Cooking whole fish just feels more satisfying than fillets. Something about offering an entire fish with the head attached, whether it’s hanging over a fire on a willow stick or presented on a fancy plate with artsy sides, adds to the eating experience. Where I live, trout are the most abundant fish for table fare, but the standard method of heading and gutting just doesn’t work as well on trout as it does with small perch and panfish. Trout bodies are just a little too thick, often leading to overcooked exteriors and undercooked insides. I want the skin crisp, but not charred—the meat firm, but not dry.
Our good friend and renowned chef Jesse Griffiths showed us a simple solution to this problem: the reverse butterfly. This technique involves removing a fish’s spine so that the meat will lay flat and cook evenly.
Begin by gutting your fish as you would any other, slicing the belly from the vent (anus) to the throat. Remove the internal organs and scrape out the bloodline along the spine, then wipe the body cavity clean. Some people like to wash out the cavity, I prefer to scrape with the tip of the knife and wipe with a towel. Either is fine, just make sure to remove as much of the bloodline that runs along the top of the body cavity as you can.
Next, slice down through the fish’s collar to separate the body from the gills, cutting through the spine but no further. You can remove the head, but I prefer to keep it on for the sake of presentation. Then, with the fish laying on its back, make shallow incisions downward and inward through the ribs on either side of the spine. Follow these cuts back to the tail. At this point you should be able to lift the spine out of the body and cut it free at both ends.
Your trout will now lay out flat. You can cut away the pectoral fins and any miscellaneous bones and generally clean it up for cooking. I personally like to put butter and lemon wedges on my trout, cover them in foil, and grill them skin-side down on high heat until the exterior is crispy and the meat is nicely cooked.
Make sure to watch the latest episode of The Fur Hat Ice Tour as Ryan Callaghan and Miles Nolte go deep into the Montana backcountry in search of brook trout, burbot, and grayling.