How To Fillet A Salmon

Salmon Nutritional Facts

Okay you may have found this page because you want to know how to fillet a salmon yourself! Well if that’s the case then you’ve come to the right place! In this article we’ll go over some of the basics of filleting a whole salmon with a filleting knife, although there are other methods such as using an electric knife often used for turkey carving, for example.

There are many different knives that will work well for filleting salmon. The type that I prefer have an 8″ long blade that’s narrow and fairly flexible. You don’t need to spend a fortune to get a knife that will work well… in fact, most fillet knives that I buy cost under $20.

If you’d like to get specific, two of my favorite knives are the Dexter-Russell model S133-8, and the Forschner model 40613. Again, you should be able to find either of these knives for about $20 US.

Once you’ve got a good knife, you need to keep it sharp. I’ve tried lots of different sharpeners, and I think the easiest and most fool-proof sharpeners on the market today are the Edgemaker sharpeners. These sharpeners have three different sets of sharpening bars. Most of the time, if you’re using your knives under normal conditions, you will only use the finest (smoothest) set of bars, just to “touch up” the edges on your knives… it’s just like using a butchers’ steel.

But, if you’ve lost the edge on a knife, or if you’ve somehow gotten a ding in an edge, then you’ll need to use the coarser grit bars until you get get a nice, consistent edge… then switch to the smoothest bars to put the finishing touches on it. There are instructions included with the sharpeners that tell you how to use them.

Once you’ve got a sharp knife, you need a flat surface to lay the fish on. Any piece of board or countertop that is big enough will do just fine, but you’ll keep a bit more peace in the household if you make sure you do your filleting outside, especially if you’ve got any slimy, smelly fish. I use a scrap piece of butcher block countertop, it’s a bit fancy, but it works just fine.

One thing that I look for is to make sure that whatever board I use, I want to be able to use it right to the edge… in other words, I want to be able to have the fish right at the edge of the board and my knife hand working just off the edge of the board… more on this later…

OK, once you’ve got your knife sharpened and your workspace established, it’s time to move on to the filleting. We’re assuming that you’ve already de-gilled and gutted your fish… if you don’t know how to do this, have no fear, we’ll be adding a “how-to” section on de-gilling an gutting here soon.

The first step in filleting is to make sure you’re comfortable with where the fish is placed. It’s really all a matter of personal preference. I prefer to start my filleting with the fish laying in front of me as it’s pictured below, with its head to my right, and its belly facing me… but then again, I’m one of those strange left handed people, so what feels right for me may feel wrong for you… make sure you do what feels comfortable to you.

Make the first cut just behind the gillplate, in the first soft section of tissue. Make this cut straight down, perpendicular to the backbone, or just a little slanted, as shown here.

Cut all the way down to the backbone, but don’t cut through the backbone

Once you’ve cut down to the backbone, make sure you cut and free the lower (belly) section also

While holding the knife against the backbone, turn it 90° so the cutting edge faces the tail and the blade is parallel to the backbone. Then, while holding the belly flap up with one hand, start cutting towards the tail, with the blade parallel to the backbone, or angled just slightly towards the backbone, so it rides against it. You want to use the backbone as your guide.

In the other axis, the tip of your blade should be angled a little towards the cutting board, as shown… you do this so your cut comes closer to the dorsal fin, you don’t want to leave a thick strip of meat on the carcass above the backbone… you want that meat to end up on your fillet!

At first, you’ll be cutting through the rib bones, so the first part might take a little effort… this is why you want a nice sharp knife! Continue to hold the belly meat up so it doesn’t get accidently cut by the blade, and work the blade along the backbone, back towards the tail. Notice how close the blade is to the dorsal fin… you want to pass just above it, leaving the most meat possible on your fillet.

Again, you want the blade to pass just along the anal fin, and right along the backbone also, leaving as much meat as possible on your fillet. Notice the angle of the blade, angled slightly towards the backbone… you want to use the backbone as a guide… you don’t want to go too deep and dig into the backbone, and you don’t want to go too shallow and leave some meat on the backbone… it’s a delicate balance, one that takes practice.

At the tail of the fish, run your blade out along the backbone, and then angle slightly upward, through the skin.

There it is, the first fillet, off the bone. We will rib and clean up this fillet after we cut the next fillet.

Once you’ve got your first fillet cut, put it aside and flip your fish over. How you hold the fish is a matter of personal preference, but I find it easiest to cut my second fillet with the fish situated as shown. Again, cut down just behind the gillplate, perpendicular to the backbone, through the entire fillet, but not through the backbone.

Again, once you reach the backbone, turn your blade 90° and face the cutting edge towards the tail and perpendicular to the backbone. Hold the belly meat up and start cutting through the rib bones, moving the blade towards the tail. On this second fillet, I think it’s very important to have the fish right at the edge of the cutting board, so my chubby knife hand can hang over the edge… if not, my knuckles would be scraping on the cutting board in order to get a good cut along the backbone.

Continue to hold the belly meat up, and cut along the backbone. Angle the knife so that you minimize the amount of meat you leave on the carcass.

A different camera angle, showing how to hold up the belly meat. You do this so that you don’t accidently cut through the belly meat while you’re concentrating on cutting through the rib bones. Make sure you don’t cut yourself while doing this… using a Kevlar glove for your non-knife hand is not a bad idea.

After you pass the belly cavity, you can let go of the belly meat. Continue to use the backbone as your guide, and carefully angle the blade so that it rides just over the anal fin, again, maximizing the amount of meat on the fillet.

Run the blade along the backbone and at the very end, angle it away from the backbone and cut through the skin near the tail.

Because of the way I fillet (I cut through the rib bones and leave them on the fillets), I then need to go back and remove the ribs to have nice-looking, bone-free fillets.

Again, I think fish placement is very important when cutting fish. For ribbing, I prefer to place my fillets with the bellies away from me, and at an angle. Make sure you have plenty of room and place the fish in a way that feels comfortable to you. The first thing to do is remove the first one or two ribs from the front of the fillet. Remove them with an angled cut of the knife. These ribs are positioned slightly different than the rest of the ribs and if you don’t remove them first, they cause problems in this next step.

Starting near where the backbone used to be, cut just under the ribs. To do this easily takes a delicate touch. You want to angle the knife so it’s angled slightly up, towards the ribs, maximizing the amount of meat you leave on the fillet. You also want to put a little pressure down on the knife lengthwise, giving it a slight bend, so it follows the ribs more closely.

This is where a true fillet knife comes in handy, because true fillet knives have the proper blade thickness that allows you to bend the blade with just the right pressure.

Continue to cut and lift the ribs out. You may leave a little bit of white belly lining in place, this is fine. You can either leave it (many people do) or trim it out later.

Now that we’ve remove the ribs, we need to do a little delicate “finish” work to make the fillets look really presentable. Much of this is a matter of personal preference, some people don’t do much trimming at all, others go hog-wild… so feel free to improvise and do what you think is practical.

Completely detach the ribs and belly lining.

The first thing to do is remove the ventral fins. Some people like to remove only the fin, while others (like me) prefer to remove a bit of belly meat and fat along with it… I find the easiest way to do this is to poke through the fillet just above and forward of the fin… from the inside, you will see where the cartilage is. Be very careful not to poke yourself with the knife while doing this…

Hold the belly meat tightly and run the blade back and around the fin cartilage.

Run the knife all the way back to the anus and take a little bit of the gristly meat off on the way… you’ll see the difference in the texture of the meat.

Now hold the meat you just trimmed away, and turn the blade around and cut forward from the fin. Some people prefer to leave this belly meat on the fillet, some people like to remove it and smoke it. some say it’s the tastiest part of the fish, as it has the most oils. Other than the internal organs, this belly meat also tends to have the most toxins in it, so I prefer to remove it… it’s all a matter of personal preference.
click picture to enlarge

If you have any white belly lining left on your fillet, you can trim it off.

OK, so we’ve removed the ribs, fins, and belly lining, so now we move on to the very optional stuff.

Trimming the belly lining off takes a tricky bit of pressure… press down on the knife to make it flex against the fillet, and angle the blade so that it cuts just under the belly lining and “skins” it. Remember, practice will help!

See the white specks? It’s actually little pieces of the backbone that were trimmed off when I cut this fillet. Almost everyone I know just leaves these “knuckles” in their fillet, but I prefer to remove them. I think removing them looks great, and it opens up the fillet a lot more so that any sauces you use in cooking will soak in better… it’s just a minor detail.

Start by straightening out your fillet so the backbone line is in a straight line… this will help a lot. What you want to do is make a long “V” shaped cut, with the bottom of the “V” underneath the pieces of bone. Angle your knife at a 45° angle both ways… and carefully cut just to one side of the backbone line, with your blade angled towards the center of the line, so the tip of the blade is maybe 1/4″ deep in the fish. Cut all the way along the fish, to the tail.

Turn the knife around and make the second cut just to the other side of the backbone line, again, all the way down the fish.

You should end up with a long, triangle-shaped piece of scrap meat that has the pieces of bone on one side.

It will probably still be attached near the tail by a short white piece of gristle. The white piece will still be attached to the skin. Pull up on this white piece and trim it from the skin, and trim off whatever white or gray meat you want trim off near the tail.

I never used to remove the pinbones in my salmon. I’ve always loved to fillet salmon, but I’ve always hated to remove the pin bones. However, I’ve also always really hated to get bones in my mouth when I eat fish. So one day my friend Larry convinced me I really should start removing the pin bones in my fish. I started doing it, and now I can’t stop. I now realize it’s well worth the effort, and as it turns out, with one good tool, the effort is a lot less.

Come back and trim off any other fatty pieces near the belly, or any gristle pieces near where the dorsal and anal fins used to be.

The first thing you want to do is to hold the fillet from underneath, so the pinbones poke out a bit more and are easier to get at. Most people use needle nose pliers to remove pinbones. While these work OK, there is a better way.

This isn’t rocket science, just grab a hold of the pinbone and pull. The angle I have it at here is not the best way to hold the fish. You will probably find it most comfortable if you have the fish placed so that the tail is pointing away from you, like in the last two photos below.

Wiggle the bone a little bit to loosen it. I find it also helps to put two fingers from my other hand on the flesh on either side of the bone, to hold the fillet down as I pull.

OK, time to get some real work done! One day, a surgeon friend of mine was watching me remove pin bones, and she told me she had a better tool for the job. A week later, she sent me a pair of “needle drivers” in the mail. These are like heavy-duty forceps, they have a no-slip coating on the jaws, they lock in place, and they work awesome for removing pin bones!

Same method as with the needle nosed pliers, but with this tool, the bones never slip out of the jaws, and you don’t have to clean the jaws as often, because they grip so much better. If you don’t have a surgeon friend, I’m sure at a fly fishing shop, you could find a pair of forceps/hemostats that would do the trick.

Well, if you look at your fillet and it looks good to you, then you’re done. Stay tuned, because before long, we’ll be adding a cooking and recipe section here too!

And out come the pinbones! Take them all out!

back to salmon recipes