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Preparing Salmon for Cooking: The Full Cleaning Guide

Whether you’ve caught fresh salmon off the water or having it lying around in the kitchen, you’ll have to prepare it for cooking. Salmon are some of our favorite fish to catch – from king salmon to kokanee salmon. And if you’ve spent the money to buy an expensive piece of salmon, you had better know how to prepare it right.

The process of cleaning a salmon might sound tricky but it gets easier if you split it into simple steps. In this article, we’ll provide you with the ultimate guide on how to clean salmon before cooking!

Things You’ll Need to Clean Salmon Before Cooking

Author Note: Cleaning a Salmon and getting it ready for cooking is always an easier task if you’ve got the right tools for the job. But before we get into it, if you’re interested in learning more about catching salmon – check out ou articles on fishing for salmon with downriggers as well as without downriggers.

In the following list, you’ll find all the gadgets and items you’ll need for this guide to clean a salmon efficiently.

A good set of cutting knives: a sharp fillet knife is ideal for cutting salmon without wasting edible meat. Ideally, you’d also need a fish scaler brush or a dull knife to scale the salmon too but a sharp fillet knife can still do the job nicely.

A pair of cut-resistant gloves: you’ll need to wear those before you get on with the cleaning project to keep your hand clean and avoid injuring yourself while filleting.

Knife sharpener: you need to keep the knives sharp all the time for better meat recovery and avoid wasting the flesh between bones.

Broad Cutting Surface: while cutting down the spine, you need the fish to be firm and held straight to avoid losing a lot of meat.

Fish Bat: only needed if you’ve just caught the salmon out of the water.

Disposal Bucket: will help you keep your boat or kitchen clean while you’re working on the fish, and allows for easier disposal when you’re done.

Tweezers: make the job of removing the small bones, also known as pin bones, of the salmon a whole lot easier

How to Prepare a Freshly Caught Salmon for Cooking

Now that you have all the tools needed ready for the job, it’s time to get on with our cleaning guide.

While this guide is specifically made for salmons, it has a lot in common with cleaning other types of medium-large fish.

Step 1: Make Sure the Fish is Ready for Cleaning

If you’ve caught the fish, there’s no point letting a live creature suffer. A single blow on the top of the fish’s head is more than enough to ensure that the fish is dead. This is the first step in how to clean salmon before cooking.

Author Note: You’ll only need a fish bat for the job. It’s an easy and quick way to relieve the salmon from suffering and get on with your cleaning.

If you don’t have a fish bat, you can use a similar non-sharp object, or slam the salmon’s head into the edge of a rough surface, such as the icebox.

Also, if you’re buying the salmon from the grocery store, make sure that the fish is well maintained, and freshly caught.

You can tell that the salmon is fresh by checking on its eyes, gills, and scales. A fresh salmon will have the following:

  • A characteristic bulge in their eyeballs
  • Their scales will be shiny
  • They’ll spring back if you press down on them with one finger.
  • The gills will be bright red and not dark brown.

Step 2: Cut the Anal Fins Off

We like to start the cleaning process by cutting the anal fins of the salmon off. This makes it a lot easier to advance with the cleaning process

If you don’t remove the anal fins, they would get in your way while scaling the fish, which will make it a lot more difficult to work with.

The anal fins are found in pairs and located near the bottom end of the fish’s body. Place your knife right behind the fins and make a small cut, then run the knife forward to remove the fins and toss them in the disposal bucket.

Step 3: Scale the Fish

Scaling will now be much easier since you’ve removed anal fins. Luckily, salmon scales are quite easy to remove when compared to other types of fish. If you want to leave the scales on you can, but we consider it an essential step in how to clean salmon before cooking.

All you have to do is place your knife at the tail end of the fish and run it down against the skin as if you’re brushing it towards the head.

While a dull knife or a scale brush is ideal to not stab through the fish, any sharp one will do but you’ll need to be more gentle and careful.

When you’re done with one side, make sure that you do the same for the opposite side of the fish too.

Step 4: Remove the Guts of the Salmon (Essential to Cleaning Salmon Before Cooking)

The visceral insides of the fish should be removed before you slice it into pieces. To do that you need to put the fish on its back and stick the knife into the hole you’ve created while removing the anal fin.

Run the knife all the way up to reach the mouth of the fish, which will open up the fish and allow you to pull the guts right out of the fish.

When you open the fish up, you’ll find the roe/milt, which are membranes with a mushy appearance that you can remove simply by tugging and pulling several times. If you’re interested more about fish anatomy, check out our fish poop article.

Step 5: Remove the Head and Fins

With your fish gutted, it’s time to cut the rest of the fins and the head off. Start by cutting the tail off then align the knife along with the head from the gills to cut them off.

With both of these parts out of the way, you’re left with the main edible part of the salmon, which you’re going to fillet shortly.

Step 6: Start Filleting the Salmon

After tossing the unwanted parts into the bucket, put the fish back to its side. Filleting a salmon is a critical job and takes years of practice.

However, there’s an easy way to do it even for beginners without leaving a lot of wasted flesh behind.

Hold the fish from the belly flap up and out and look for the salmon’s spine. Place the knife horizontally right above the spine and cut into the flesh in a “sawing” motion.

Since the spine moves downwards along the fish, tilt the knife ever so slightly while cutting down.

Once you reach half of the fish, put the belly flap back and gently press on it to brace the knife to cut along the end.

When you’re done, flip the fish to the other side and repeat the same step so you can remove the spine with as little meat as possible.

Step 7: Skin the Salmon (Optional)

Some people like to keep the skin of the salmon on and even eat it. However, there are others who prefer to remove the skin of the salmon before cooking. This is because they don’t like it or because they like to make crispy salmon skin.

To remove the skin, sprinkle some salt over one end of the skin to make it dry and less slippery. Use a sharp knife to separate the flesh from the skin and slowly peel it off as the knife advances.

If you don’t like eating the skin, you can remove it easily after cooking, but we strongly recommend that you keep it on while you cook.

It seals off the moisture and protects the meat while being grilled so that the meat doesn’t stick to the pan.

Step 8: Remove the Bones and Rips of the Salmon

If you like to grill your salmon with the bones on, you’re ready to cook the salmon now. However, if you prefer to get them removed first. Here’s how it goes:

With your fillets cut and ready, all you have left is removing the bones and rips off the salmon for easier cooking. You can refrigerate the fillets before this step to firm them up first

Author Note: Place the knife parallel and next to the ribs and run it run down the edge of the bone. Once the blade is under the bone, angle it up in a sweeping motion to remove the bones without scooping them out and losing a lot of meat.

The rest of the pin bones can be easily removed with tweezers one by one whether before or after you cook the salmon.

Step 9: Get Rid of Remaining Salmon Parts

Now that your bucket is filled with remains of salmon parts that you don’t use, you can easily get rid of them in a variety of ways.

For example, if you’ve cleaned the salmon in your boat, you can simply toss the content of the bucket back in the water to feed larger fish.

This is better than letting animals mess around with your trash bags due to the salmon’s strong smell.

Wrap Up

There you have it. A complete guide that shows you how to clean salmon before cooking. As you can see, the process of cleaning salmon might be a bit tricky for a beginner but it gets easier as you practice more. We hope this article will give you the confidence you need to clean the next fish you catch yourself.

Also, using a good set of knives will always make the job easier so consider using quality knives for the job.

Make sure that you avoid the common mistakes that a lot of people fall into while cleaning their freshly caught salmon, like heavily rinsing the salmon in water or cooking in the same pan that you used for cleaning.

Also, remember to season your salmon (we like garlic and teriyaki) for the best taste!

Happy Hunting!


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