How to Fillet a Catfish: 9 Easy Steps for Perfect Results

Master Catfish Filleting with Simple Techniques – Become an Expert in Just 9 Steps

catfish fillet

Catfish may not be at the top of everyone’s menu, but it can be surprisingly delicious if prepared correctly. Part of the preparation process is knowing how to fillet the fish to remove the best cuts without including any off-tasting bits. We have evaluated a few tried and tested catfish filleting techniques to create an easy guide on how to perfectly fillet catfish every time. 

To easily fillet catfish, lay it on a cutting board and wipe it to remove excess slime. Cut behind the head to loosen the skin. Using a sharp knife, cut along the spine towards the tail, being careful not to pierce the gut. Once the catfish fillets on both sides are detached, remove the skin.

Catfish can seem intimidating for novice cooks to get to grips with. Filleting these bottom feeders can be a slippery affair, and when armed with a razor-sharp knife, the exercise may even become hazardous. Let’s unpack a foolproof method to make filleting catfish a snap.

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9 Easy Steps To Fillet Catfish

When it comes to cutting perfect catfish fillets, there are multiple approaches that you can take. The easiest method may not always be best for all breeds of catfish or situations. If you bought a live farm-raised catfish that you are preparing inside your kitchen, you might take a different approach from if you are processing the day’s catch at a lake.

However, no matter where or what type of catfish you have, everyone wants the same result – perfectly clean fillets. Before you begin the filleting process, you must gather everything needed to remove the usable meat from the carcass. 

Here’s what you will need to fillet a catfish:

  • Thick cutting board. 
  • Pliers
  • Sharp fillet knife
  • Rough cloth to clean the skin

Step 1: Kill The Catfish

If the catfish isn’t dead, begin by doing the humane thing and end its suffering. Quickly killing the fish will also ensure that it doesn’t unexpectedly move or even fall onto the floor while you are working with it. 

A catfish can be killed by percussive stunning or pithing. Pithing is the best way to kill a catfish if you are at home. Lay the catfish on your cutting board and drive a sharp knife down just behind its head into its brain to sever the spine.

Step 2: Remove The Fins

If you are new to filleting catfish, removing the pectoral and dorsal fins is always a good idea for safety’s sake. They contain sharp barbs, which can be painful if it somehow spikes your fingers while you are working. 

Use the pliers to hold each securely as you cut them off at the base using your fillet knife. With the dangerous sharp bits out of the way, proceed to the next step.

Step 3: Clean The Outside Of The Catfish

Fresh catfish have a notorious slimy coating over their leathery skin. The film can make them tricky to hold down and grip securely while you are removing the fillets. 

Before you start making cuts, it helps to wipe the entire fish with a rough cloth and remove as much of the filmy coating as possible. Wipe the fish’s skin from top to bottom several times until it feels drier and easier to grip. 

Step 4: Make Cuts Behind The Catfish’s Head

Before you start making deep cuts down the catfish’s back to get at the fillets, you will need to make cuts around the head and make it easier to handle. Slide your knife in just behind the head on both sides and run it around from top to bottom. 

Step 5: Cut Down Along the Top Of The Catfish

The process of cutting the catfish should never be rushed, especially if you are new to harvesting catfish fillets. What is essential for this step is that the knife is sharp enough to sever the meat but that you don’t push down too far and touch the gut. 

Slowly and carefully make an incision from behind the head, along one side of the spine. Work all the way down to the tail. Start with a shallow slit and feel your way along, keeping as close to the spine as possible. 

Repeat on both sides of the catfish. The incision can be deeper after the ribcage section. 

Step 6: Work Carefully Around The Catfish Ribcage

While cutting down, make deeper and deeper cuts. You will encounter a hard section near the top end of the fish. That is the ribcage, and you need to work around it. 

The fillet at the top section will inevitably be narrower than below the dorsal fin. By working carefully and knowing that you need to avoid penetrating the ribcage area, you can slice most of the white meat off the top of the catfish. 

While working, be careful not to cut through the last section of skin that connects the fillet to the tail. It will help with the next step if you keep the catfish fillet attached to the tail.  

Once you have cut all the white meat loose from each side, flip them over on your cutting board, so they are skin side down. They should still be connected to the tail with a band of skin. 

Step 7: Remove The Skin

Fresh raw white fish fillet catfish with spices. White wooden background. Top view.

Many catfish processing tutorials begin with removing the leathery skin, but it is unnecessary to skin and gut the fish if you only intend to use the fillets. The tough skin is easy to cut off the fillets later. 

Once you have carefully removed the fillets from both sides of the catfish, they should still be connected to the carcass by the skin near the tail. Lay them with the skin down against the cutting board. 

Catfish skin is entirely different from most other fish, as it is more like leather and doesn’t have scales. It is, therefore, possible to gently maneuver the knife between the skin and the fillet starting from where it is connected.

Watch this handy demonstration to see how to complete this process. 

  • Create a notch in the fillet against the skin at the bottom, where it is connected to the tail.
  • Position the knife at a 15 – 20 degree angle against the board in the notch between the skin and the fillet.
  • Then holding the tail, zigzag the fish while pulling it up against the direction of the knife.
  • You will need to keep repositioning your free hand to keep the tension against the skin while skinning the fillet.
  • Work along the entire fillet, and the skin should come off easily. 

Step 8: Check The  Catfish Fillet

The unpleasant taste that many people associate with catfish is often stronger in dark meat sections. These bits are often just below the skin, so if your fillet has a lot of red bits or veining, you may want to slide your knife along to remove thin slivers until you are only left with clean white meat. 

Step 9: Wash Or Soak The Fillets

No matter how perfectly you fillet your catfish, the ultimate proof of success is in the eating. Everyone has different preferences, and many people are okay with a stronger-tasting fish. However, washing your fillets thoroughly under cold running water before freezing them is always a good idea.

If you plan to cook fresh catfish fillets, the taste can be improved by soaking them in something like lemon juice or salt water. Wild-caught, bigger catfish fillets may especially benefit from being soaked before you cook them. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Easiest Way To Fillet A Catfish? 

Every serious catfish angler has their own method to fillet these slippery fish. The easiest is simply using an electric knife and carving the fillets directly off the body

While this may not be the most elegant way of doing things, it gets the job done. It is especially effective if you have a large catch that you need to process quickly. 

Using an electric knife results in more waste than working accurately with a fillet knife. However,  it is undoubtedly the easiest way to remove the two large fillets between the midsection and the tail.

What’s The Best Way To Clean Catfish? 

The best way to clean catfish should be determined by the type of catfish you have and the available facilities. Farm-raised catfish often have thinner, less leathery skin, so it is easier to remove than wild-caught. 

Cleaning a catfish involves five steps: 

  • Skinning the catfish – You will need a cutting board, sharp knife, and pliers. Make thin cuts along the sections where you intend to remove the skin taking care not to puncture the intestines. Then use the pliers to grip the thick skin and pull it down and away from the meat. 
  • Removing the head – Twist off the head by bending it back towards the spine to snap and break it off. Alternatively, use a butcher’s knife to cut the head off behind the gills.
  • Remove the tail and fins – Use the pliers to get a grip on the fins and cut them away from the body using a sharp knife.
  • Remove the innards – Cut the bottom of the fish from the anal opening and along the belly. Scoop out all the internal organs and fish insides with your fingers and throw them away.   
  • Wash the cleaned fish under cold running water and pat it dry using a paper towel.

How Do You Fillet A Catfish Without Skinning It? 

Place the catfish on a cutting board, and remove as much slime as possible from the skin using a rough cloth. Then use a sharp knife to loosen the flesh around its body behind its gills. 

The two large fillets that start at the top of the fish and run along its length toward its tail can easily be removed using a sharp knife. Once the fillets are free from the carcass, lay them skin-side down on the cutting board. Then run the knife between the skin and the fillet to separate them. 

Are Catfish Easy To Fillet? 

Catfish are plentiful and easy to catch in many places. They are a staple in some parts of the country, but since they are quite different from most other types of fish, processing them and serving up chunky, clean-tasting catfish fillets can be intimidating. 

There are many methods to fillet catfish. Some sources recommend first skinning the entire catfish to expose the fillets before removing them, but it is far easier to cut the fillets away from the body and then remove the skin. 

Do You Have To Gut A Catfish Before Filleting?

You do not have to gut a catfish to remove fillets. However, you have to be extremely careful to avoid piercing the gut during the process, as the contents would contaminate the meat. 

How Do You Get The Mud Taste Out Of Catfish? 

The muddier the water it came from, the stronger the distinctive mud taste on catfish fillets may be. That is why the taste of farmed catfish is often preferred over wild-caught. The meat is less likely to carry a muddy overtone

There are lots of ways to reduce or remove the muddy taste from catfish fillets. Seasoned catfish anglers all have their own methods that they swear by, but there are a few things that they all agree on.

  • There should be as little blood as possible in the meat. Many catfish anglers cut off the tails and let the fish bleed out before filleting.
  • Wash the fillets under cold running water after processing the fish. This helps to remove all traces of fishiness or blood that may be on the meat. 
  • Remove all traces of fat and skin from the fillet. The mud taste is stronger in those areas.

Common ways of removing the muddy taste from catfish fillets involve soaking the meat in one of the following: 

  • Milk or buttermilk
  • Saltwater
  • Baking soda – Use a mixture of 1 teaspoon of salt, 2 teaspoons of baking soda, and a quart of cold water.
  • Lemon juice mixture
  • Vinegar

Other methods to reduce or disguise the muddy element of catfish meat include: 

  • Freezing the fillets in an ice slurry and squeezing out the fat to reduce the muddy taste
  • Using a spicy recipe to counter the taste
  • Smoking the fish fillets

Conclusion

Filleting catfish can be quick and easy if you only intend to use the fillet sections of the fish. The usable white meat can simply be cut away from the body using a sharp knife. The fillet can be skinned by running a knife between the flesh and the outer leathery skin when it is laid flush against a cutting board. 

More FAQs

Why do you have to skin a catfish?

The reason why catfish need to be skinned is because their tough, leathery skin is challenging to consume if it remains on the meat. If you have caught or purchased catfish, you can easily skin and clean them at home using basic household tools. Once the catfish is cleaned, you can then proceed to cut it into filets, making it ready for consumption.

Is it necessary to remove the skin of the fish in filleting?

It is not necessary to remove the skin of the fish in filleting, although some individuals may not prefer its taste. Luckily, it can be easily taken off using a thin, sharp knife by cutting underneath the meat. In the case of whole fish, it is advisable to remove the head and fins beforehand to obtain a desirable piece of meat.

Are catfish good to eat?

Catfish is a nutritious choice for consumption due to its low calorie content and abundance of lean protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. Notably, it is a great source of heart-healthy omega-3 fats and vitamin B12. Incorporating catfish into your meals can contribute to a well-balanced diet. However, it is important to note that deep frying catfish significantly increases its calorie and fat content compared to healthier cooking methods such as baking or broiling.

Is it easier to debone a fish before or after cooking?

It is easier to debone a fish after cooking because the heat from the cooking process loosens up the connective tissues around the backbone, allowing them to be easily peeled away. By cooking the fish before deboning, it retains more of its natural flavor, and the bones can be discarded quickly and effortlessly.

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