Michigan is home to a tremendous amount of lakes and rivers, each with their own unique ecosystems. Within these unique ecosystems, Chefs have been striving to push their own boundaries—as well as nature’s—to provide delicious and creative meals. Historically, most fish caught and processed are used for their most desired cuts, but as the food industry grows and fish populations decrease, we are seeing it is not sustainable to simply use one or two cuts per fish. Chefs like Josh Niland have been paving the way to determine and experiment with how much meat we can actually use from a freshly caught fish.
My name is Stephen Hanyzewski and I’m a Chef based out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. My main focus as a Chef right now is product development, sustainability, teaching, mentoring, and agricultural wellness as it refers to current food systems
Local to me are plenty of species of bass (largemouth, rock bass, walleye, perch, etc.) Once caught, I like to place the fish directly on ice to keep it as fresh as possible. For butchering I use a sharp filet knife, and I keep a good honing tool close by to keep my knife as sharp as possible in between cuts.
Let’s talk about my process of breaking down and sustainably using a fish using 5 easy steps. I’ll be using rock bass as my example, as it is easily found, cost efficient, has plenty of meat, and is a sustainable fish.
1. Lay your fish flat on a clean cutting board. Remove excess slime with a clean, dry towel. Slime on a fish will indicate freshness. Removing this slime will help you be able to break down the fish easier without it moving on your cutting board.
2. Remove the guts. Find the small vent on the bass by the base of the tail on the belly side. Insert your knife gently and make a small, smooth cut from the base of the tail up to the neck. Gently open the stomach of the fish. When doing this, it’s important to remain in the center of the fish as much as possible when cutting from the tail up to the neck/gill area. If the knife slips off this track during this process it is likely a filet may be damaged
3. Reach inside the cavity using a gloved hand and remove the organs. These can be pinched and pulled out by its roots. Wash the inside of the belly under cold running water to get rid of any excess blood/intestine. Fish livers and hearts can be removed and soaked in milk. This process helps draw impurities and blood out of the organs and will lead to a mellower flavor, and they can be breaded and fried. They don’t taste like fish (just like chicken livers don’t taste like chicken) and they’re delicious!
I also like to add these to a grinder/blender and add these elements into a fish pate. The liver has a smooth pate finish, and is rich in nutrients and flavor
4. Scale the fish. Use the sharp edge of the knife to scrape back and forth from the tail towards the head. The scales on a fish lay flat from the head to the tail, so we will want to start at the tail and scrape towards the head to effectively do this task. Some people also use a high pressure hose to remove the scales. I find this sometimes bruises the flesh so I prefer a knife.
A trick I picked up in Josh Niland’s Masterclass is to remove the scales in large pieces and either fry them, or dehydrate them to use as a chip. This is done by making a small incision just below the scale’s surface and removing the scale as you would a filet. In small, clean slices work your way up removing the scales in larger sections. Once scaled, I move on to taking off the large filets. Filets are going to be your most recognized portions, and are the easiest to work with.
5. Filet the fish. Starting at the gills, make a small incision and lay your knife flat against the fish’s spine. This time we are going to work from the head to the tail. Using smooth cuts, work your knife back and forth down towards the tail, working to cleanly remove the filet from the spine. I like to keep the head on when removing the filets because with the head and gills attached, they can be draped over the edge of the cutting board to allow for extra stability when fileting the fish. When it is time to remove the head, it has many uses, including stocks, sauces, and soups. You can also carefully extract the fish cheeks, which are often seen as delicacy in many cultures.
These are some basic steps and principles to help get you on track to using the whole fish. To take a deep dive into how to use every part of a fish, sign up for Josh Niland’s Masterclass at Anchored Outdoors!