Fish can be delicious, especially when it’s nearly boneless, but there’s an extra step involved in cooking fish fillets that gets on most people’s nerves: the skin, and more importantly the scales. A lot of fish come with the skin and scales still on, and then you’re faced with the decision of maybe or maybe not skinning and descaling the fish. But could you eat the fish scales ? When about the skin ? How do you remove them ? This is something I’ve personally grappled with until I made the decision to always remove the scales, and I’ve found a fairly easy method of removing the skin too. Read on !
Can you eat fish scales ?
Fish scales can be eaten and digested, but are difficult to chew and pose a serious choking hazard. They’re mostly made of mineralized collagen, which can be useful to the body but perhaps not via scales. I don’t recommend eating fish scales simply for the discomfort of trying to actively chew and swallow them.
As for cooking fish with the skin and scales still on, you run the risk of having rogue scales fry and even burn in the pan, leading to a terrible smell and taste. Once the skin starts cooking, the scales will easily come off and as they’re so transparent they can easily get onto the meat without you realizing.
So I heavily recommend either de-scaling the fish or removing the skin entirely, before you start seasoning and cooking the meat.
How to remove fish scales from a fillet
Removing the scales from a fish ca be very messy, but it’s fairly easy. You just have to put up with the slippery and scaly texture. The first method requires any ol’ kitchen knife, preferably a smaller one you’re very comfortable holding and wielding. Sharpness is optional, so a very thin butter knife might work just fine. In essence you’re just going to comb through the scales, against the grain.
Scales will fly everywhere so I recommend you fill up your sink with water, or get a very large bowl that you can comfortably do this in and place that in the sink. The point of descaling the fish in water is to keep flying scales at a minimum, and to ensure your hands and tool don’t get overly slippery.
Run your finger along the skin every now and then, to see if there are any scales leftover. If they are, you just need to run the side of the knife against the grain in that area again. The fish will be slippery, the meat is soft, and it’s very easy to pierce the skin or rip it here and there. This takes practice, just like learning to peel potatoes with a knife, or chopping onions very finely.
Another method is to just use a descaling tool. Those resemble a very coarse wire brush, and the idea is the same: get under the scales, against the grain, and just brush off the scales. Both the knife and descaling tool take a bit of time, and the fish will be just as slippery and soft. Be very careful.
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Can you eat fish skin ?
While you can eat most fish skin, the general consensus is that it’s not entirely worth it. Most of the time the skin is edible in texture, flavor, and nutrients. Some fish have very tough or leathery skin, hard to eat even when fully cooked (like tuna skin), and some fish skin are high in mercury (such as swordfish).
Personally I ever eat fish skin, since I find the texture odd, but my husband always eats it. This is usually salmon skin, which is fairly thin and low in mercury.
How to remove fish skin from a fillet
Removing the skin from a fillet is fairly easy for fish with higher fat content, such as salmon or trout. Lean fish, like most white fish, needs you to be gentler since the fat layer under the skin is thinner and more fragile.
Fat fish like salmon have a thicker layer of fat between the skin and the meat. Place the fillet meat-side down, and pick an edge of the skin to work on. This is easier if your nails are a bit long, if not you can always use a small knife to help you. The aim is to lift a corner of the skin and from then on gently peel off the skin right off the meat. The skin will be slippery, so you have to keep adjusting your grip. With your free hand, keep the meat down, as close to where you’re pulling the skin as possible.
Work your way slowly until you get all the skin off, and always make sure the hand keeping the meat down is close to he hand pulling the skin. Sometimes a bit of meat may come off with the skin. In those moments you can try peeling from a different angle, or starting over from another corner.
When and if you get to a point where the meat is in a thinner layer and even gets to a thicker part of fat (common in salmon fillets), you need to be very gentle. It’s very easy to pull that part of the skin off, with the fat and the leftover meat. If you’re unsure it might be best to use a knife on that part.
As for lean fish, the method is the same – gently peeling the skin off, keeping the meat down – but with more help form a good paring knife. You may find more meat comes off with the skin, but it can be saved most of the time.
Just like descaling a fish, removing the skin, knowing how hard to pull, and how slowly you need to work are things you learn as you go.
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Top tips on cooking skin-on fish fillets
Want to cook your fish with the skin on ? There are a few things you need to do, especially if you want to keep the skin nice and crispy. If you end up not linking how the skin turned out, you can always peel it off the fish after you’re done cooking. Here’s what you should know.
Always place the fish skin-side in the pan
When you’re cooking skin-on fillets, you want to place the fish with the skin on the pan. Always place it away from you, like rolling a small carpet away from you. Touch down the end of the fish closest to you, and the gently let the rest onto the pan. This is a basic method of putting anything in a pan, but especially useful when handling something with hot oil.
Speaking of, you don’t need a lot of cooking oil for your fish. If it’s a fat fish like salmon, you don’t need any, the fat from the skin and under the skin will render into the pan. If cooking a lean fish like cod, do use a bit of cooking oil, but something like a tablespoon per fillet.
Cooking fish with the skin removed is the same, by the way. The skin-side should still come onto the pan first, since it has the most amount of fat and will cook better.
Make sure the pan is screaming hot before cooking
When cooking seafood, or any sort of meat that needs quick high temps, be very sure your pan is screaming hot before you put anything in it. Let it get hot for a minute or two on high heat, then turn the heat to medium and add your fish. This way you seal in some moisture and cook the fish in a shorter amount of time, very similar to cooking a steak.
Let the fish cook on one side for a few minutes, and check the underside with a spatula for any browning. If the fish is starting to get some color, it’s time to flip it. Use a wide spatula, and a fork to make sure the fillet remains whole. Thinner fillets, or the thinner parts of a filler may easily break off. And if you’re cooking a lean fish, you need to be careful when flipping since these fish tend to dry out quick.
Use a wide spatula to flip the fish
Fish, unlike other types of meat, is incredibly flaky. You can poke one end with a fork, lift, and then flip it. It will come apart, since the meat has a very different texture. Instead you need a wide spatula that fits most of the fillet. Work your spatula under the fillet (gently), hold the fillet onto the spatula with the backside of a fork, and flip. Your fish fillet should be whole.
Or, if you don’t necessarily want to get the other side crispy you can simply cook your fish with the lid on. One side will be crispier, the other will be steamed but all of the fish will be cooked through. If you do decide to do this, you need far lower heat to make sure the bottom doesn’t burn by the time the top and middle are cooked through. It’s not the best method in terms of texture but it’s far easier.