[order Rajiformes (skates & Rays): family Rajidae (skates) Dasyatidae (stingrays) and others. Alternate: order Rajiformes (skates), Myliobatiformes (Rays)]
Skates and Rays are members of the shark family that have pectoral fins so exaggerated they are called "wings". This allows them to lie flat on the ocean floor and disappear into the sand. They eat mainly crustaceans and other invertebrates they find on the ocean floor, but occasionally take small fish. While most people in North America never encounter skate on their dinner plate, it is served in areas like New England that have a strong fishing and seafood tradition, and is popular in France. Photo of Little Skate (Leucoraja erinacea) by Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory contributed to the public domain.
More on Skates and Rays.
Skate flesh is quite mild, but slightly more gelatinous than that of regular fish. It cooks very quickly and if overcooked breaks up along the corrugations.
Buying: The key to successful skate wing cooking is for the wings to be very fresh. Since they're cut from the skate you don't have the usual methods to judge freshness, but smell will do. If it smells at all like household ammonia it is not fresh and should be rejected. Skate wing is fairly common in the larger Asian markets here in Southern California, and may be found near fishing ports in other regions of North America. Skates are generally by-catch when fishing for other kinds of fish.
Storing: Because freshness is a big issue, you want to keep skate wings as cold as possible and use them as soon as possible - like immediately. If you must hold them, skin and fillet them and freeze the fillets.
Refresh: Skate wings that smell of ammonia will taste like ammonia. If the smell is strong, toss them out or suffer the consequences - it won't taste good and the dead fish odor may hang around for days. If you've got wings with just a hint of ammonia smell you can refresh them. Skin them, bone them and prepare them ready to cook, then soak the pieces in strongly acidulated cold water for half an hour. Preferably acidulate with citric acid (1 T to 2 quarts water). Ammonia is alkaline and will be neutralized by the acid. The pieces of skate should now have a light fish smell and be much more edible.
Yield: Skate wing is generally sold in triangles weighting from 1 to 2 pounds. These triangles are half a wing, so there would be four from a skate.
Exact yield depends a little on how the wing was cut. The photo
specimen was cut with a ridge of cartilage at the root, so one cut without
that ridge would yield a little more. The photo specimen, a 1 pound 8-3/8
ounce wing, yielded a thick side filet of 11-1/2 ounces (47%). Counting
the thin side fillet which weighed 3-1/4 ounces that would be 14-3/4
ounces (61%). The cut sides were 9-1/2 and 10-1/2 inches, so the whole
skate was at least 24 inches from wing tip to wing tip.
Skinning: Skate skin must be removed. It's basically shark skin and shark skin is gritty with scales that are built more like teeth than like regular fish scales. They don't scrape off. Male skates may also have some sharp spines out on the wings.
Lay out your wing on the cutting board, thick side up. Pry up a corner of the skin at the thick corner and carefully scrape flesh away from the skin until the skin pulls clean without taking any flesh. The skin will now pull off, but takes some strength and it's slippery, so grasp it with your long nose pliers and pull right off the thin edge. If you'll be using the cartilage and/or the thin side meat, skin the thin side too.
Update: I've found, by buying some, and reading on-line
pages, that some skates don't skin nicely and cleanly like the photo to
the left. A thin skin pulls off, but leaves a white layer of connective
tissue (silver skin) over the meat rather than pulling it off.
Experienced chefs say this should be removed, but this layer is rather
difficult to remove once the skin is pulled. Skate wings of this
sort take more skill and patience than the ones described above. I will
have photos and better instructions soon, but in the mean time, this is
the best way I've found for handling this.
Filleting: You will now be able to filet the thick side from the cartilage fin rays quite easily and with practically no flesh left behind. Keep your knife at a very shallow angle to avoid cutting into the cartilage which is quite soft. Note: not all recipes require filleting. Skate may be grilled with the fin rays in and for some recipes you flake the meat off the rays after poaching.
Depending on the size of your wing, the thin side may have enough flesh to be useful and can be filleted just like the thick side, though you'll run out of flesh about 2/3 the way across so the fillet will be smaller and a lot thinner than from the thick side.
Stock: The cartilage structure and offcuts, simmered for
a few hours (unlike regular fish stock which should be no more than 40
minutes) makes a fairly mild stock with no oil whatever. Let it settle a
while before decanting. This should work well blended with other fish
Most recipes for skate call for it to be pan fried, though some call for poaching. In either case, keep in mind that the skate filet is not only thin but it's deeply grooved, which allows fast heat penetration. Take care not to overcook, particularly when poaching or your fillet may fall apart on the corrugations. The photo shows a filet pan fried without batter on a bed of vegetables (onion, fennel, red bell and some fish stock). Skate wing with capers is very popular and a recipe for that will be found in the CloveGarden recipe pages.
You can grill skate wings leaving the fin rays in and serve it that way. Use a rub or sauce suitable for grilled fish. Hearty eaters may eat it rays and all (depending on size), though the finicky may flake the meat off.
Note that you'll want to serve skate wings corrugated side up (the
skin side), so you'll want to fry that side first. When you turn the fillet
over with the cut side down it will curl some toward that side. This will
tend to emphasize the corrugations.