Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Would you like some scales with your fish?

I don't send stuff back in restaurants, I rarely return anything I buy, and in general I hate to complain about bad service. If something's not to my liking, I go elsewhere next time. So why am I writing this letter to Whole Foods? Because I think it's wrong for them to sell unscaled fish. Sure I can go somewhere else (hey, let's face it -- I usually do), but I know lots of people who only buy fish at Whole Foods and don't know how to scale fish. With any other store, I would just let it go, but I have hope that Whole Foods will not ignore my feedback and will try to fix the problem. Am I overly optimistic? Maybe. I'll let you know if I ever hear back from them.

* * *

Dear Whole Foods,

I have been a loyal customer of the fish departments in several of your Boston area stores for over 5 years. Although the quality of the fish is consistently high, I find that the care in preparation of the fish for cooking has declined in the last few years. I can’t count the number of times I unwrapped my fillet and found it unscaled.

This happened again last week when I bought a beautiful fillet of striped bass. As I rubbed it with salt and pepper, I realized that the scales were still on. I turned off the heat under my pan, rolled up my sleeves, and attempted to scale this poor fillet the best I could. I was frustrated not only because my dinner got delayed, but also because scaling fish after it is filleted is not particularly easy (since there is no tail to grab onto).

Unscaled fillets are not the only problem I’ve encountered. Asking for help from the fish department in scaling and gutting a whole fish is also a gamble. Several times, I brought a whole fish home that was poorly scaled, or had pieces of guts and gills still left in.

While this is a nuisance for me, it is a real turn off for cooks who are less experienced with fish. Many people don’t cook fish on regular basis. If they try to cook salmon or striped bass with the skin as their recipe suggests, they will end up with a plate full of scales and are likely to never try this fish again, or conclude that they should discard its skin (not only the most delicious, but most nutritional part of many fish).

I hope you can address this problem. Many cooks count on you not only to sell high quality products, but also introduce them to new foods, and educate them about cooking techniques. Providing properly cleaned fish can encourage people to cook it more often and to try new fish without worrying about what obstacles they might encounter before putting it in the pan.

Sincerely yours,

Helen M. Rennie


stephen said...

Hey Helen..I'm with you...I've bought several whole fish and fillets from supermarket fish departments lately and found scales when I got them I've learned to always ask after the fish has been weighed if it has been scaled...and to wait patiently while the job is done, if the answer is no...they never refuse to do it, but it seems to be something that while once part of normal service now is something you have to request...another reason to buy fish at fish markets, where I have yet to have this problem...

Helen said...

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for the tip to ask them about it. I'll try to remember next time. I just find it rediculous that they don't scale fish BEFORE filleting it. It's so much easier to do when you have a whole fish. My main concern is that many people don't realize they should check if fillets have been scaled, or they don't know what to do about the scales besides throw away the whole skin. Maybe if enough consumers complain about it, they'll finally start scaling ;)


Paz said...

Good idea to write them. At least, now, they can't say that no one ever complained about it. Hopefully, they'll do something about it.

So far, I haven't had this problem. Makes me nervous. To be on the safe side, I'll have to start asking whether the fish has been scaled from now on.


Gia-Gina said...

Helen, I could not disagree with you more. I enjoy buying a whole fish. The idea of the fish being scaled and pre-prepared is not what I consider a "Whole Food". If you want just a fillet why not buy it without the skin. Here in Italy I often buy whole fish and fillets and have them scale it for me. But most of the time they just clean it out. I've never had any problems at all.

Helen said...

Hi Gia-Gina,

Buying fish in Italy must be really wonderful :)

Let me clarify my post. "Whole Foods" is a chain of supermarkets in US. It doesn't mean that they sell all food whole. Their name is a reference to them offering mostly organic products that haven't been over-processed. I do enjoy buying whole fish too, but often I just need a fillet. Many fish that we get on the east coast of US are too large to cook whole (at least if you only have 2 people). Salmon, striped bass, bluefish, etc. -- all of them have delicious skin, but are normally sold already filleted, so buying them whole and cleaning them yourself is not even an option.

How does it work in Italy? If you buy a fillet with skin, is it already scaled?


Alanna said...

I hope your sincerity gets attention -- and if it does, I might be able to buy fish only 5 miles away rather than 10!

Elise said...

Hi Helen,
We too have bought fish at WF - large salmon fillets - only to get home and realize that they weren't scaled. What a pain! The quality of the fish is usually very good, and the prices high enough, so one would expect that this would be taken care of.

Helen said...

Hi Elise,

I guess this happens not only in Boston. Whole Foods does not fillet their own fish, so it could be a problem with their seafood supplier. But it would be nice if Whole Foods brought it up instead of passing this problem to their consumers.


Amy said...

Are you sending it to corporate? Or to individual store managers? Just wondering if there would be a difference in attention.

If you ever get to Austin, let me know, I'll introduce you to my favorite fishmonger at Central Market. The BEST!

Helen said...

Hi Amy,

So far, I only sent it to the two Whole Foods where I shop. But your idea of sending it to their main office is a great one! I'll do that too. If I am ever in Austin, I'll make sure to let you know :) Central Market looks great!


McAuliflower said...

so, am I the only one who was confused at unscaled = scaled? :)

Helen said...

Hi Mcauliflower,

Hmm, it is kind of backwards, isn't it?

To "scale" fish means to remove it's scales. So scaled fish is fish without scales (that's how you want to cook it). I am not sure if "unscaled" is technically a word in English. I guess I kinded of made it up to mean the opposite of "scaled" :)


Valyn said...

Whole Foods' preparation of all meats has generally declined, I think. I now buy whole skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts or whole chickens and butcher them myself rather than buy their butchered (in every sense of the word) chicken pieces. I've also found that the nice people behind the meat counter are generally clerks, not butchers and can offer no help at all on specific questions. Good for you!

Gia-Gina said...

I used to shop all the time at the Whole Foods in Seattle and so know about their store and their products. I don't know of many good fishmongers and I used to frequent Central Market, Mutual Fish and the famous Pike Place Market who automatically scale the fish for you. Maybe b/c then the flesh would be in contact with ice etc... and thus might cause a problem.

Also most folks do not eat fish skin and having the scales on something that you don't eat is not too much a problem for me. Esp. in the summer when the BBQ is going, I find that the scales on the fish keep the skin firm and prevents it from tearing as easily when I try to turn the fillets.

Oh well, to each his own. In Italy, the scales are usually on all cuts of fish unless you ask them to scale it for you.

Anonymous said...

Whole Foods is great for doing this type of thing, i actually witnessed three employees, after store closing, all customers gone, take out the big bins of recycle items, (like the ones i bring in, plastic bags, etc} and throw them oin the dumpsters. Good for you whole foods, our enviroment is so much better now due to your overpriced earth friendly processes. what a joke, !!!

Anonymous said...

We just bought a salmon fillet from Whole Foods on River St. in Cambridge and realized when we got home that it hadn't been scaled. I called the fish department to find out if they scale their fish and they said no. So I went online to find out if fish scales are edible and I found your website and your comment about whole foods and it made me laugh. They really should offer to scale fish with the prices they charge. And I was surprised to hear that they never carry Walleye when the Whole Foods in Boulder, CO frequently does.
So, can you eat fish scales if its fried skin-side down?
Thanks very much,
Theresa and Russell

Helen said...

Hi Theresa and Russel,

Sure you can eat fish scales, but they taste really awful. In other words, it's not a health hazard, but from the gastronomic point of view, it's not recommended.


Ted said...

Actually, Salmon scales are ok to eat and are palatable. Salmon is rarely scaled. This would explain why so many of you have run across this issue. You may not have noticed it on smaller cuts of salmon before. Delicately scaled fish do not need scaling... simple as that.

Helen said...

Hi Ted,

You are absolutely right that salmon scales are pretty small and are not gonna kill anyone :) But there is a difference between palatable and tasty. I know that some people don't scale small scale fish. But the good fish markets always do. They even scale sardines. I've never been to a fine restaurant that served seared salmon with scales. If the skin is crisped and intended for diner's consumption, it's scaled.


Anonymous said...

Scales are edible, yes, and quite good for you in some cases. However, the skin/scales/fat are also the main part you'll find the mercury and other undesirable chemicals from the water the fish lives in.

Just ask them to scale it for you. It's not their job to know your preference. Far easier to ask for it to be scaled than to ask them to put it back on, no?

hotarunomori said...

Wow; same situation. I bought salmon fillets from Whole Foods (which I suppose do not scale their fish) and was surprised to find the scales on when I went to prepare it. I fried it skin side down, which helped immensely, but I was worried about the edibility of the scales. Found your blog. I think I've just found a great new site to read, and from now on, I will ask Whole Food to scale my fish!

Also found a problem with not boning fillets; has this been a problem for you?

Helen said...

Hi hotarunomori,

Yes poor boning of fillets has been an issue for me too.


Stuff for us said...

You guys are funny. Fresh fish are always sold with scales on. You ask the fish monger to remove them and gut them when you order. If you fail to ask for both, you get a gutten fish. Besides, grilling fish with its scales on leaves it lovely and moist. Apparently, you haven't had a lot of fresh fish.

fishmonger said...

As a fishmonger we sell a couple tons of filleted salmon a month. It is not scaled!

To my knowledge non of our customers scale the salmon. The scales are tiny and like soft sardine bones are eaten by most.

I'll guarantee you 99% of people are eating it without knowing there are any scales on it. I'll also guarantee you've eaten plenty of salmon in restaurants and never knew it had scales.

This is a storm in a teacup. Nobody wants to chomp on a piece of fish with stiff scales but salmon is just not like that.

Helen said...

Hi there fishmonger,

99% of people don't eat fish skin, that's why most people don't mind unscaled fillets. Maybe some salmon types have small enough scales that they don't need to be removed, but whenever I've dealt with unscaled salmon I found the scales to be offensive.


fishmonger said...

Hi Helen,

I'm not in the U.S. so perhaps it's a North American thing.

We prepare (cut, portion and vac pac) seafood and meat for homes. We also skin the fish for anyone that requests it. Without exaggeration we may get one request for salmon with the skin removed for every 500 to 1,000 orders we receive. We get perhaps 2 or 3 requests per month and I suspect it's the same person asking each time.

The reason I found my way to your blog was we had a customer asking that her salmon to be scaled. It struck me as being a very odd request. With any other type of fish we do this automatically. Just never seemed to be an issue with salmon.

Just my 2 cents worth.

Anonymous said...

Just a bit of clarification on salmon. Salmon caught in the ocean have rather large scales, as Helen may have purchased. Once they head inland for spawning, they undergo physical changes which include the resorption of their scales. This reuse of calcium contributes to changes like new teeth and pronounced humpback, and in females, the maturity of their eggs. By the time they reach their spawning grounds, their scales are very minute.

Anonymous said...


However... by the time they reach their spawning grounds, you would not want to eat the flesh.

They are still quite tasty, if caught at a location about halfway there, though.

Dave said...

Fillet of chicken doesn't have feathers--fillet of salmon/fish shouldn't have scales. It's that simple.

Pia said...

I found my way to this site by googling whether or not scales are edible.

I live in Sweden currently and I went to the fish monger and bought a whole side of salmon. I have cooked skin-on salmon before and love the crispy skin (sans scales). I asked the fish monger if he would scale the fish. He offered to remove the skin, but would not just remove the scales. I thought that was odd because I assumed this would be a service offered by any fish monger. They have the facilities and anyone who has scaled a fish knows how messy it can be. I could see them not doing it automatically but by request..?

So when I got home, I got busy scaling my salmon before cutting into portions. What a mess! Scales everywhere and they were not small at all. They were each larger than a hole paper punch-out (maybe a centimeter across?) if I can use that as an example and very stiff.

Needless to say I am thankful I know how to scale fish.

On another note, I agree with the poster that mentioned BBQ salmon. When I BBQ fish I always leave the scales on for protection but I would never dream of eating the skin!

Jacob said...

I know I am a bit late on this post, about six years... lol

However, I simply can not disagree with your complaint more. The idea behind buying fresh fish is the fact that it is fresh... In fact, in the last ten years of buying fish I have yet to buy a piece of fresh salmon that has been scaled, and I would not have it any other way.

Leaving the scales on the fish is perfectly fine, they are indeed edible and add a wonderful crispy texture to the skin of the fish once they are cooked. Not to mention it allows you the option of leaving the scales on or taking the two minutes it takes to descale the fillet.

I simply do not understand the idea behind having your options taken away from you, would you buy a ribeye steak that has been de-fatted? The idea of having the fillets descaled prior to sale is also financially illogical, the processing plant would then need to have two different packaging lines in order to accommodate the small percentage that does not want the scales on their fresh fish.

If you could go into further detail regarding the need for such a request it would be greatly appreciated, as I am a very open minded person and do enjoy understanding every perspective possible.

Thank you,


Helen said...

Hi Jacob,

Scales are a personal preference. If you like to eat them, that's great. They are not harmful in any way. But majority of the population doesn't lime them. Any decent restaurant that serves salmon with skin is serving it scaled. The reason I don't want the option of scaling a fillet myself is that it's difficult (and almost impossible) to do it well after the fish was filleted. You no longer have a scale to hold onto. About the scales making the fish "fresher." You can make this argument if the fish is whole, but once it's filleted and its flesh is exposed to air, scales are not going to help :)


Jacob said...

I apologize if my post was misleading in some way, I was not making the claim that the scales make the fish 'fresher' in any way, just that the idea of fresh Salmon is to have it as close to coming out of the water as possible, and adding the step of descaling is just putting more distance between the Salmon in the water and the Salmon in my mouth.

Another reason behind leaving the scales on during processing is the cost. From a business perspective it is not financially reasonable to have two separate processing lines to accommodate the small percentage that have an issue with descaling their Salmon (Or any other fish). Those resources could otherwise be put to good use on things like Salmon research, as we are truly harvesting ourselves out of Salmon at a rapid pace. Not that the processing plants are going to apply the extra resources to such an endeavor, the idea that having separate processing lines to prevent that small percentage from having to clean their fish is mostly unreasonable, given the relative ease of the process at home (Next point).

My final thought is the fact that it takes very little effort to descale a fillet of Salmon, and of the many varieties I have descaled, I have found that it takes less than two minutes to complete, even on a full size fillet. Using a spoon and simply scraping against the grain of the fish is quite a simple method to remove any scales.

Perhaps I have a little bit of a bias regarding the process of descaling, as I am from Minnesota and I was taught to descale and fillet larger fresh water fish such as Walleye, Bass and Northern Pike, as well as some of the smaller varieties like Bluegill, Sunfish and Crappie, which are far more difficult to descale than any Salmon I have experienced.

Either way, with a firm grip and a normal spoon, I find the process of descaling fresh fish, for some reason, to be quite enjoyable, though it is something that I rarely do.

I have seen many people that attempt to descale fresh Salmon with a sharp knife, but that is absolutely the worst method available, as a knife is simply too sharp, and due to the fact that it penetrates further into the skin/flesh ends up making the process more difficult and sometimes painful on the wrists, as it does require extra effort to move the sharp knife along the flesh. A spoon on the other hand does a fantastic job, as it simply slides under the scales and lifts them off the surface of the fish, as opposed to trying to cut them out.

Again, I am just trying to help be a bit more informative and to learn from the wide gamut of human experience available on the web. I do truly appreciate your input and perspective, as strange as it may sound regarding the topic.

Hopefully I am able to impart a bit of knowledge as well, and I do hope that you can come to love the scales on a fresh, delicious piece of Salmon as I have!! :) Happy descaling!


Thomas said...

I have a salmon allergy, so I can't speak to the experience of scales on that particular fish. I shop at Whole Foods whenever I have a little extra disposable income and want something higher quality. For a cut to be defined in culinary terms as a fillet, all bones and exterior protective covering should be removed. Otherwise, it is not a fillet and should not be sold as such. Thus, the bones as well as feathers, hide, and scales should be removed. Because the skin of the fish holds the meat together and is edible, it remains. Moreover, if one is paying double or triple per pound for a fish, then that should come from a supplier who can spare the thirty seconds necessary to scale the fish prior to cutting and trimming. Or, the fish should arrive whole to the store and be prepared on site. You are paying for the quality, but also for the service. This is why fillets are more expensive per pound. So, to cut to the chase: You're right to expect this Helen, and I would have written the letter too :)

Anonymous said...

Dear all, I am an Asian and grown up seeing fish sellers scaling fish. It is not that hard at all ;) Use the back of a small knife and scrap the skin in the opposite direction of how the scales grow. they will come off easily. It is gonna be messy but it is a no-brainer.

Helen Rennie said...

it's only easy when you have a whole fish and have a tail to hold it by. on a fillet, it's not that easy :)

Martin said...

It's not so hard, even with a small fillet, which is what I descaled the other day. I do have a fish scaling tool now, but before I used to use a fruit or steak knife with a serrated edge. The only slightly trickier part is at the edges of the fillet, but you just need to support the flesh with your hand/a chopping board so that it provides enough resistance to push against. It does make a mess though!

I always take the scales off, but I have eaten the scales in the context of fish fried/barbecued by others, which seemed to make the scales more brittle and crunchy rather than the plasticky "I have to spit this out" feel you'd get from microwaving/steaming.

Anonymous said...

Thomas you are absolutely correct. A filet mignon requires no tools (specialized or primitive) to get it ready to cook. I think fish markets that do not want to scale a fish is just plain lazy or seeing the little things as money in the register. Fish scales are light but they still weigh in and at $12 + per pound it can add up. Scaling a filet is messy and difficult to do a good job.

Anonymous said...

The comparison of unscaled fish to cuts of meat here, like a ribeye or filet is ridiculous. Those cuts do not come right off the cow that way and in butchering almost any cut of meat, you remove grisle, membrane and silver skin. Much in the same manner as you would fabricate a fish by gutting it, DE SCALING it, and removing belly fat before you cut it into ready to fire portions. As a chef I have NEVER seen served or seen another chef serve fish with the scales still on it. And with the work involved yeilding and portioning individual filets to sell to the general public, it only makes sense to descale a fish within that process. Proper scaling takes place while the whole side of a fish is intact. it is easier and also safer and less messy. I am very disappointed to hear that Whole Foods disregards this simple step especially here in the states and with fish they sell to the general public, most of who lack the culinary prowess to butcher their own proteins.

Anonymous said...

Unlike most of the commenters, I purchased my fillet of Salmon from Shop Rite Market in Philadelphia. I like eating the skin and was offended by the scales being left on the fish. I bake it in the oven with spices, lemon juice, and butter and it wasn't until the fish was cooked that I realized, it was covered with scales. My piece of fish was cut from a larger fillet that I feel should have been scaled prior to filleting it. The scales are thin enough to get between the teeth and gums and cause an abcess like the husk from popcorn which by the way happened to me lately. The person behind the counter should let you know. When I buy whole fish they ask.

John said...

I am so glad I'm not alone with his issue. I have been buying filets all my life and I think this is a lazy trend that just happened to me today! I do not want to scale a small fillet as it ended up tearing the fish and scales were all over my kitchen! I searched the web and found this post and now I feel somewhat better although my frustration has not subsided.

Anonymous said...

I'm having the same problem at Harris Teeter and even a small market around here. They all sell fish fillets and when I get them home, I have to spend a lot of time scaling those. This never used to happen. HT told me just to ask if I wanted them to scale the fillet, but the last time I asked the woman behind the counter, she said "we don't do that." What? That's like saying "we don't pluck our chickens, we sell them with the feather on!"

Vivian Weaver said...

Salmon doesn't need to be scaled, the scales are very thin. It is common practicing in the seafood industry not to scale salmon, it's just not necessary. Also as they cook they tend to cook away too so salmon scales shouldn't really be an issue.

Keith said...

Came upon this blog by chance. What irritates me about this, is Helen's continual harping about, "Any decent restaurant that serves salmon with skin is serving it scaled.".

That's because they take the time to scale it in the kitchen before they cook it. I can scale a fillet in under 2 mins. So, I don't see what the problem is there. You don't want a mess? Scale it under a few sheets of clear plastic wrap to keep the scales from flying all over the place.

If you're not willing to to either or both. But, the pre-packaged, vacuum sealed stuff that is guaranteed "ready to cook (once unfrozen)".