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How to Clean Salmon

A collage of cleaning Salmon.

– Cleaning salmon properly is an important step when preparing it as a meal

– Learn how to clean salmon without losing a lot of the meat in just a few easy steps 

– You can know what to do and what not do when you clean freshly-bought or freshly-caught salmon

Salmon is not only a delicacy but also a very nutritious food source. There are many different types of salmon, and due to its popularity, this opaque pink fish is available almost anywhere on the planet.

There are different ways to prepare and cook salmon, and the cleaning process is an important step in preparing salmon. This article will explain how to clean salmon properly.

The way you clean the salmon will depend on what the salmon looks like when you buy it and whether you plan to eat it cooked or raw. This article mainly focuses on the scenario where the salmon was either freshly caught, or purchased at a shop as a whole fish with skin, scales, fins, and tail still attached.

If you want to eat salmon raw, there are some cleaning precautions that may not be necessary if you were to cook the fish. 

If you use the right tools and methods, then cleaning salmon is easy and quick. You can learn how to clean salmon effectively, which is guaranteed to be safe to eat and delicious in every recipe. 

Related: Types of Salmon | What Goes With Sushi | Sushi vs. Sashimi | Types of Food | Salmon vs. Trout | Alternatives to Salmon | How to Store Salmon | What to Serve With Salmon

What is salmon? 

This is a close look at a whole raw salmon fish.

Salmon is a saltwater fish that is a greyish color with pink or orange hues. This fish has high protein content and is loaded with healthy omega-3 fatty acids that are great for cardiovascular health and cholesterol levels. Salmon is very healthy, and a person can eat salmon every day should they wish to.

Salmon is considered a luxury food due to its high price in some regions. It has a distinctive, rich flavor and can be paired with many different foods and flavors. 

Cleaning Method for Salmon 

Step 1: Make sure you have the right tools 

This is a man filleting a whole raw salmon with a sharp knife.

Before you can clean your salmon, you will need a few basic tools to make the job quicker and easier. 

You will need: 

  • Large, clean surface (preferably near a basin)
  • Sharp fillet knife
  • Dull fillet knife (optional) 
  • Gloves (optional) 
  • Cutting board 
  • Tweezers or pliers
  • Bucket or bin 

Step 2: Remove the anal fins

This is a close look at a man filleting a raw salmon and removing the anal fins.

Before you can start with anything else, you need to cut off the anal fins. The anal fins are pairs of fins found near the bottom of the fish’s body. IF you don’t remove these fins first, they will get in the way when you need to remove the scales.

Make a small cut behind the fins and run the knife forward to cut them off. Dispose of the fins in the bucket or bin you are using. 

Step 3: Scale the salmon 

This is a close look at a raw salmon piece being scaled with a knife.

Removing the scales will be much easier now that the anal fins are out of the way. Salmon generally don’t have thick, hard scales, so the scaling process will not be difficult to do. You don’t always have to remove the scales, but if you want to serve the salmon with skin still attached, removing the scales is a vital step.

Removing the scales also makes it easier to clean the fillets and cook them.  

To do this, place your dull fillet knife at the end part of the fish where the tail fins are, and keeping your knife at a slightly slanted angle, run it down against the skin, moving down towards the head.

If the knife you are using is very sharp, be careful not to stab into the fish as you do this. Once you are finished with one side of the fish, turn it over and do the same on the other side until all the scales are removed. 

Step 4: Cut the salmon down the center and remove the roe/milt and guts 

Before you can start cutting the salmon into pieces, you need to remove the visceral insides. To do this, place the fish on its back and begin by placing your knife in the anal hole of the fish (which you created when you removed the anal fins). Using the knife, slice all the way down towards the mouth.

Open up the fish and remove the roe/milt, and proceed to remove the guts. Dispose of these properly in the bin. 

Step 5: Remove the head and the tail  

This is a close look as a woman cuts the head of the salmon on a chopping board.

After disposing of the milt and guts, you have one more step to do before you can start cutting the fillets. 

Align your sharp fillet knife with the gills at the head, and cut down to remove the head of the fish. Proceed to cut the tail off. Throw these parts away in the bin. 

Now you are ready for the trickier part – cutting the fillets.  

Step 6: Fillet the salmon

This is a close look at a man filleting a large piece of salmon.

Filleting a salmon is a skill that can take years of practice before you get it completely right. However, the way we describe it in this article will be helpful to beginners and won’t have you wasting a lot of the meat when you’re finished. 

Start by placing the fish on its side. At the top, locate the backbone or spine of the fish and put your knife at the end where you cut the head off. Once you feel the backbone, run the knife horizontally, cutting in an up-and-down “saw-like” motion down the side of the fish until you reach the end where the tail was.

You will also be cutting through the ribs as you do this. Keep the knife slightly slanted when you reach the bottom since the spine also slants slightly downward. Repeat this step on the other side of the fish, cutting from where the head was horizontally down to the tail-end.

You should now have two halves or fillets. Remove the spine and dispose of it. 

Step 7: Remove the ribs and pin bones from the fillets

This is a close look at a piece of salmon fillet being deboned with tweezers.

Since you cut through the ribs to produce two fillets, the next step would be to remove the ribs and small pin bones so that your fillets will be clean when you cook them later. (You can also remove the bones after you have cooked them if that is your preference). 

To remove the ribs, place your knife next to the ribs, positioned parallel to the ribs. If you do it horizontally, you will lose a lot of the fillet. Run the knife down until it glides under the bone.

Angle the knife up slightly and remove the bones in a sweeping motion, trying to lose as little meat as possible. Do this with both fillets and dispose of the ribs properly. 

Now, using your pliers or tweezers, go in and remove the remaining small pin bones in the fillets. (You can also do this after you have cooked the fish if preferred). 

Step 8: Remove the skin (optional) 

This is a close look at a large piece of salmon fillet with its skin removed.

It is highly recommended to leave the skin on while cooking the salmon, as this helps seal in moisture when the salmon is grilled. You can easily remove the skin once the salmon is cooked. Some people like to cook the skin until it is crispy and enjoy it with the fillets.

If you do not like the skin and want it removed before cooking, you may proceed with this step. 

Sprinkle some salt over the fish to dry it out, so it is not as slippery when you want to remove the skin. Take your sharp fillet knife and use it to separate the skin from the fillet. Remove the skin by peeling it off slowly with the knife. Dispose of the skin in the bin. 

Step 8: Dispose of the remaining fish parts 

This is a close look at an open fish cleaning station by the bay.

Make sure you wrap up the fish remains tightly in a refuse bag and follow the rules set out in your country or region to dispose of it.

The fish remains have a very strong smell, and not disposing of them properly can attract wild animals that may want to dig through the trash. Make sure to follow the rules in your region when you throw the remains away. 

If you cleaned the salmon on a boat after fishing, you could throw the remains back into the water, as it will serve as food to the animals in the water and benefit the environment.  

Now that you are done cleaning the salmon, you can decide whether to cook it immediately or freeze it. I think most of us would want to reward ourselves with a tasty meal after the cleaning process.

So pop that fish on the grill, cook it over a campfire or prepare a delectable raw salmon sashimi dish… and enjoy the fruits of your labors!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Should extra precautions be taken if I want to eat the salmon raw after cleaning? 

The high temperatures used when cooking can kill any bacteria and parasites. If you want to eat the salmon raw, it is wise to freeze it for several days at -4 degrees Fahrenheit or lower since freezing will kill parasites in the fish. If you don’t have several days, you can freeze it -31 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for about 15 hours. 

Should I wash or rinse the salmon before I start the cleaning process? 

The United States Department of Agriculture and other food agencies in the United Kingdom state that it is not recommended to rinse raw salmon.

In doing so, you will spread the bacteria and parasites on the fish to other parts of the fish and surrounding surfaces like the sink. Cooking or freezing the fish will kill off unwanted bacteria and parasites. 

Can vinegar be used to clean salmon and kill bacteria? 

Spritzing salmon with vinegar or soaking it in vinegar will prevent your hands from smelling like fish and improve the fish’s texture when you cook it. Vinegar will, however, not kill any of the harmful bacteria or parasites on the fish if it has any. 


Finn’s Fishing Tips: How To Clean Salmon Before Cooking 

Instructables: How to Fillet A Fresh-Caught Salmon