How to Debone Fish

Melinda Josie

Most fillets from the freezer aisle or the fish counter come deboned. But sometimes a few pesky, minuscule bones—called pinbones—remain. And if you’re going all out and filleting a whole fish (more power to you!), you’ll need to debone along the entire length of each fillet.

First, grab a pair of fish tweezers (available at most kitchenware stores). These stainless steel fish tweezers with wide, rectangular ends are the most effective at grasping the tiny, slippery bones. Needle-nose pliers can also be used, just make sure their inner surface isn’t grooved (the bones will slip through). If you’re in a pinch, a pair of clean cosmetic tweezers will work, too.

Locate pinbones by placing the fillet skin-side down on a surface and running your finger up and down the length of it. The bones are usually towards the center of the fillet, where it gets thicker. Each needle-thin pinbone can be about a half inch long, but will be mostly buried in the fillet with only the tip exposed at the surface.

To make pinbones easier to grasp, try this quick trick: Place a small mixing bowl upside down on the counter and drape the fillet over it with the skin-side down. The curved surface will make the bones pop up. Then, gently pull each pinbone straight out.

For easy cleanup, keep a small bowl of water nearby as you work, and dip your tweezers in to discard the pinbones, which have a tendency to cling to tweezers or your fingers when you try to brush them away.

Finally, run your finger down the length of the fillet one last time to make sure you haven’t missed any. Now you’re ready to get cooking!

How to Remove Pin Bones from a Fish Fillet

How necessary is it to have fish bone tweezers in your kitchen? I would say, absolutely 100% necessary. Pin boning fish is something not a lot of home cooks are in the habit of doing, but it should be one of the steps we do, every single time we cook fish. Who hasn’t had that awkward experience where you bite down on a bone in the middle of your dinner? It is annoying, frustrating and can actually be quite dangerous. I feel this experience puts a lot of people off fish for life when if the proper care were taken in the first place, the situation could be easily avoided.

Hands down, these Curved Fish Bone Tweezers from Global are the best I have ever seen or used. I wanted to add ‘seen’ because I’ve never actually seen any others like this before. Global have put a lot of thought and care into the design of these tweezers – not only do they keep in line with the sleek look of the Global Knife Collection, they have a thickness and a sturdiness that show off the quality of the tool, and a unique curve to the handles, which help to grip. You just know when you look at these tweezers that they are going to perform like a dream.

Global products are known for their great design, with the elegant dot pattern on the handles. The whole element is made from one continuous piece of the highest quality stainless steel, which gives the products their sleek trademark look but also makes them the most hygienic knives on the market as they are easier to thoroughly clean. Same goes for these tweezers – I love the look of the classic dot pattern on the side and the fact that it goes so well in my kitchen with my favourite Global knife collection.

The curved handle and thick sides really help to grip the tweezers. The point that comes down on the sides of the handle lines up where your thumb sits on one side and your middle or ring finger on the other side. This gives a perfect pressure point with which to pull out the bone from the fish in one easy motion. This is so perfectly thought out – other tweezers I have used in the past for this purpose now seem flimsy and awkward to me.

Here’s How You Remove Pin Bones from a Fish:

1. Lay the fish fillet out on a clean counter top, skin side down. Make sure there is a good light source so you can see clearly.

2. Lightly rub your fingers along the edges and down the middle of the fillet. You should feel any pin bones protruding out.

3. Take some fish boning tweezers and grip down on each small bone, pulling out away from the fish in one confident motion. Place the bones in a pile on the side and discard.

4. Double check for any remaining bones with your eyes and fingers, pressing a little harder, this time but not hard enough to damage the flesh.

I love simply cooked fish, with a little condiment to compliment the fish and bring out the flavour. Check out my recipe here for Pan-fried Fish with Pineapple Sambal.

This is a great entertaining recipe. The sambal (an Indonesian salsa) is both salty, sweet and spicy at the same time and definitely has the wow-factor!

Becky Gilhespie is a food writer and former Masterchef semi-finalist. She is currently working part-time as a chef, having chosen to do on the job training instead of enrolling at culinary school. Becky is a recipe writer and product tester for many household name brands via Everten, and her own food blog, focusses on family-friendly meals with the wow factor that are healthy, fast and simple to prepare.

Becky is originally from the US but lived in London for 15 years and now resides in Gerringong on the NSW South Coast with her husband and two little boys. Her food is inspired a lot by her travels (and desire to travel more).

Bone to Pick

With summer upon us, it’s time to confront any fears you may have about cooking seafood. Whether you’re grilling a whole fish or making a one-pot seafood stew, cooking seafood is much easier than most people think.

One of the most common fears or grievances surrounding seafood is the pesky task of removing pin bones. They can be hard to spot, which can make it difficult to tell if you’ve gotten them all. If you’ve ever served fish at a dinner party and sat in fear of a guest discovering a bone in a fillet, you know the feeling of dread that can accompany the mere mention of the words pin bones.

RELATED Grilled Black Sea Bass with Cucumber and Cilantro Salad “

Fear not, fish lovers. There’s a dead-simple trick that makes it not only easy to find the pin bones, but also easier to pluck them. And trust us, you have the equipment.

If you buy a plank of fish that contains pin bones, grab a bowl and pliers. Turn the bowl upside down and drape the piece of fish over the bowl. The convex shape of the bowl will push the bones out, making them more visible and easier to remove.

For everything you need to know, watch the video above and never fear pin bones again.

Our very clever, very clothed Never Cook Naked columnists, Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein, are at your disposal, able to troubleshoot everything from questionable table etiquette to tricky cooking techniques (as well as, natch, proper cooking attire). Curious to read more solutions to culinary conundrums? You may wish to peruse previously asked questions, starting with the last column’s answers regarding the secret to nonstick grilling, what “reusable disposable” means, and the recurring question of how long you can safely leave meat at room temperature.


Pesky Pin Bones

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: What exactly are those tiny pin bones in my salmon fillet? Why are they there? And how do I remove them out without making it look like the garbage disposal spat out the fish?—Pinhead

Dear Pinhead: When you fillet a fish, you can easily see its backbone and the attached rib bones, which readily lift away from the supple cooked fillet. But a larger fish such as salmon also has smaller intramuscular pin bones that give the fish more stability, allowing it to swim faster and harder. (You try jumping up a waterfall after swimming hundreds of miles upstream and you see if you don’t need pin bones.) Therein lies the beauty of evolution.

By and large, pin bones are soft and edible, unlike those bigger choking hazards that are attached to the backbone. In some cultures—we’re looking at you, Japan—fish bones are considered a delicacy. To the rest of us, even the most petite of pin bones aren’t exactly considered aesthetically pleasing. We think of them as ouch-inducing.

Back to your salmon. You want to get rid of the pin bones. Some suggest pliers. We think not. Ours have sat in a dank basement for years, waiting for a straight man to come over and fix the plumbing. Try tweezers on those pesky pin bones instead—unless you’ve done some manscaping lately. Better yet, buy a pair of tweezers just for the kitchen and keep the other pair in the bathroom. Even better yet, make sure your kitchen tweezers have blunt edges so they don’t split or splinter the pin bones as you grasp and extract them.

That all said, how do you find the offending pin bones? They’re easy to spot when you’re choking but not so simple to see when you stare at a naked fillet on your cutting board. In fact, you can find the pin bones with the sense of touch, not sight. Run your fingers gently along the flesh in both directions. Don’t feel them? Your fishmonger may have already taken them out for you. (Not certain? Check your receipt. If that salmon was pricier than you’d like, chances are the pin bones have been removed.)

And for goodness sake, pull the pin bones out in the same direction and plane that they’re in, as yanking the thing out any other way will tear the delicate flesh. Feel free to follow this advice with your other tweezers as well.

Rude Roomies

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: When it comes to absentminded roommates, who’s worse—the roommate who routinely uses half an onion and lets the other half hang out on the counter until it rots and needs to be thrown out, or the roommate who always makes too much food and leaves the leftovers in sealed containers that quietly make their way to the back of the fridge and literally stay there for months?—Cranky In A Small Apartment

Dear Cranky: Since you asked, in our esteemed opinion it’s the half-an-onion-on-the-counter roommate. The rotting vegetable has been abandoned in public space. It’s now stinking up the kitchen. And it’s in everyone’s way. Yuck.

Why not the other roommate? Assuming he’s used his own container to store his food in the fridge, so be it. If the container’s sealed properly, it’s not going to do anything for a good while—other than get botulismic. But what he does in the privacy of his own containers is his own business.

If this sort of matter bothers you, forget about marriage. It’s this exact stuff squared. Maybe cubed. Plus forever. And with IRAs.

Soapy Challah

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: We once made the most beautiful challah, but it tasted like soap. Turns out we’d proofed the dough in a bowl that had been washed but not adequately rinsed. How could something that still looked so yummy taste like a punishment from childhood?—Kibbutz Dropout

Dear Dropout: Have you ever been on a date with a gorgeous guy who turns out to be an idiot? We have. Repeatedly. So we learned pretty quickly that the way something looks is no guarantee of its quality. Else how would divorce attorneys find work?

Cooking is like romance. It’s all about what happens behind the scenes. In affairs of the heart, it’s really not about his house, his clothes, or his car. It’s about his grooming regimen, his showering habits.

Accordingly, with affairs of the stomach, it’s all about the behind-the-scenes prep. An otherwise lovely soup is ruined by chunks of vegetables too big to fit on a spoon. Cakes are destroyed by improper measuring. And you might as well mix shrimp paste into challah if the bowl is shmutsik.

Nothing’s for sure in this life. The best we can do is to cross our “t’s,” dot our “i’s,” see if he’s got ring around the collar, and rinse our mixing bowls thoroughly.

Got more questions? Good. We do, too. That is, more questions AND answers. In case you missed the mention above, for more cooking etiquette and enigmas explained, you can take a peek at previous columns from our Never Cook Naked Guys. Anything pertaining to food or drink goes. Well, anything within reason. But first, those previously tended-to questions we promised….

“Blonde” Coffee, Old Eggs, Diplomatic Diners, Flat Cookies

Mayo Salads, Shared Steak, Pie Crust

Host(ess) Gifts, New Mexican Chiles, Wax (?) Paper

Nonstick Grilling, “Reusable” Bamboo, Meat Safety

King Salmon Pin Bone Removal

Mt Cook Alpine Salmon currently process around 500,000 fish a year. A new partnership has been formed between Scott Technology and Seafood Innovations to automate removal of fish bones from New Zealand’s highly prized King Salmon.

A pathway to automation

There are more than 30 pin bones in every King Salmon fillet with no current alternative to providing a bone out product than plucking them manually, one by one.

The picture below shows one of the team at Mt Cook Alpine Salmon’s Timaru plant removing pin bones from King Salmon fillets.

“We currently process around 500,000 fish a year through our Plant and a growing proportion of our market is looking for bone out fillets and portions,” said Brent Keelty, Manager of Mt Cook’s Processing operations.

“Pin boning is a tedious and costly task and we have to rotate our staff on the pinbone line to avoid repetitive strain injuries.”

Unlike the more ubiquitous Atlantic Salmon grown elsewhere in the world, King Salmon or Chinook, have a finer bone structure and technologies developed for automating pin bone removal for Atlantics, can’t be adapted for King Salmon.

“New Zealand is the largest producer of King Salmon in the world, but overall volumes are tiny. We’ve visited the large equipment manufacturers and they have no interest in developing an automated solution for this species,” said Keelty. “The market is too small for them to invest.”

“A year ago we partnered with Scott Technology to research various known technologies around the world and to develop a pathway that could provide some level of automated solution to the manual pinboning task. It was the ideas and knowledge displayed by Scott in this preliminary work that gave us confidence to proceed with the current project,” said Keelty.

Scott Technology is a New Zealand company with widely acknowledged expertise in imaging technologies and robotics in the food sector.

“It was this set of skills we needed to tackle a project like this,” Keelty said, “but we wanted a pragmatic approach that would provide a staged solution along the way to a potentially fully automated solution.”

According to Scott Technology, CEO, Chris Hopkins –

“We love a challenge like this. It’s ingrained in our culture, finding interesting ways to apply technology solutions to business challenges – particularly to help fast growing New Zealand companies whose products are delivering valuable export revenues for the country.”

In the first instance, Scott is developing assistive hand held devices for Mt Cook Alpine Salmon.

“We will follow with some more advanced concepts deploying our machine vision technologies to develop a high resolution 3D view of every fillet and then use algorithms to determine the precise locations of the bones in each fillet. Then the plan is to adapt our robotic automation to remove the bones,” said Hopkins.


Because of the pioneering nature of the project, Mt Cook Alpine Salmon approached Seafood Innovations Ltd to provide financial assistance and was delighted to receive more than half a million dollars of backing for the project.

Seafood Innovations Ltd encourages and provides funding support for innovative research and development within the seafood industry, with the aim of adding value to the sector.

“Seafood Innovations Ltd is really excited about the potential this project has to deliver significant value to Mt Cook Alpine Salmon by helping the company meet growing market demand for its premium product,” notes Seafood Innovations Ltd’s General Manager Anna Yallop. “Similarly, Scott Technology has an excellent track record of delivering highly effective solutions to New Zealand companies, so we are very pleased to be a part of this endeavour and look forward to seeing how this project progresses over coming months.”

The pin bone project has several milestones and is expected to take around 18 months to complete.

According to CEO of Mt Cook Alpine Salmon, David Cole, “We are focused on taking more value added products into our international markets and smartening up on our pin boning efficiencies is just one step towards matching the cuts and offerings expected by our global customers.”

Otago Daily Times article:


Mt Cook Alpine Salmon Ltd
David Cole: 027 4425110

Seafood Innovations Ltd
Anna Yallop: 021 799314

Scott Technology
Barbara Webster: 021 02676260

The problem with black cod, and there is only one problem, is that it has a set of bones that are nearly impossible to pull using the typical tweezer method. I discovered this a while ago when first preparing it for a dinner party event. I was on-site in the kitchen. There were 16 eager ladies awaiting dinner after a full day of wine tasting. It was the appetizer course. There I was frantically trying to get these awful tiny bones out of this fish with no give. Eventually, I waved my white flag and simply chopped that portion of the fish completely off. I frustratingly tossed those pieces out when I should have, in fact, saved them for Chef’s dinner. Or at the very least, stock.

Other than the bones, black cod is a beautiful piece of fish. White and tender with large flakes. Its beyond buttery which makes it so forgiving. Now that I know what I am getting into when it comes to breaking it down, it’s a staple in my seafood course arsenal.

While you can, pan sear the filet whole with skin-on and serve it to guests, I prefer not to have to say, here is your first course, please watch out for bones! I’m also not going to stand there and remove the bones afterwards while the dish gets cold. This may have something to do with my culinary competition days. There was one occasion where I let a bone slip. There was someone else de-boning the fish with me, but I am 99% sure that it was my fault. He was the appetizer course fish guy. I was on the entrée and more focused on assembling chicken terrines and brining beef tongues. My bad. At least a judge didn’t get it. If I remember correctly, I think it was someone from the fish guy’s family. Sorry, James!

The fish guy and I de-boning branzino at the ACF Hot Food Team Competition Nationals 2012. Laughing even with the big scary judge behind us.

Back to the black cod. The most popular dish I use it for is a seafood appetizer course. It’s seared and sits on a bed of celery root puree topped with a corn relish. Three bell pepper sauces surround it with a touch of crème fraiche. Its skin, which is cooked separately, is placed on top.

Let me break it down for you. Remove the skin. This is easier to show than tell, so here is a video I found. Reserve the skin. Using your fingertips, find the bones that sit in between the filet and the belly portion. Use a filet knife to follow those bones down and remove that portion. They tend to curve a bit outward which is nice because it leaves more fish for your portions. Then remove the bones from the belly portion trying to save as much belly as possible. Reserve the belly for another use, preferably yourself. Like most animals, the belly portion is one of the best. Ever had tuna belly or “toro”? It’s like that, only different. You know, because it’s black cod, not tuna.

From left to right, the filet to portion, the bone portion, the belly, a whole filet. If you’d like to reserve more meat off the bone portion, using a spoon to scrape the meat off works well.

Now you have your de-boned portions and you can do whatever you’d like with them. I highly recommend crisping the skin in between two sheets of parchment with a little cooking oil. Place another sheet pan on top to keep them from curling and bake at about 375 until crispy. Use them as garnish or just snack on them like fish chicharrons or crackling. You should save the bone portions too and use them for stock or a sauce. Or discard them if you must. Just don’t tell the food-waste activists.

And lastly, a little bit about black cod as a fish. It’s not truly a “cod.” It’s a sablefish and sometimes called a butterfish (go figure). I get mine from Dry Dock Fish Co. which is based out of Fullerton, CA. I am out in Temecula, but luckily, they deliver to me when they set up at the farmers markets here twice a week. Plus, they are all about fresh, wild, and sustainable seafood. You should check them out if you are local.

Learn. Create. Inspire.

Stay Hungry.


Pin bones in fish

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