Last week I launched my mission to get more people to cook and eat whole fish at home with a basic roasting method. I floated several theories about why a lot of home cooks continue to be intimated by the idea, most having to do with the shopping and cooking parts of the process.
But there's another thing that I think makes people shy away from preparing whole fish: not knowing how to serve it. An un-carved cooked whole fish quickly becomes a sloppy disaster as diners stab at it with their forks, shredding the meat and turning it into an unappetizing pile of bits of fish and bones. Imagine if that's how we attacked a whole roasted chicken at the dinner table! (Actually, I'm fond of tearing apart and eating whole chicken with my bare hands, so maybe that's not a good example.)
The good news is it's incredibly easy to do, once you know the basic steps. To prove it, I demonstrated the whole thing with a spoon and a butter knife below. I could have done it with two spoons—that's how little special equipment you need. Do it once or twice and it will quickly become second-nature. Here's how:
Carving Whole Cooked Fish
Set a fish* on a plate and one fillet will be on top, the other will be on the underside, since fish can't easily be balanced on their bellies. The process of carving a fish, therefore, starts with the fillet that's on top, then proceeds to the fillet that's on the underside. Throughout the carving process, try to remove any bones you see.
* Just to clarify, I'm talking about round fish here, like bass or branzino, not flatfish like flounder.
Remove Fin Bones
Start by pulling the dorsal (back side) and ventral (belly side) fin bones from the fish. Even if the fins were snipped off before cooking, there will usually be little bones left behind that can be scraped away once the fish is cooked.
Separate Top Fillet From Head and Collar Bone
Cut along the fillet where it meets the head and collar bone, slicing through the skin and flesh down to the bone.
Separate Top Fillet From Tail
Next, cut through the skin where the fillet meets the tail.
Separate Dorsal and Belly Halves of Top Fillet
Now cut through the fillet following the natural division that runs along the spine: You may have to guess a bit at first since you can't see the division through the skin, but it's pretty easy to locate if you try to imagine where the spine should be. Once you find it, just follow the division until you've gone all the way from the tail to the head (or head to tail—it doesn't matter where you start).
Remove Dorsal Fillet Half
The dorsal half of the fillet—the meatier half that runs along what might be called the fish's back—should now slide off fairly easily.
Just take your utensils and push it in one piece, bit by bit, until it's completely off the bone and set it to the side. If you flip it over, you can check for any bones that might still be attached and remove them.
Remove Belly Fillet Half
Now push the belly (ventral) half of the top fillet off the fish and flip it over, skin-side down.
Scrape away any bones and membranes from the inside of the cavity.
Lift Bone Cage
Remove any aromatics that you may have stuffed into the cavity.
Now grab the tail and lift it free of the fillets below. The bone cage should come up with it, leaving the bottom fillet behind.
The head will usually come off with the spine, but if it doesn't, just remove it separately. Pro fish-eater's note: Don't just throw that head away, because it's loaded with some of the tastiest meat the fish has to offer, including in the cheeks!
Clean Bottom Fillet Halves
Using your utensils, scrape away any membranes on the bottom fillet, and remove any bones.
Reassemble and Serve
Now carefully lift the bottom fillet and transfer it in one piece to a clean plate.
Next, take the meatier half of the top fillet and transfer it to the clean plate, followed by the belly half.
It looks nice if you reassemble the fillets in their original positions, though you don't have to. I almost always keep the skin on, since I think it's delicious.