Scaling a fish is not easy, so people often wonder if it is a necessity. But scaling a fish has many benefits and is often mandatory before cooking.
You might be a pro at fishing, but are you a noob at cooking it? If the fish is not coming out of the freezer at the supermarket or directly from a fishmonger, the pre-cooking preparation can be troublesome.
If you have caught fresh fish, the first obstacle to handle after washing it is the scales (for species that have scales). Since scale removal is not easy (most of us don’t even know how to do it!), you might be tempted to skip this step and throw the fish straight onto the piping hot grill.
But there are plenty of reasons why you must scale a fish, and you might want to learn them before the next time you come face to face with this dilemma.
Why Scale Your Fish?
The Only Way to Clean It Properly
Anyone who has touched a fish after bringing it out of the water knows that it is usually slippery, and covered in slime. Even when you wash it thoroughly with water, the slime on the outer layer doesn’t come off.
While fish scaling, you use the blunt edge of the knife and run it over the surface to scrape off the scales. During this process, the slime and anything else stuck to the fish comes off, along with the scales.
By scaling it, you take off everything that is stuck to the fish and make far cleaner than you could without removing the scales. If you wish to clean your fish thoroughly, you must scale it. While this isn’t necessary, it can be a great reason for most to scale fish. Washing a scaled fish under water can remove a lot of debris, but this will not be as thorough without scaling.
Keeping A Fish Fresh
Big or small, every sea creature is filled with various harmful microorganisms, including bacterias and parasites. The scales of a fish provide a protective barrier to the soft and fragile inner part. Fish scales will keep a fish fresh longer. Therefore, scaling should be done close to the cooking to help preserve the fish.
The scales make their body surface reflective and easier to camouflage so that they can hunt prey and hide from predators with ease. These plates are made of materials that are similar to bones and teeth. Both the scales and fins can be quite sharp, so handling them can also be dangerous.
Breaking through this protective layer is not easy. You will need a sharp fishing knife or kitchen knife to do it. Whether you are trying to cut the fish or gut it, it will be easier to do so after removing the scales.
The Outer Layer Can Be Nasty
If you are fishing while camping or hiking and wish to eat your fresh catch, you should learn to descale fish. If you want to skip this step and put your washed fish directly onto your backpacking grill, you will come to realize that the outer layer of the fish can be slimy, smelly, and some may consider it nasty.
If you want to get the best taste from your freshly caught fish, it is recommended to remove the scales before you cook it. Even if you plan to burn the scales off, it might interfere with the flavor.
Another important aspect can be what the surface of the fish is carrying. If it is not properly cooked, whatever microbes were stuck to the fish’s body will get consumed by you. So it is better to be safe and scale the fish before you cook it.
As mentioned before, fish scales offer protection to the soft inner flesh of the skin. This layer is not easy to penetrate even with a knife, so you can imagine that marinade will also not seep into scaly fish properly.
You can try to marinate your fish without descaling, but almost no flavor will go in. So even if your marinade makes the scales taste a little better, the fish itself will not absorb any of the seasonings.
If you remove the scales of your fish, the seasonings will seep in very easily. Marinate your washed, gutted, and descaled fish with salt and pepper, then splash it with fresh lemon juice. Leaving the marinade on for even ten to fifteen minutes is enough to flavor a descaled fish.
It’s Easier To Eat
Even if you manage to cook the fish with full scales intact, you probably won’t enjoy it. The tasty and most edible part of any fish is the flesh, and getting to the flesh is difficult with the scales on. If you put a piece of fish into your mouth with scales, you will have to fish them back out.
Just as we often don’t eat the bones of the fish because they are hard, pointy, and can be dangerous to swallow, the scales are similar. They can be hard to chew, sharp, and generally don’t feel good when going down your throat. Especially larger scales. They are not particularly nutritious. It is simply easier to eat the fish without the scales.
A truly nutritious part of any fish is the soft skin you get after peeling off the scales. The oily and often stretchy covering is highly nutritious, filled with Vitamin E & D, Omega-3 fatty acid, protein, etc. Scaling a fish enables individuals to more easily reach and eat that extremely healthy scan.
When Is It Okay to Not Scale a Fish?
There are some instances where you can consume a fish without removing its scales. Some soft fish like eels, or trout have little or no scales, and if they have scales they are often small and not as hard as those on other fish like salmon.
A few types of tuna have almost no scales, so scale removal becomes unnecessary. If a fish has small scales which are not that difficult or dangerous to chew or swallow, you don’t need to scale them.
You can simply fry the fish, and the scales will only add to the crispiness. This is why the cooking method is also a factor when it comes to the question of scales.
If the cooking method can make the scales more edible, then it is okay to not scale the fish. For example, sometimes not scaling can make it easier to bake a fish, and the scale becomes a barrier between the fish and the pan.
How to Clean and Scale a Fish:
- Start with washing the fish thoroughly with water. You must be careful as some scales and fins can be sharp. Always use rubber gloves to avoid cuts.
- Remove the fins first. You can do that using your knife, but it might be easier to use kitchen scissors to cut them off. Cutting off the fins will make it easier to hold.
- You can use some salt and a small piece of cloth to scrub off any algae or dirt stuck to the surface of the fish. Using salt is a great way of cleaning fish as in concentrated amounts, it can kill off microbes. You can also use salt to clean it after descaling.
- Hold the tail of the fish with your non dominant hand and use the blunt edge of your knife or a fish scaler and start scraping the fish. Start from the tail and go downwards, scraping carefully as any harsh movement can damage the soft flesh. Light, quick movements are better to use while scraping.
- After you have scraped off all the scales, clean your fish with water. You can also rub salt on its body to clean it further.
- Press down with your hand on the upper part of the fish. Take a moderately sharp knife and make a deep incision near the rear fin and keep cutting outwards, going toward the head.
- Once you cut, you can see that some of the entrails will slip out. Use your gloved hands to scoop them out. If something is still stuck to the inside, use your knife to cut it out.
- After fully gutting the fish and removing all the entrails, keep the belly open and run it under cold water. Clean the insides out properly so no trace of the guts remains.
- Press down on the body of the fish and place the sharp edge of the knife right where the head ends. Bring your knife down hard, and the head should snap right off. If you wish to keep the head intact, avoid this step.
- Now your fish is ready for filleting and/or marinating. You can also cook it as it is, but remember to rub in some salt and pepper to enhance the flavor.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about