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Honolulu chef David Lukela reveals his best tips for scaling, butchering, and preparing whole fish.

Elisabeth Sherman
March 26, 2018

Burgeoning home cooks looking to expand their skills probably know by now that there isn't much you can't cook in your own kitchen. Chef Nobu already shared the five things you need to make sushi at home. The head chef at KFC revealed his methods for making perfect fried chicken. You can even ferment your own kimchi if you feel so inclined. The next chef's skill you might want to master, though, is butchering whole fish. Lucky for you, we've put together a complete guide to get you started.

Chef David Lukela has been cooking fish at the Moana Surfrider hotel in Honolulu for three and half years. Born and raised in Hawaii, Lukela has intimate knowledge of how versatile fish are in the kitchen. Just about every part of the fish, including the skin and bones, can make it into your next meal. Butchering fish is a deceptively simple process that takes time and practice to master, however. Lukela is here to take you through the process, with his tips on every aspect of preparing whole fish, down to picking the right one at the market.

Just remember: "You do not become Jiro overnight. Butchery is a craft that requires practice and patience. You will destroy the fish at first, but over time, you will get better."

Buying your fish

  • Lukela’s fish of choice for beginners would be the Tai (or red) snapper. It’s the fish he first learned how to butcher.
  • Salmon and cod are also easy to break down if you’re still learning.
  • The gills of the fish should be red, the eyes clear, and the fish should smell briny, like the ocean.

Before you start

  • Lukela says that he will often “study the anatomy of the animal before I butcher it,” so he has a “roadmap” in his mind.
  • He uses a Deba-style knife (a fillet knife traditionally used to cut fish in Japan) but says that any type of fillet knife will work.
  • Make sure you also have a cutting board, boning knife, and fish tweezers (for pulling fine bones from the fish without tearing the meat) on hand before getting started. 

Kotobuki High-Carbon SK-5 Japanese Deba Fish Filleting Knife, $76 on amazon.com

Dalstrong fillet knife, $89 on amazon.com

Kotobuki Japanese Fish Bone Tweezers, $8 on amazon.com

Victorinox boning knife, $19 on amazon.com

Scaling

  • Using a fish scaler, scale the fish inside of a trash bag, a method Lukela uses to reduce mess.

Yamasho brass fish scaler, $9 on amazon.com

Filleting

  • Here are Lukela’s precise instructions: “Place the fish on one side, starting from the head to tail, use long slicing motions to slice the fish, releasing the filet from the bone. Use the skeletal structure of the fish as a guide for the knife. This is known as 'riding' the bone. Slice to the center bone, then slice over the spine and release the lower half of the fish (the belly section). Release the filet by cutting through the rib bones. The filet should now be free from the side. Repeat with the other half of the fish, only in reverse (cutting from tail to head).”

Ingredients

  • Lukela likes to keep his flavors simple when it comes to preparing fish. He recommends starting with just “a hot pan, butter, lemon, and salt.” When he’s cooking at home, he typically pan fries fresh fish “with a simple sauce of soy sauce and lemon.” He sometimes also adds green onions and ginger to the mix.

Preparation

  • There’s a place for almost every part of fish on your plate. Lukela likes to steam the fillets, broil the collars, and reserve the heads for stock and soup. He fries the bones and eats them as a snack. Don’t even think about throwing out the skin: It can be used to make chicharrones (in place of the traditional pork belly).
  • Here are seven more ways to use leftover fish heads and bones if you need some extra ideas.
  • Since Lukela is based in Hawaii, one of his favorite fish to work with right now is Kampachi (at the Beachhouse, the chefs use a version of the same fish called kanpachi), which is raised sustainably in the open ocean, so eating it doesn’t contribute to overfishing. One his favorite parts of Kampachi is the collar, which he calls “moist and flavorful.”
  • One of the most common mistakes Lukela finds home cooks make when preparing fish is that they don't use a hot enough pan.
  • “We’ve all been there before. You get impatient, you put a piece of raw fish in a cold pan and then it gets stuck and you have to scrape the fish off the pan,” he says. “Wait until it gets hot, then place the fish in the pan. The oil in the pan should be smoking."

Storage

  • Lukela hopes that home cooks who want to cook whole fish “show some respect to the animal [and] the fishermen” by having a plan in place before you start cooking to use the entire fish. If you do end up with leftovers, however, the Department of Agriculture says that it’s perfectly safe to freeze fish fillets, as long you’re sure to thaw the fish in the refrigerator (not under hot water). The fillets are best eaten within two days of freezing.