Fish Heads: Delicious Yet Discarded – Modern Farmer

Cooking fish heads recipe

Video Cooking fish heads recipe

American cuisine has a curious relationship with fish.

Like most food choices, region and culture largely determine what we consider suitable for the table and what we consider inedible. We complain at the thought of a charred black cod fillet, but we shudder at the thought of his face on our plate. We enjoy the golden nuggets of fried catfish “a mustachioed scavenger that dwells at the bottom”, however, we are discouraged by the humble carp, whose lifestyle is almost identical. In fact, our common species of American carp are prized as a sport fish and as a food source in Asia and Western Europe. But here in the United States, not only is carp almost never found on a menu, but they more often serve as swimming targets for bow fishermen who, at best, use the carcasses as fertilizer. The head of the fish suffers from a similar and arbitrary prejudice, since we avoid all parts except faceless fillets. And even then, the culinary possibilities we envision for those steaks are still limited: baking, frying or pan-burning come to mind.

We ended up wasting a lot of edible fish and fish parts.

All this is to say that we end up wasting a lot of edible fish and fish parts. There’s a lot that goes into this, I imagine. Our culture generally rejects things that seem slimy, and fish are in fact thinner than a cow. Some struggle with picking up small bones from their mouths. For others, the very name of a fish (toothfish) can be so psychologically unpleasant as to need a new, more edible name (Chilean sea bass). Finally, cooking whole fish with intact heads can be an intimidating task, so we create distance by cutting and cutting until we are left with anonymous flanks of lean fillets only.

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This exercise in extreme waste is particularly true among legions of sport fishermen who, like me, strive to bring home the day’s catch. But whether we lean toward freshwater or saltwater species, prejudice against every part of the fish besides fillet transcends salinity and states alike. I’ve seen piles of bright bluefish heads condemned to the dump after a day trip off the coast of New Jersey, and I’ve seen paint buckets filled with heads thrown into the woods of North Carolina for stray cats and raccoons. I’ve witnessed huge hauls of striped sea bass in San Francisco Bay unceremoniously decapitated and filleted, and then I was hapless as I watched men throw plastic containers full of heads into the cold ocean water.

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For a real show, stop by Biscayne Boulevard in Miami as sport fishing charters return in the late afternoon and early mates throw pounds of discarded fish heads into a tarpon-infested marina. High drama.

I’m that guy who comes to these places with a cooler full of ice and a handful of dollar bills. You could be too.


the fish head

Let’s examine the fish head. Unlike, say, a chicken’s head, a large portion of a fish’s net weight (in most cases) is on its head. There may be abundant meat found tucked in and around the neck of the fish, enclosed in the cheeks and perched on its forehead. Throw it away and you will have lost a significant percentage of your catch. Ignore it in the market and you will miss one of the best deals in the city. Above all, there is taste in the head of the fish. Taste like you wouldn’t believe.

Fresh fish is both a joy and a privilege, and therefore the short window of time to enjoy such quality should not be wasted. This includes the head.

The good news is that the list of facial expressions available for a fish isn’t impressive. In general, fish can’t blink or cry, and they can’t seem to shake off the birth accident that endowed them with a smile or a frown. Besides, they don’t make a peep. While there are always exceptions to the rule, these exceptions are more like statistical outliers. In other words, fish usually look catatonic, whether alive or dead.

The bad news is that fish decompose. Quickly.

Like all seafood, I put fish heads in two categories: fresh (less than 48 hours old) and non-fresh (over 48 hours old (or frozen). Both are edible, as long as they are treated properly, but these categories are strict. Fish that have been caught recently are easy, as long as they have been frozen immediately. Many people, however, do not know how to read the signs of freshness in a fish, and this is particularly true if the fish you buy has no head. Avoid this trap.

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Most fishmongers will sell your head for pennies on the dollar, if not give it to you directly. But it’s critical to be selective here.

Checking freshness begins with a house key at your fingers and a willingness to appear at the fishmonger as if you were a forensic crime specialist at the state bureau of investigation. First, scrutinize the eyes of the fish. Bright, clear and bulging eyes means cool. As time passes, the eyes become cloudy, dry and begin to sink back into the eye socket. Know that accusing look with yours, and if you have problems with eye contact, now is the time to work on that. (Once the eyes blur, that’s the time of preservation, which is a completely different story.)

After being satisfied with the fish’s eyes, take a key out of your pocket and lift the gill cover (operculum). You should feel little resistance as you look at the gills underneath. The gills of a live fish are ruby red, and from there, they age in brown. The redder, the cooler.

Above all, if it sucks, run.


heads such as salmon, striped sea bass, red drum, grouper and tuna deserve a different preparation than small heads. For these larger species, the heads can become a meal for themselves.

Perhaps the most famous part of the fish’s head is the collar. This is the little-known jewel of fish that chefs reserve for themselves and their friends once the rest of the fish is sold to their customers. The collar is the succulent, tender and tasty wedge that exists in the space between the pectoral fins and the gill cover. The Japanese call this part of yellowtail tuna “Hamachi kama,” and if you can find a Japanese chef to do it for you, a gift awaits you.

Because the fillet line begins behind the pectoral fins, a fish’s head will include two collars. If you have a large enough fish head, these should be cut and reserved for special treatment. Start by removing the gills and then separate the two collars from the rest of the head. Rinse these necklaces thoroughly and pat dry. The rest of the head can be divided or left whole, again, depending on the size and species of the head.

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Unlike a steak, the head of a large fish is almost made for a grill. It rises more easily from the rack, and the bones and collagen in the skull protect the delicate meat from overcooking over a direct flame. The roast works the same way. Of course, whole steamed heads can be seasoned with rich, flavorful sauces that work particularly well with Asian and Southeast Asian flavors. Alternatively, place one of these large heads with your nose up on a plate after roasting in an oven for an hour, top with a fresh pesto, and sprinkle with cherry tomatoes drizzled in olive oil.


Grilled salmon

necklace with teriyaki lemon icing

Cooking small fish


For smaller species, the heads are perfectly suitable for broths and broths for soups and stews. These can be gently boiled with aromatics, herbs and wine, strained and added to give richness and body to liquids and braised sauces. Everyone knows that the secret to a mind-blowing clam chowder is a luxurious fish broth, and this is ground zero. Small heads may not be the sexy centerpieces that are their larger counterparts, but they can give depth and substance to curry and tomato-based sauces. Just consider the bones.

I like to think that taste speaks for itself. But we all know that this is not true. We eat with our eyes first, even if we are eating, well, the eyes first. So, I get it. Eating an animal’s head is not for the faint of heart, and it can challenge our most stubborn cultural predilections. It’s primitive, it’s raw, and the labyrinthine labyrinth of a fish’s skull doesn’t always lend itself to the width of a fork. But whether you’re a high school cheerleader or an experienced fisherman, fish heads are within easy reach. Make them count. Familiarizing yourself with the fish’s head means you can savor the forgotten inches of fresh seafood you might not otherwise be able to afford, or you can minimize the opportunity cost that looks at you from the pile of discarded fish heads, whether measured in money or minutes.

So whether you’re willing to make eye contact or prefer a good costume, remember that it’s all in your head, and so are the fish.

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White perch fish head broth

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