Bowl of Fish Pieces Making Fish Stock

Seafood soups can be very flavorful and well accepted, both at dinner and as buffet party dishes. They are not made often because of the inconvenience of making the fish stock upon which they are based. This page will show you how to make fish stock well ahead, when convenient, and have it on hand when you want to make a seafood soup.

Fish stock is made from the off-cuts when you prepare whole fish for recipes. It may also include other seafood, mainly shrimp shells and/or shrimp heads. Most recipes also include vegetables, herbs and spices, but I make mine plain because I usually don't know in advance what I will use the stock for. Those additional flavorings are easily added when the stock is used.


Serving Pots:   Of course you need pots - in various sizes. Keep in mind that a pot that's a bit too big is a minor annoyance - a pot that is too small is a disaster. I prefer light weight stainless pots with a thick multi-ply bottom, like the one in the photo. The thick bottom isn't needed for stock, but I can use the same pot for soup, where the thick bottom is often very desirable, especially if there is barley in the soup.

Cleaver & Mallet Cleaver Knife, Mallet & Kitchen Shears:   These items have already been shown on the page Cleaning & Filleting Round Fish, but are also used here. mainly for cutting up skeletons and fish heads. This set includes a razor sharp Chinese Cleaver Knife, a Soft Faced Mallet and Kitchen Shears. These tools are also very useful for many non-fish tasks in the kitchen.

strainer etc. Strainer, Skimmer & Ladle:   These are all standard kitchen tools with many non-fish uses. The flat skimmer is used to skim off scum as it rises, just as the pot comes to a boil. The strainer is used to separate the solids (discarded) from the liquid, and the ladle for moving sock from pot to jar (it's hard to pour directly if the pot is quite full).

bowl Deep Bowl:   Again, standard kitchen equipment unrelated to fish. You need this in the sink under the strainer when you strain the solids out of the stock (otherwise the stock will just pour down the drain, duhh!). Let the stock sit for awhile in the bowl so small solids sink to the bottom and fat rises to the top before pouring into the separator. Of course, a pot could also be used for this.

separator Gravy Separator:   This is one of the greatest kitchen tools ever invented. Yes, you can use it to degrease gravy, but mine is used far and away more often for defatting soup stock. No, you can't get as clean a stock skimming, only by taking an extra day to refrigerate the stock - unacceptable. Shown is the Oxo 4 cup, which features a rubber plug to help keep fat out of the spout. That blue strainer it comes with is worthless - the holes are too big and it's capacity is too small. You can safely toss it.

The only deficiency of this device is the lack of any tool for cleaning the inside of the spout - and I'm pretty fussy about that sort of thing. I purchased a cheap bulb baster which came with a cleaning brush that works just fine in the spout.

Wet the plug and put it in before filling the separator. Let it sit for a bit for the fat to rise to the top, then pull the plug and decant about 2/3 of the contents. Replug and refill. Let sit, then decant again. For the last batch, pour slowly, watching the spout. Tilt up to stop flow the moment you see a bubble of fat enter the spout. Store the plug inside the bowl, not stuck in the spout, or it eventually won't seal well.

jar Jars:   I keep various sizes of jars for storing soup stock, most with the 3 inch opening, but some smaller ones as well. The photo shows a 4 cup, but 3 cup, 2 cup and 5 cup versions are also available for this size lid. I prefer lids with a safety dimple (barely visible in the photo) so I can be certain the seal is good. I wash my jars and lids well with a disinfecting cleanser.

Jars from most commercial canned goods, such as sauerkraut, pickles and the like are made of heat resistant glass and will not crack when hot stock is poured in, though I give the stock a couple of minutes to cool below boiling. The only time I remember a cracked jar was some years back with an old Clausen's sauerkraut jar (but the stock was saved - it just cracked, and any glass chips would quickly sink to the bottom anyway).

Bowl of fish pieces
Fish Pieces

Separating the Collar
Separate the Collar

Cutting off Lower Jaw
Cut off the Jaw

Split the Head

Making Fish Stock

  1. Buy Whole Fish:   These should be fish suitable for fish stock. You will find recommendations in the "Details and Cooking" pages for individual types of fish. These pages are accessible from our Varieties of Fish page (very large page). In general, these fish will be light to medium flavor and color with low oil content. Avoid dark oily fish such as mackerel, tuna, bonito, etc.

  2. Collect Ingredients:   Set aside all your fish pieces as you fillet the fish. Keep them well chilled while you work. You should include Heads (with gills removed), Skeleton, any miscellaneous Bones and Meat, and Fins. DO NOT include skins unless the "Details and Cooking" page for that particular fish says they are OK. These pages are accessible from our Varieties of Fish page (very large page).

    You can also include shrimp shells and/or heads, and if you will be including vegetables, herbs and spices, they should also be prepared at this time for inclusion - generally chopped small. I don't include vegetables and herbs at this time, giving me more flexibility when I use the stock - these flavorings are easy to include at time of use, which may be months later.

  3. Cut up the Heads:   Refer to the photos at the left.

    • Make a cut with your kitchen shears right under the front of the jaw to free the collar. Bend it back and use the shears to cut it free from the back of the head. Cut it into two halves.
    • Starting with the point of the shears in the mouth, cut the lower jaw away from the head on both sides.
    • Set the head upright and facing you with an accusing gaze. Place the edge of your sharp Chinese Cleaver knife right along the center of the head, between the eyes. Drive it through the head with a soft faced mallet. Don't worry about brains splattering all over - fish are not exactly intellectual giants - they hardly have any brains.

  4. Fill the Pot:   Put all ingredients in a pot, fish parts, shrimp shells / heads if used, and vegetables if used. Pour in cold water to cover the ingredients well. Bring to a boil uncovered (otherwise it may foam over).

  5. Skim:   As the pot starts to boil, use the flat skimmer to remove any foamy sludge that rises. Some fish will produce a lot of sludge and some will produce almost none.

  6. Simmer:   As soon as the pot is boiling, put it over low flame and simmer slowly for about 40 minutes - at least 30 and less than 50 minutes.

  7. Strain:   Arrange the wire strainer over the deep bowl and pour the contents of the pot through the strainer. Discard all solids.

  8. Stand:   Let the bowl stand quietly for awhile so the small solids sink to the bottom and the oil rises to the top.

  9. Defat:   Using your gravy separator as described in the "Equipment" section, remove the oil, and leave the small solids in the bottom of the bowl.

  10. Jar:   Bring the stock to a boil, stand covered about 2 minutes, then pour into jars as described above. Let cool thoroughly and refrigerate until needed.

The Storage Problem

Fish stock is highly perishable, and keeps in the refrigerated for only a few days. Many suggest pouring stock into ice cube trays, freezing, then bagging the cubes for future use. Problem: the packing density of cubes is very poor, and your freezer compartment is probably already full.

Solution:   Here's what I do now, and it works really well, at least for me.

How long will this stock keep in the refrigerator? I don't know, I discard any that is approaching a year old - haven't encountered a bad jar yet (one sniff would tell you if it was bad). Of course, if you find a jar where the lid isn't sucked down tight and has some spring to it, it should be discarded.

When you use some, you pry up the edge of the lid to break the seal so you can get the lid off easily (I use an antique Lucky Lager church key (most church keys sold today are too thick), but some recommend the pointy end of a spoon. If you have some left it must be used within a few days or reboiled and stored in a smaller jar.

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