Breaking Down a Whole Salmon





Introduction: Breaking Down a Whole Salmon

Photo by Charlie Nordstrom

There is no food that lifts spirits, tickles the kundalini, hits the umami pleasure center, or exemplifies the perfection of the universe like wild Pacific salmon. Wild salmon also supports 137 other species from killer whales to osprey to seals to caddisflies, so they are critical connectors of ecosystems, from salt water, to rivers, and the land.

Salmon are born in freshwater, and after a year or so in the river, migrate downstream to salt water. King salmon is most common on the California Coast. They live 5-7 years in total, before migrating back to their streams where they spawn, die, and their decomposing bodies fertilize plankton to feed their offspring the next spring.

What salmon share with us through their deaths goes beyond feeding their own offspring. Salmon are an integral part of many food webs, as they are, along with steelhead trout, the only fish that bring nutrients from the sea to the land. Bear and eagles take these creatures from the water to the through forests. Gulls and crows scavenge the parts that the eagles and osprey don’t eat. And all the birds scatter the minerals and nutrients the salmon bring from the ocean to the land, helping to fertilize the surrounding trees and plants forests, which in turn help clean run-off to the rivers and provides shade for returning salmon.

These are amazing animals, and a really sustainable seafood choice. But to show them respect, and do ourselves a favor, it’s best to eat the whole fish-not just slice off a few prime fillets and waste the rest. By eating the whole fish, we come to know it intimately. You get more of the potent oils when you eat the eggs. If you treat the skin like fish bacon, you’ll soak up healthy fats stored in it. The head, normally thrown away will make a tasty soup that is literally brain food—it will make you smarter and help keep dementia at bay. The belly is prime fare; since it’s so fatty it’s a motherlode of Omega-3’s and the bones add calcium to your diet. And there are also the more abstract benefits by eating adventurously, as we cultivate our creativity, and taste the world around us in new, unexpected ways.

Step 1: Catch a Salmon or Choose a Fresh One

Photo by Charlie Nordstrom

Best case scenario is that you catch your own salmon. If you don't, then go to your local fish market. This one came from Martin Reed stopped by to help break it down.

Salmon sold whole tend to be about half the price of fillets or steaks. It is usually gutted, so unfortunately, they rarely have eggs. But try to get it with the head and tail still intact.

To check for freshness, look at the eye. It should be clear, not cloudy. Also, gently touch the flesh. It should spring back up. The gills may have been cut out to preserve freshness, but if not, look for red, not brown or browning gills.

Step 2: Fillet the Salmon

Photo by Charlie Nordstrom

You'll start making your first fillet by cutting down the center line on the back. Cut all the way down to the bone.

Step 3: Fillet Each Side

Photo by Charlie Nordstrom

In one continual motion, run your knife along the salmon bone, removing the flesh from the bone. If you slip, that's okay, just try to not "saw" the flesh, but make the slicing motion as smooth as possible. Then flip the fish over and fillet the other side. (The second side is always much more difficult for me. Just keep a firm grip and take your time.)

Step 4: Remove the Collar From the Head

Photo by Charlie Nordstrom

The collar of the salmon is a meaty, fatty, delicious ring between the body and the head. Slice just behind the gills to cut this off of the head.

Step 5: Remove the Belly Meat

Photo by Charlie Nordstrom

The belly meat will be the pale, thinner section of the fillets you sliced. Cut these off and set them aside. They are also really fatty and delicious. People often smoke them.

Step 6: Remove Skin (Optional)

Photo by Charlie Nordstrom

People often keep the skin on salmon for cooking, as it protects the fish from BBQ grill flames, and the fat content from the skin seeps back into the flesh while cooking. However, if you take the skin off, you are in for a treat. Slice it into strips, rub a little sesame oil onto it and bake until crispy. Here's a recipe for a rice bowl, bibimbop, using the salmon skin.

Step 7: Keep Your Collar, Belly, Bones & Tail

Here are Instructables on making a smoked salmon & corn chowder using bones and heads, another one on making salmon rillettes with the collar and belly, and finally a version of bibimbap using fish skins and eggs. You can also refer to Salmon SPAM Masubi Instructable on using the trimmings. One fillet is becoming gravlax and the rest of the the lovely flesh I vacuum packed and froze to use later for sushi. So stay tuned.



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    21 Discussions

    Using the meat as Suchi or sashimi is very nice; steaking it and barbacueing it is lovely - oh! the skin! But if you can the salmon, you eat everything - including the bones, as the soften in the pressure cooker or canner. And my dog loves, loves! LOVES! the skin and juices from the can/jar. We canned 26 sockeye this year, and barbacues two for the visiting relatives. We'll be barbacuing another we caught today; oh, yumm. This atheist believes that God is good. Om Mane padme hum! Canning is easy!

    2 replies

    I love the idea of canning Salmon and maybe Tuna. Do you can this item indoors or outdoors? I have a pressure canner but most of the recipes I've seen can it out of doors for some reason.

    I also dry the bones and grind them down and mix them 1:1 with flake salt and then use the salmon salt like a dry fish sauce.

    I'm glad you saved the collar but have to say you tossed out some of the best meat. Those little medallions in the cheek and also the spine meat throw it on the bbq for a quick sear and pick the meat off with tooth picks.

    2 replies

    Halibut cheeks are one of my favorite things to eat. Salmon cheeks just seemed like to much work for the size, but I'll give it a try. Thanks!

    The salmon cheeks are even better tastes like fish butter. Yummy.
    and easy to get to pull the gill plate up and there you go. or just eat the whole head. :)

    fish head.jpg

    Maria, this is NOT the way to prepare an expensive fish at home for food especially when you say "show them respect, and do ourselves a favor, it’s best to eat the whole fish-not just slice off a few prime fillets and waste the rest". You talk about NO fillets yet you fillet the fish??
    Here is how to prepare a Salmon: a) Descale the fish; b) Cut off all fins except the tail at this point; c) Lay the fish flat. With a sharp heavy knife make a half cut close to the head from the body. Flip the fish and make another cut to sever the head; d) Now stand the head on the flat cut end and slice into two halves. Note: you will have the eyes intact in each half; e) lay the fish flat. Cut the tail out; f) from the rear end start slicing the fish through and throuh into half inch slices, till you get solid slices without the belly hollow; g) now stand the fish on the flat head side and slice through to remove the belly piece; Slice the big belly piece into smaller pieces; h) now lay the fish flat and cut half inch slices through and through as in sl. f) with bone in. Note: when eating, the bones separate from the fish without any problems or danger.
    Now you have the whole fish cut into lovely portions. Marinate in spices and bake or shallow fry. Enjoy some fried and some in gravy. Gravy: fry spices with garlic ginger paste, add tomatoes and fry. Add water and bring to boil. Now drop the fried fish in the gravy. Enjoy. Delicious! Yum yum!

    2 replies

    I am going to use the fillets! Some I made into gravlax and others I froze for sushi/sashimi. I'll post these soon. Thanks for the tips!


    you are SO right on everything you said, but one thing is SO wrong, everything you said in your comment, is the right way to treat every fish in the world, but that is not just a fish, that's a Salmon and everything that maría posted there is the RIGHT way to Break Down a whole Salmon... Sincerely your lovely Chef friend XardoX...

    Maria Finn, i just loved the way you worked that beautiful Salmon, I've been cooking for close to 25 Years now and as a Chef i can tell you that what you did there was a great job, and also checked on your recipes, the Bibimbop and the Salmon Spam are great... keep working hard that i will keep cooking your recipes :D

    Greetings from Venezuela!!!

    1 reply

    Hey! I would really love to feature this project - can you change your main image to one of the ones of you breaking down the salmon?



    Community Manager

    2 replies

    Will do! Will you give me until tomorrow before you feature, as I'm going to post the other Instructables for making dishes out of the parts? Thanks, M.

    I was just looking into salmon fishing the other day, mainly so i could eat more fish to get more omega-3's. I am trying to eat a pound a week... Anyway, I will definetely be using this, thanks.

    2 replies

    When out fishing, I see so many people throwing away the bellies and the eggs-these are the best sources of omega-3's.

    Yummy! I just had some very good King Salmon with a cherry reduction sauce last night. You have reminded me that I need to go fishing!

    The information is very interesting. You make me understand. You helped me so much.

    Thanks for sharing this.