From the brine to the broiler: the right way to handle fish

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Among the many reasons I take up the rod and reel, foremost could be the satisfaction of feeding myself, my family and friends the world-class protein I’ve harvested from the wild with my own hands. From my earliest fishing experiences, my dad always stressed the gratification — maybe it was something nearer to a spiritual rite — of eating what we’d caught.

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I liked the idea, but I didn’t always relish the experience of trying to pry bits of the baked tautog or flounder off the comb bones with the tines of my fork.

Dad, who dismissed filleting as a shameful waste of good fish, favored the head-it-and-gut-it approach. Whatever its advertised rewards, eating our catch was, to my 8- or 10-year-old mind, something we did more to avoid the guilt of wasting a fish than to celebrate its capture.

In my second life as a fisherman, mastering the art of fish cutting has opened up a host of culinary options. And as the years progressed, I’ve spent hundreds of hours comparing notes with fellow deckhands, captains, crew and clients on recreational, charter, party and commercial vessels, as well as with seafood buyers, wholesalers, retailers and chefs of all stripes. I hope it will suffice to say that I now have some strong opinions about the best way to handle fish from the time they land on deck to the moment they meet their final destination in hot oil or on a wad of sticky rice.

I also suspect, having converted many self-proclaimed fish-haters into seafood fanatics just by exposing them to “real” fish, that some of you might benefit from a few basic (and not-so-basic) points on caring for future catches to get a far superior product to the table. A bit of extra work can make the difference between merely not wasting your catch and making it sing on the plate.

There’s a reason fish buyers pay a premium for hook-and-line-caught fish: Where many commercially caught fish take a beating with hundreds or thousands of other fish stuffed into a bottom-trawl cod-end or gillnet meshes, our one-at-a-time rod-and-reel fish land on deck alive and in perfect condition — no bruises, puncture wounds or abrasions. We start, in other words, with a far superior product.

Regardless of species, the first step is to take advantage of a fish’s still-pumping circulatory system. Gruesome as it may be, bleeding every fish will deliver a sharp, immediate improvement to the end-product. Where conventional wisdom says only certain less desirable species such as bluefish warrant this step, it will absolutely improve every fish you keep if you slice through the membrane that connects gills to nape bone. Once you’ve made your cut, get the fish back into a bucket of salt water that will facilitate the process. Plan to leave the fish in that “room-temp” water for 15 or 20 minutes to let it bleed out completely. Do not attempt to chill it on ice until the bleed-out is complete to avoid shocking its system or bruising the meat.

The author has had enough experience to know that proper handling pays off when fish finally reach the dining room table.

Standard machine-issue bags of cube ice are fine, but you can use them to better effect if you make a slush brine in a cooler, mixing ice, salt water and kosher salt. The resulting near-freezing liquid will speed-chill fish literally to the bone while continuing the rinsing process. Better still, where packing fish directly in ice can dent or bruise flesh, immersion in slush will protect flesh and penetrate the gills and body cavity, slowing decomposition from within. More important, a slush cooler will chill fish to below 32 degrees without freezing, thanks to the salt.

A number of scenarios call for gutting the fish, even if it’s ultimately destined for the fillet knife. The most obvious example is large pelagic fish, such as tuna, shark or swordfish, which decompose rapidly from the inside. However, any fish with significant guts and/or stomach contents — especially oily baitfish, crabs or larger finfish, whose foulness can permeate surrounding muscle tissue around the belly cavity — will benefit from evisceration. If fish are to spend extended time on ice before cutting, particularly in hot weather, gutting will help protect the flavor. Of course, it’s much easier to fillet fish with guts in and the shape of the fish intact, so use your best judgment.

Believe it or not, the old line about “still flopping in the pan” as an indicator of freshness holds some limited truth, though not in the positive way you’d think. With a number of species, including cod, bluefish, tautog, fluke, grouper and striped bass, cutting live or just-dead fish can destroy the quality of the resulting fillets. Heed the former advice about bleeding and chilling, but also be sure to let fish rest for at least an hour post-mortem before they see the knife. Some species’ fillets will literally disintegrate in the pan if you fail to let flesh rest before cutting.

Fillet work — both boning and skinning — is a matter of knife selection, sharpness and handling skills (rote learning and lots of repetition). The key is to take your time as you learn to use consistent strokes, following the comb bones with light downward pressure. Know that most species come with a subtle road map of bone position by way of the lateral line, which follows the lay of the spine closely. Over time, try to make the same cuts in the same order, starting with the same side, on every fish. Consistency counts. Speed follows practice.

Regardless of fillet technique, how you rinse finished fillets is critical to the quality of your galley-bound product. I was raised on the idea that any and all rinsing should take place in clean (ocean) water, that any exposure to fresh water will hurt flavor and wreak havoc on freezer-bound fish. I have softened a bit on this point since a good friend pleaded his case for fresh water some years back. He advocates a thorough freshwater rinse, followed by thorough drying of fillets by wrapping them in paper towels; my preference is at least two saltwater rinses, followed by thorough drying. (The only fresh water my fillets usually see is a quick rinse and dry before they head for the pan.) If you do rinse fillets in fresh water, complete drying is mission-critical — any residual moisture will hasten yellowing and freezer burn.

If some of your catch is destined for the freezer, the best and most durable solution is vacuum sealing. If you suspect fish will be in the freezer for only a week or two, paper- towel-wrapped and thoroughly dried fillets will generally hold up perfectly in the old standard freezer bags, provided you remove as much air as possible before sealing. Be sure to lay fillets flat for freezing, and portion meat out into meal-sized packets of similar-sized fillets, no matter the method you use.

One minor note about “steaking” fish (e.g., tuna, swordfish, salmon): During long freezer sentences, connective sinews between steaks’ rings/eyes may deteriorate, causing them to fall apart during grilling or broiling. You can head off trouble by cutting steaks at a 90-degree angle so the sinews will lay at a slight diagonal and the fish will hold together while cooking. Individual steaks should be vacuum-sealed; if vac-packing isn’t an option, cut the loin into chunks the thickness of several steaks to slow deterioration, and steak just before cooking.

A relative handful of extra steps between the moment fish leave the water and hit the pan add to the day’s work. But like most habits, they’ll become second nature over several trips, especially once you’ve noted the dramatic improvement in the quality of your culinary output.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

January 2015 issue