How to Split or Butterfly a Fish

Splitting fish
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  • 01 of 10

    Gather Your Tools

    Gather your tools
    Holly A. Heyser

    Whether you call it splitting, butterflying or kiting, removing the backbone and ribs of a whole fish is an important skill for a seafood cook to learn.

    Butterflying removes most—but not all—of the bones in a fish, and it creates a larger cavity for stuffing, and stuffing is the primary reason to butterfly a fish.

    Kiting, so called because it makes the finished fish look like a kite, is butterflying when you remove the head of the fish as well. Kiting is mainly used when smoking fish, especially haddock to make the smoked Scottish delicacy finnan haddie.

    What you'll need: Kitchen shears, a very sharp fillet knife, a cutting board and, of course, a fish that has been scaled and gutted. Make sure the gills are also removed.

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  • 02 of 10

    Cut out the Bottom Fins

    Cut out the bottom fins
    Holly A. Heyser

    Start by slicing along the fish's backbone toward the tail. You will soon meet a row of bottom fins. Remove these by guiding the knife along one side of the fin bones, which extend into the fillet about a half-inch or so.

    Once you reach the end of the row of fin bones, repeat the process on the other side of the fin bones.

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  • 03 of 10

    Cut Toward the Tail

    Cut toward the tail
    Holly A. Heyser

    Leaving the fin bones in—this is a good guide and handle—continue cutting along the backbone toward the tail. A good way to do this is to slice-and-bounce the fillet knife on top of the backbone as you go; this keeps you in touch with the backbone and ensures that you don't lose any meat.

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  • 04 of 10

    Remove the Bottom Fins

    Remove the bottom fins
    Holly A. Heyser

    You no longer need the bottom fin bones, so lift them out with gentle pressure. If you need to, slice gently to free them from the fillet.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Slice Around the Ribs

    Slice around the ribs
    Holly A. Heyser

    Slip the knife blade underneath the ribs of the fish and slice upward, away from the backbone. Make sure your blade is in contact with the ribs at all times so you do not lose any meat. You may have to cut through pin bones as you go through the ribs; this is OK.

    Continue to 6 of 10 below.
  • 06 of 10

    Free the Meat From the Backbone

    Free the backbone
    Holly A. Heyser

    Use the point of the fillet knife to free the meat from the backbone with short, gentle strokes. Take your time and you will have an almost meatless backbone.

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  • 07 of 10

    Snip the Tail End of the Backbone

    Snip the tail end of the backbone
    Holly A. Heyser

    Use the shears to snip the backbone near the tail.

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  • 08 of 10

    Lift out the Backbone

    Lift out the backbone
    Holly A. Heyser

    Once you've snipped the tail end of the backbone, begin lifting it out of the fish. You may have to gently slice away some remaining bits to free it—do not yank on it, just move gently and smoothly.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Snip the Head End of the Backbone

    Snip the head end of the backbone
    Holly A. Heyser

    Use the shears to cut the rest of the backbone close to the head. This will require a bit of pressure here because the spine is strong near the head.

    Continue to 10 of 10 below.
  • 10 of 10

    A Finished Split Fish

    A finished split fish
    Holly A. Heyser

    This is what the finished butterflied fish should look like. You are now ready to smoke it or stuff it.