Tech Tricks: A basic guide to filleting a tasty mackerel

by Gordon MacDonald

Anglers have been getting amongst the mackerel in Moreton Bay over the last few months. Both school and spotted mackerel have been fairly plentiful and both are extremely tasty. They are often located and caught in good numbers at this time of the year, so I thought I would demonstrate an easy way to fillet them that will maximise your flesh yield and allow you to fillet numerous fish within a short period.

Whether you are filleting school and spotted mackerel, or perhaps even a Spanish mackerel, wahoo or other long pelagic fish, the basic filleting technique remains the same. When completed, this basic task will leave you with bone-free, skinless portions of tasty white flesh. These can then be cooked in numerous ways including deep fried in crumbs or batter, grilled in lemon butter or portioned into curries, stir fries and pasta dishes.

Mackerel is great eaten fresh but also freezes well, especially when you vacuum seal it. With seven hungry individuals in our household, we can go through a lot of fish in a sitting. Additionally the kids always want a few pieces to take in their school lunch the next day, so I am often filleting quite a few mackerel at a time, especially when they are plentiful. Being able to process them efficiently is a godsend at the end of a long day on the water.

Immediately after catching your mackerel, it is best to bleed them quickly and put them into an ice slurry to maximise the flesh quality. Once home or at the ramp’s cleaning table, the next step is to remove the tasty flesh. Let’s look at an easy way to complete this task.

Step 1.
Having a good surface – preferably a bench or fillet table high enough that you don’t need to bend at the waist – will make the task a lot less tiring. Use two sharp knives for filleting mackerel: one with a 7” blade and another with a 9” blade. You’ll also need a dish for your fillets and a few bags for the frames and skin offcuts. A hose or rags to wipe off your fillet table occasionally will keep your surface clean, however avoid getting water on the fillets. Have a fillet glove for your non-knife hand.

Step 2.
Insert your shorter blade down near the base of the tail along the back and push through until the point hits the backbone. The backbone is raised higher than the vertebrae, so you want to slice flush against the vertebrae and all the way through to the backbone.

Step 3.
Continue to slice forward towards the head, keeping the blade flush against the vertebrae and only cutting in as far as the backbone. A razor sharp blade will make the task a lot easier and the flesh will slice cleanly without need to saw at the flesh. Slice all the way up to roughly behind the head.

Step 4.
Next, slice across the fish with an angled cut that is roughly parallel to the gill plate opening and just behind the pectoral fin. Only cut deep enough that the blade touches the spine but doesn’t cut through it.

Step 5.
Cut up through the belly, using just the knifepoint to sever the belly flesh. Avoid cutting through the gut organs, which is messy. Once back past the gut area, push the blade deeper until the point again touches the spine. Keep the blade flat against the vertebrae as you cut towards the rear of the fish.

Step 6.
Once you are virtually down near the tail fluke, push the blade all the way through and then slice backwards to detach the rear of the fillet from the carcass. Holding the rear of the fillet upwards away from the backbone, slice along the top of the backbone to sever the last point of attachment, removing the fillet from the frame.

Step 7.
Cut forward up to the slice you made behind the head. You will need to cut through the rib bones of the gut cavity as you do, however, as they are not tough; a sharp blade will do this with ease. Remove the fillet from the rest of the fish and lay skin side down. Put your knife blade parallel to the rib bones on the flesh side of the gut cavity. Slice down and around the ribs to remove the bones and gut. Discard into your waste bag.

Step 8.
Cut the fillet into three or four sections. Each section will provide two portions of fish, so keep this in mind when working out how big you want each section. Change over to your longer blade for the remaining steps. Holding the rear of the tail portion, slice the blade into the flesh, keeping the blade flat against the skin of the fish. Slice forward, keeping the skin flat between the blade and the cutting surface and remove the skin fully.

Step 9.
The thicker sections forward of this are handled in a different way. Each will have bones running through the centre of the fillet. Position the blade edge against the centre bones and then slice straight down towards the skin before turning the blade 90° to get it flat against the skin. Slice outwards to remove the flesh totally from the skin. Repeat with the flesh on the other side of the fillet by slicing down the other side of the centre bones and then outwards to totally remove the remaining flesh.

Step 10.
Repeat with the other portion or portions of fillet. In this instance we are left with five portions of flesh and three sections of skin and bones. The skin/bone offcuts can be discarded. Here the flesh has been displayed to show the relevant pieces – put the flesh straight into your dish as you remove it from the skin to avoid contact with any enzymes and slime on the cutting surface.

Step 11.
Obviously we would repeat the previous steps to fillet the other side of the mackerel. Sometimes I will remove all the fillets from each mackerel and then discard the frames and clean my working surface before processing the fillets into portions. If you don’t like the strong taste mackerel can possess, trim the few remaining red sections from the fillets.

Step 12.
You should be able to process ten mackerel quite quickly and efficiently with this method. I like to keep all the tail portions together as these are a similar thickness and therefore they will cook at the same rate. Some mackerel will have roe in them and this can be removed for eating as well, although many consider it to be an acquired taste, and the frames can be kept for crab bait. From here you can portion the mackerel into meal-sized packets of fillets and freeze, although it is best eaten fresh. Enjoy!