the top end of the fillet and tie it somewhere handily above so when the fillet is sliced off, it will remain suspended and not end up in the dirt. That done, keep peeling down the fillet (fletch), cutting flat along the ribs to the backbone.
  4. Repeat on the opposite side of the lateral line, then spin the fish around and repeat the procedure…the centerline cut and the separation of two giant fletches of boneless halibut. The four resultant big chunks of fish can be readily reduced to handier portions for wrapping and freezing.

Cited From: Cooking Alaskan By Alaskans Cookbook. Published by Alaska Northwest Books, July 1983.

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans Cookbook


7 responses to “04.08.08–Traditional Foods and Recipes–Pt.1–Dressing Fish In The Field And In The Kitchen

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