Stories / Guides and Tips, Impact

The Secret to Getting the Most Out of Your Fish

Michael Nelson

July 10, 2017


When JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change alum Michael Nelson said he had an idea for reducing food waste and making seafood more sustainable, we had to find out more. Turns out the executive chef of New Orleans seafood mecca GW Fins employs precise techniques to get more out of each fish, and transforms underutilized parts into undeniably delicious dishes.

We asked Nelson to take us through three of his favorite techniques, step-by-step, so you can start using more of your fish at home. Below, you'll learn how to remove a fish's collar and belly, turn collars into "fin wings," and harvest delectable fish cheeks. Although buying a whole fish may be daunting, with a little time and effort you’ll end up saving money and getting far more than just the average store-bought fillet.

How to Remove a Fish’s Collar and Belly

One of the most important steps people can take towards seafood sustainability is to eat the whole fish. Typically fillets (a.k.a. the meat from the side of the fish excluding the backbone) only account for 25 percent to 45 percent of the animal, and there are many ways to enjoy overlooked and underutilized parts. One simple technique is to remove the collar and belly along with the fillet. The pieces have some of the tastiest meat and can easily increase the per-animal yield. I recommend this cut for fish over two pounds—for smaller fish, just cook them whole. Here is a quick tutorial on getting more out of your fish.

1. The fish should be scaled and gutted all the way through the pelvic fin.

2. The next step is to release the collar. Find the bone that comes down right behind the gills. Use the tip of the knife to get under the bone. 

3. Run the knife up the bone to separate it from the collar. Then cut along the collar to release it from the membrane behind the gills.

4. Start to fillet the fish from the top, keeping the knife close to the backbones and ribs.

5. Be sure to keep the belly meat intact by cutting along the end of the rib cage. Tip: Do not fully remove the fillet until both sides are cut. This will improve the yield.

6. Gently pull the collar from where it attaches near the throat.

Here is the finished fillet with collar and belly attached.

The collar and belly can be sautéed and grilled, but I prefer them fried, like in my recipe for Fin Wings (see below).

Turning Collars into “Fin Wings”

At GW Fins in New Orleans, I turn all the fish collars into the aforementioned dish called Fin Wings. Read on for a step-by-step tutorial on how to prepare the collar in order to make them at home. Note: in order to make Fin Wings easy to eat you must remove all the bones except the one attached to the fin.

1. Cut the collar and belly from the fillet.  

2. Use a cleaver to cut between the pectoral and pelvic fin. Reserve pectoral fin piece for another use. Be sure to remove any scales from pelvic fin piece.

3. Follow down the bone that attaches to the fin. At the end of the bone, use the tip of the knife to loosen the end a little. Grab the boney structure just underneath the end of the fin bone and pull out with your fingers. 

4. Pull out the little bone from the opposite side of the fin.

Here is the finished Fin Wing ready for the fryer. The only bone left is attached to the fin. To eat the Fin Wings, just hold it by the fin and eat just like a chicken wing.

Here's the version I serve at the restaurant. Get the full recipe.

How to Harvest Fish Cheeks

Another often-underutilized part of fish is the cheek, which is probably the most succulent piece of meat on a fish, and is not to be left behind. Here’s a walkthrough on how to add these delicious cuts into your seafood repertoire. (Note: this technique works best on fish that are at least four pounds or more.)

1. Feel around the cheek for the meaty area. 

2. Insert the knife in the edge of the meaty area just behind the eye.  

3. Keeping the knife on an angle, follow along the bone all the way around to just above the lip. 

4. Using the tip of the knife, release the underside of the cheek from the fish. 

5. Gently separate the cheek meat from the skin with your fingers. 

Here is a finished cheek. 

Smaller cheeks are best suited for sautéing or frying, and larger cheeks can hold up to braising or grilling.

Learn more about JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change.