Food by VICE

The Idiot's Guide to Breaking Down a Fish

“Breaking down a fish gets you more in touch with where it comes from. And it saves you money. That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day.”

by Brad Cohen
Jan 18 2017, 9:00pm
"It's so easy to break down a fish," says Eric Werner, executive chef and owner of Hartwood in Tulum, Mexico. "It's a lot harder to break down a lamb. Or a pig."

Werner and his staff go through about 150 pounds of fish every three days for the restaurant's daily rotating menu comprising mostly ceviche and grilled seafood. The Hartwood team recently came by the MUNCHIES test kitchen to show us how break down a whole fish—in this case a striped bass—and explain why it's something we should all be doing.

"Breaking down a fish gets you more in touch with where it comes from," Werner says. "And it saves you money. That's what it comes down to at the end of the day."

If that doesn't convince you, consider this: with supply chains that can have too many links to track, rampant mislabeling of fish, and shady practices throughout the seafood industry, it can be difficult to have any real idea whether that frozen tuna steak you're buying isn't actually escolar. And good luck figuring out the true sell-by date of that conveniently filleted salmon at your local seafood purveyor.

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"There's so many people who just want to get fish out of their markets, so when you see a fish that's broken down already, you kind of question, 'Did they break that down to help the consumer or did they break that down to trick the consumer?'"

READ MORE: The Rules For Buying Fresh Seafood That You Were Afraid to Ask

Unless you're catching the fish yourself, the best way to ensure that you're getting fresh seafood is buying it whole. And yes, that means you have to break down yourself. Look, I get it—slicing into the flesh of a once-living specimen while it stares at you with its cold, dead eyes can be an intimidating experience. But it's a hell of a lot easier than it looks. And once you tackle this challenge, you'll be one step closer to butchering that lamb.

The process actually begins at the fish market. You need to know what you're looking for. "If their eyes are nice and clear, that's your first giveaway," Werner says. "If the eyes are clean and shiny you have a nice, fresh fish."

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Once you've got your fish, use the sharpest knife in your kitchen to make an incision down the width of the fish, in front of the pectoral fin. This incision will eventually be your stopping point.

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Then, starting at the tail and moving toward the head, take your knife and drag it along the spine of the fish. By starting at the tail instead of the collar, you'll avoid cutting into your filet, and ensure you get the thickest steaks possible.

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Cut at an angle, gently pulling the meat every once in awhile to check that you're staying close to the spine (but make sure you're actually cutting with the knife; never tear the meat with your hands).

Photo by Matt Zuras
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Once you hit the collar, cut your filet away from the fish.

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Photo by Matt Zuras

"I like a little bit of a thicker collar," Werner says. "The collar will be used for another dish. The head will be used for fish-head soup, and then, at times, we'll use the bones for stock. If it's a really nice fish like mahi ... inside each one lives a salty kind of membrane, cartilage-y kind of thing, and that honestly tastes delicious, so you can pop em and throw it into the ceviche and add a little bit of the sea to it. "

Photo by Matt Zuras

Now that you've cut the meat away from the fish, get rid of the inside of the belly (the less glamorous looking bit).

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"This part i'm gonna lose," Werner says. "I can take this inside belly part, really thinly sliced, and then fry that or roast that and it's a whole other dish. Now, I'm gonna make filets off this one side. I'm gonna hand this off to (Hartwood head chef Jamie Klotz). She's the ceviche master."

Photo by Matt Zuras

If you're making ceviche, as the crew was that day—or any other dish that requires you to remove the skin—place the fish skin-side down on your cutting board. Then, make an incision between the meat and the skin, with your knife facing away from you. Holding your knife steady, put pressure on the underside of the skin. Then, grab both halves of the fish and pull it towards the knife, letting the blade cut away the skin.

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Now, you want to slice away the bloodline—the dark red bits of meat that run between the two filets—to get rid of any chewy texture and irony taste. When you are done, your meat should be slightly pink or clear, depending on the type of fish—any dark red or brown color should be discarded.

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When slicing ceviche, the fish will sometimes come apart at the tendon, so you'll want to cut across the length of the fish at the tendon to make sure it doesn't fall apart when you start slicing the ceviche and to avoid a chewy texture

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Last, if you're making ceviche, you'll slice at an angle, being careful to cut against the grain to make sure you don't wind up with with an overly tough fish. The thickness you're looking for depends on your fish. "Mine has to be a bit thicker because it will apart if it's more thin— almost like shaved ham," Klotz says. "A lot of time with fish, meat will just dictate to you how it needs to be cut. Some fish you can just do so paper thin. It's so beautiful. But with fish with a lot of tendons, you need to do it a bit thicker just to make sure."

Be sure not to saw the fish for your ceviche—just make one straight motion.

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You just broke down a whole fish. Pat yourself on the back and crack open a cerveza. Now dress your fish in mezcal, ginger, honey, chilies, and lime, and enjoy some well-deserved ceviche.

Photo by Matt Zuras
RECIPE: Ceviche de Aguaja with Ginger and Mezcal