Small fish: whole vs "whole"
March 13, 2013 8:13 AM   Subscribe

I'd been under the impression for many years that it was fine to cook and eat small (finger length-ish) fish whole; head, tail, AND guts. I can find a few articles on line supporting this, but they all use a different size standard, and there are virtually NO recipes I can find that suggest this practice. The recipes say they're for (e.g.) whole smelt, but the first step always involves gutting/cleaning them, which is a slightly different definition of whole than I thought.

I've found three articles, and they all use different sizes; one said 6 inches and under, one 4 inches and under, and one 2 inches and under. Pretty much every recipe I've found for whole fried small fish involves cleaning (so.. not exactly whole).

The questions are:

1) When is it okay to eat fish guts? Particular sizes, cooking method, both, other?
2) Why is it not okay to eat fish guts? (food poisoning obviously, but I'm curious as to the particular beasties)
posted by curious nu to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would wager that it depends on the kind of fish: what it eats, where it was caught and the various toxins that are or aren't in its environment.
posted by gjc at 8:21 AM on March 13, 2013

One of the issues with fish guts is bile. A larger fish will produce not insignificant amounts of bile, and bile is extremely bitter. You want a fish that's small enough so that the taste of bile is not noticeable. Smelt-sized or sardine-sized (finger-sized and smaller) fish is probably the largest that qualifies under this criterion, although I imagine some fish may produce more bile than others. But you'll notice, for instance, that sardines are canned with bones and guts and all, and there's no real problem. What cooking methods can you use? Anything that renders the fish edible. I'm sure frying works wonderfully, and I've had small, whole fish pickled herring-style. I wonder where you plan to buy fish this size, since it's not the sort of thing that's sold in most supermarkets.
posted by Nomyte at 8:27 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've had them whole along the Mediterranean many times, complete with guts. The only way I've ever seen them served is fried, although I'm not sure if that is for safety concerns or just because they taste better that way. In English, the magic recipe word you want is whitebait. I was taught by a little old French lady that you have to throw away any of the fish where the bellies are open, because that either led to bacteria or was an indication of bacteria (neither of us was that brilliant in the other's language).
posted by Lame_username at 8:29 AM on March 13, 2013

I've seen whole fish served fried. Then I pick off the yummy parts, leaving the guts, tail, fins, head, etc. I've seen this in Korea and Mexico. YMMV
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:33 AM on March 13, 2013

Sure - like pinky sized or smaller fish? Eat'em whole. Bigger than that - like sardines and bigger - you probably don't want to eat the spine and depending on your tolerance for fish guts you might want to eat around the guts. As an effete American I veer towards leaving the heads on, but gutting sardines - and I usually eat them with a knife and fork.
posted by JPD at 8:41 AM on March 13, 2013

Fish guts just don't tend to taste very good. They're bitter and gritty. It doesn't take long to slit, slice, and scoop away the guts, so most folks do this bare minimum cleaning for an otherwise whole fish, even those that are no more than a finger-length.
posted by batmonkey at 8:54 AM on March 13, 2013

I've always assumed guts were removed from whole fish because they will make the fish spoil much more quickly. As above, if the fish is split open and the guts hadn't been removed, the guts exploded out of the body of the fish. It happens pretty fast especially in warm weather. I'd want my fish super super fresh before thinking of eating fish with guts.
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:18 AM on March 13, 2013

We buy and cook smelt. Up to 4-5" you can eat them bones and all without hassle. However, your fishmonger should have gutted them for you...
posted by SpicyMustard at 9:48 AM on March 13, 2013

I'd always thought that this was no more than a cultural thing.. That is, as others have said, the fish guts can be very bitter and that taste can easily spread to make the whole sardine bitter.

I say cultural because we are regulars at the June Sardine festival in Lisbon, Portugal. This means that all along the streets you sit at small tables and eat freshly grilled sardines. You can see from my picture here that they are quite large, each about the length of my hand. These guys are salted and thrown whole onto the grill. No gutting occurs.

Again, I say cultural because I also notice many recipes telling you to cut off the heads too, for no reason at all. Also, my mother-in-law prefers the guts. I've become an expert at filleting my grilled fish very quickly and separating out the guts - which I then hand to her to enjoy as a gift.

As hydrobatides says, this is the part of the fish that can spoil the fastest. When we've bought whole sardines from supermarkets, we've had them gutted or gutted them ourselves. We're not great gutters to there is some residual bitter taste in that area but thats all.
posted by vacapinta at 9:49 AM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I fry up a bunch of smelt often. Always purchased frozen, after thawing I cut off their heads, just aft of their gills. For the larger ones, after cooking, I may first extract and discard the spine. My Chinese friend fries em up whole, but she bites off the tip of their heads and the rest of the body, leaving behind the whole gill section - she says that's the bad part. I think our different eating methods are cultural, that Americans don't like eating eyes.
posted by Rash at 10:29 AM on March 13, 2013

I remember in one of Jacques Pepin's cookbooks he talked about catching whitebait in France for frying. They looked to be about an inch or so and he said they would simply squeeze the guts out very quicky, like a toothpaste tube. I don't think it was necessarily for safety, though.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 12:40 PM on March 13, 2013

O my god vacapinta those sardines look delicious
posted by glasseyes at 5:30 PM on March 13, 2013

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