Like all farm animals from poultry to cattle, fishes are available in various different cuts. The best-known and most common are probably fillets and loins but on the European and North American fish markets there are also numerous other products that are less well-known and less frequently found on refrigerated shelves or at service counters in supermarkets. Consumers, and even some professionals, hardly know the names and terms used for some individual cuts. What makes things even more difficult is that there are often regional, national or international differences in the usage of such terms. Uniform terminology standards in this area would be very helpful and make life much easier, particularly since fish products are traded globally and increasingly via the internet. Importers, retailers and final consumers have to know exactly which products they are actually buying, and whether the chosen cuts meet their requirements. This little guide will hopefully bring clarity to the sometimes confusing variety of terms used for the different fish cuts.
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The simplest product form and at the same time the basis of all processed products is the whole fish or round fish that has still not been gutted.
It sometimes has the addition “as is” to underline that the fish is fully intact, i.e. exactly as it was when taken out of the water.
The first and simplest processing stage is usually the removal of the intestines, for which the term gutted is used. Whole fish gutted is a typical end product of species that are preferably eaten as whole portion-size fishes, for example trout, sea bream, sea bass, snapper, tilapia, plaice or sole. The term single portion sized whole fish refers to a whole fish complete with head and tail which with a weight of 300 to 600 grams is large enough to satisfy the appetite of one person. In contrast, a single serving portion is just a part or a cut of the whole fish which is usually sufficient for one person.
Sometimes the term dressed is also used for the product form whole fish gutted. This can be rather confusing because this term is normally used for higher processing stages, particularly for whole headed or head-off fishes. Various additional terms can be listed on the label depending on which processing stage a whole fish has undergone:
- headed (head-off)
- scaled – the scales have been removed from the body’s surface
- gilled – the gills have been removed
- finned – the fins have been removed (but often only the dorsal and anal fins)
- tailed – the tail fin has been removed
These terms are often abbreviated and only the first letters listed but sometimes written differently, e.g. H&G or h&g for headed und gutted. An additional T (tailed) in HGT means that the tail fin has also been removed. G&G stands for gilled and gutted, SGG for scaled, gilled and gutted, SGO for scaled and gutted, head-off.
Since there are no consistent international terminological standards suppliers sometimes use different terms for the same processing status of their products. In Germany, a gutted, headed fish can be abbreviated aoK (for the German “ausgenommen ohne Kopf”). But the terms h&g (headed & gutted) or GO (gutted, head-off) are equally common. Different usage of the term dressed was already mentioned above. Some suppliers use this term for whole fishes that have only been gutted. For others the term dressed stands for whole fishes from which not only the intestines but also the head and fins have been removed. Sometimes this processing form is also described as pan-dressed, bullets or rounds, implying that the fish is kitchen-ready (in German “küchenfertig”). The term J-cut is sometimes also added to signify that the collar bones to which the pectoral fins (and in some species also the ventral fins) are attached have already been removed.
If pan-dressed, bullets or rounds are divided further the terms center cuts (also roasts) and tails cuts are used depending on the position of the individual cuts within the fish’s body.
The terms center cut and tail cut are also often used for steaks, i.e. slices that are cut across the fish’s length, also called karbonade in German. It is difficult to differentiate the two cut positions exactly. Some producers use the term center cut only for slices that are cut as far as the rear edge of the abdominal cavity. Tail cuts would them be all further cuts in the direction of the tail. Other producers differentiate the two cuts less exactly and use the term tail cuts only for slices whose size is much less that the average body cross-section of the fish.
Use of the terms steak and cutlet is similarly inconsistent. Originally steak was only used for boneless cuts like those from the large loins of tuna and swordfishes. In the meantime, however, the term is also used for other cuts such as portion-size slices that are cut across the fish’s backbone. Because these “steaks” contain bones they are also sometimes called cutlets. Steaks or cutlets are often cut from salmon, cod or hake.
A further distinction is made with regard to the thickness of the slices. Some suppliers have adopted the French term darne for this cut – thin slices that are at most 10 to 12 mm thick. In contrast, a real steak has to be considerably thicker, mostly 2 to 3 cm.
What is referred to as steaks, cutlet, darne or karbonade in normal round fishes is called tranche or tronçon if the species concerned is a larger flatfish such as turbot or halibut. In the USA this cut is also referred to as portion cut or steak cut. For smaller flatfish such as plaice, flounder or sole which are usually served as portion-size whole fish only the head, intestines and the long fin edges are removed. This cut is called pan ready.
By far the most frequent cut, however, is the fillet that in smaller flatfish is usually cut whole from the body so that two more or less equally sized fillets (eye and blind side) are produced per fish. If the two fillets are afterwards placed on top of one another the product is called a double-decker, married or pocketed. Pocketed refers to the possibility to put various fillings in between the two fillets prior to preparation. Flatfish fillets can also however be cut into two halves along the center bone on the body sides, which leads to four instead of two fillet pieces, and so termed quarter-cut fillets.
In the case of larger flatfishes (e.g. white halibut) the term fletch is used instead of fillet. If the fletches are very big they are cut again leading to half or quarterfletches etc. Another cut produced from the half fillets or fletches that have been cut along the flatfish’s center bone is the pavé. Pavés are portion-size fillet pieces, mostly with the skin but always boneless. Sometimes the term pavé is unfortunately also used for fillet pieces of round fishes such as salmon or cod, but this is not correct. Another typical cut from flatfish fillets is goujons, which are 10 cm long and about 1 cm thick strips that are reminiscent of fish fingers. Originally goujons were only cut from flatfishes but today other fish species ae used, too.
Fillets of round fishes have become the standard cut in the fish trade because they save a lot of work in the kitchen, can be prepared in numerous different ways and – because they are mostly boneless – are also easy to eat. The pinbones sometimes cause problems, however. In some species, such as salmon, they can simply be pulled out. In other species this is not possible which is why they are cut out of the fillet using for example a V-shaped cut, the V-cut. Whether the pinbones are still within the fillet or have been removed is recognizable from the terms pbi (pinbones in) or pbo (pinbones out).
A new, particularly convenient cut that has asserted itself is loins. This term was originally only used for large fish species such as tuna or swordfish but today it is used for all other species, too. Loin is the term used for the muscle strand of the dorsal fillet above the backbone from the rear head end to the start of the tail fin. Real loins should not contain any bones or parts of the abdominal area. A particularly fine variant of loins is top back loins which only comprise the front, particularly meaty section of the loins, mostly in portion size.
Probably the most successful product that is based on the fillet is the supreme, a broad portion strip that is cut across the fillet in the front, particularly thick and meaty region. A supreme is the best cut of the fish. It is always completely boneless, with or without the skin, and the thinner fillet areas (e.g. the belly flaps) must be removed. Supremes are often traded under other names, e.g. portion, fillet strip, fillet steak or even pavé which occasionally causes confusion. A special form of supremes are escalopes which are approximately portion-size pieces that arise from a diagonal cut across the fillet. Because this diagonal cut is made at a very acute angle, if weight remains constant the area of the resulting pieces increases which improves product appearance.
A common cut in the fillet segment is the butterfly fillet which is mainly used for smaller species such as herring, sardines and mackerel to enlarge the surface area of the product. For some products the fish is better to use as a “double fillet”. This is also true for some very special cuts and product forms that although they are only seldom used offer certain benefits for further processing or upgrading the product:
- canoe fillets – the fish is cut directly behind the head, starting along the upper dorsal edge as for the butterfly cut. Intestines and center bone are removed leading to a canoe-like product that can be filled in various ways.
- colére – smaller fishes are bent to form a ring and the caudal peduncle placed in the fish’s mouth. This unusual processing form is popular in some countries for smoking and deep-frying.
- en-lorgette – both fillets are cut from the tail end but remain connected to the head. The backbone is removed and the fillets are rolled up towards the head.
- cravatte – the cut fillet is positioned in the shape of a bow, longer fillet strips can also be tied into a knot.
- delice – a topping or seasoning is placed on the middle third of the fillet and the two outer thirds folded over so that the topping becomes a filling.
- paupiette – fillets are wound to a ring on the belly or dorsal edge so that a filling can be added. Paupiettes are frequently offered as frozen convenience products.
An underestimated and much too seldom used cut is the fish’s cheeks. They are found on both sides of the head usually in a backward-pointing diagonal beneath the eyes. A lot of fish lovers judge them the best part of the fish and are willing to pay correspondingly higher prices. The cut is especially worthwhile with large fish species such as cod, hake, haddock, anglerfish or halibut.