Shad Fingers (Boneless Shad)

Boneless Shad? Yep. It's Possible

A full shad fillet and a boneless 'finger'
A full shad fillet and a boneless 'finger'. Hank Shaw

Learning the art of boning a shad is one of the toughest things in all of cooking. Very few chefs know how, and only a few fishmongers on America's East Coast still carry on what is a nearly 400-year-old tradition.

Each shad "fillet" has four rows of curved bones in it. Each row must be cut out at exactly the correct angle or you will lose most of the meat on the side.

I can do it, but I typically mess up 8-10 fish before I remember the proper angle. There is an easier way: Shad fingers.

This is a hybrid fillet. You only cut away one thick edge of the side, leaving most of the rest to poach and pick for fish cakes or shad salad (​The technique for that is linked below). Here's how you do it:

Finding the Seam

This is the line of bones you want to cut
This is the line of bones you want to cut. Hank Shaw

First things first. You are cutting a strip off the top side of each fillet—the back, not the belly. Now you must find the line of bones that forms the edge of your shad finger. Look for this line.

Making the Cut

Making the first cut
Making the first cut. Hank Shaw

Take the sharpest knife you own, preferably a narrow, pointy fillet knife (a boning knife will do), and carefully cut a line alongside the row of bones—not including the bones, however—from the nape (neck end) of the fillet to the tail end. It is important that you do not cut through the skin.

Finishing the Cut

Finishing the cut
Finishing the cut. Hank Shaw

To finish the shad finger, turn the knife parallel to the cutting board at the tail end of the shad fillet and slice outward—away from the rest of the fillet. The shad bones curve outward just underneath the skin, so you will need to ride the knife above them to get a boneless shad finger.

This is persnickety work, and you may mess up a few at first. But trust me, after cutting hundreds of shad, this is the easiest way to get a substantial amount of boneless meat off one of the boniest fish in the world.

Making the Fingers

Cut the shad fingers to shape
Cut the shad fingers to shape. Hank Shaw

Now all you have to do is trim and shape the fingers. Cut off the narrow tail end, which is so much thinner than the rest it will overcook by the time the rest is done. Add this bit to the pot where you are making fish cakes.

You will generally get 2 to 3 fingers from each long strip. Look them over and trim any bits of stray bone.

Your shad fingers are ready. I like cooking them with an old-fashioned cornmeal crust, which makes a nice counterpoint to the soft, rich shad meat.