How to Clean a Fresh Salmon
(Originally published October 10, 2012)
A couple of weeks ago I had an iconic Pacific Northwest food experience. It began with a salmon.
It was the last day of reefnet fishing, a special method of salmon fishing which has been practiced in Legoe Bay off Lummi Island for many years. Reefnetters keep the fish they catch in live holds until the last possible moment. Besides keeping the fish alive it also greatly reduces stress and bruising from rough net handling. When you buy fish directly from the fishermen on the beach at the end of the fishing day, you get the freshest possible fish in the most perfect possible condition. The fish will be whole–head, guts, and all. I bought a chum salmon from Rush Rock Reefnet.
Dressing the fish isn’t hard, but it does take care and a razor sharp knife. It also helps, when cutting through the bones, if there’s a serrated edge available. A flexible blade allows you to cut smoothly along the backbone, resulting in less wasted meat.
I work slowly and start by removing all the fins. Next I cut off the tail, and then the head just behind the gills. If the salmon has a large head, you may want to use a C-shaped cut to save meat. My chum had a small head, so I used a straight cut.
At this point, I discovered the fish was full of roe. Bonanza!
Next, with the fish on its side, I start cutting a shallow cut along the back of the fish, just deep enough to get through the tough outer skin. This is where a sharp knife is a necessity. Once you get through the skin, the rest of the meat cuts easily.
After the skin is split along the back, I return to the head end and make slow, careful cuts toward the spine, which is about three inches in from the back skin. The goal is to cut along one side of the spine until you get through to the body cavity (where the guts are). Then turn the fish over and do the same thing on the other side of the spine. If you do all this carefully, you will end up with two long fillets attached by a flap of belly skin–essentially you’ve butterflied the fish. The roe sacs will be free to lift out, and the guts should slide off in a bunch, though you may need to cut the belly skin around the anus to free the intestines. Again, take care not to pierce the organs, if possible.
You can leave the “butterfly” fillet in one piece, but I make a cut on each side to remove the fatty lower belly meat and the belly skin. You’ll see where that is on the inside because the meat texture visibly changes. Any heavy metals the fish have been exposed to (such as mercury) tend to concentrate in that belly fat, so I discard it.
Voila! Two beautiful skin-on fillets! From an 8 lb. whole chum, I ended up with 2 cups of roe (caviar) and 6 1/4 lbs. of fillets.
I’d read you could smoke salmon in a charcoal barbecue grill using a hot smoking technique, so I decided to try it. Chums make good fish for hot smoking because they are a fattier salmon and so stay moister during smoking.