Tom Kitchin: Fail-safe filleting

Tom Kitchin, pictured outside his Leith restaurant. Picture: TSPL
Tom Kitchin, pictured outside his Leith restaurant. Picture: TSPL
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FOR ME, becoming a great chef is all about firstly mastering the basics. My recent involvement in the BBC2 series The Chef’s Protege, reminded me of that more than ever. I had to go back to my former college, Perth College and, indeed, it took me back to my early days of cooking.

Whether you’re a passionate home cook or a budding chef, it all starts with the basics. What’s the point in trying to create a lavish meal with complex techniques if you don’t truly understand the basic flavours and the produce itself?

Knowing and understanding the produce, and learning what to do with it as it comes straight from nature itself, is the best way to improve your cooking skills. Once you have those basic techniques, you just need to add passion, a little creative flair and a good palette. It’s about basic culinary skills, and practice, practice, practice.

Filleting a fish is one of those fundamental skills that many people don’t have. It feels like a big, messy task if you don’t know what you’re doing. In fact, it’s a really valuable skill and you will get a massive sense of achievement from doing it yourself, rather than asking the fishmonger to do it.

Learning how to do this will really help you understand fish and in turn, it will help you to understand how to work with it – how to cook it, how to flavour it and how to serve it.

Not only that, but it means you can use every single part of the produce and absolutely nothing has to go to waste. You can use all of the cuts of the fish, and you can even make the most of the head and bones to make a wonderful fish stock to use either right away or keep in the freezer until you’re ready to enjoy it.

Flatfish is a good type of fish to start with – plaice, sole, halibut or turbot. The backbone of flatfish usually runs through the midline of their body, so makes it a bit easier to work with if you’re just starting out.

When you’re buying your fish, the best source is usually a good quality fishmonger. Look out for fish with bright and shining eyes, which convey its freshness. It’s also good to pull the gills of the fish open to check the inside is bright pink-red which again shows it is fresh.

My biggest piece of advice would be to give it a try. You won’t get it right the first time, but if the passion is there, and if you keep trying until you master it, you will never look back.

Filleting fish

What you need

1 whole plaice or other flatfish – ask your fishmonger for the whole fish, skin still on

A sharp knife

A sharp pair of scissors

Plain flour and butter for cooking


The best way to fillet plaice, is to slice it along the backbone. Firstly, lay the fish on a chopping board flat out. Take a very sharp knife and carefully score the fish along the backbone from the head to the tail. The backbone in flatfish usually runs along the midline of the body.

Make a small incision between the flesh and the skin at the tail-end. With the knife moving away from you and the blade slightly angled towards the skin, cut the flesh from the skin in a sawing motion.

Slice off the head using a sharp knife. With a sharp pair of scissors, cut off the tail and fins.

Starting the incision in the centre of the fish, use the tip of the knife to cut it gradually from the bone with long sweeping movements, working until the knife reaches the outer edge.

Repeat the process three more times, removing the fillet opposite the first one, and the two fillets on the other side of the fish.

If you have chosen, fresh, good quality fish in the first place, you don‘t need to do a lot to it. Once you‘ve cut it into fillets, choose the one you want to prepare and cook it simply by rolling the fish in seasoned flour, and pan fry it in butter on a high heat.

Next week in Spectrum, Tom will explain how to bone and roll chicken.