Fillet or fish: picking the better bargain
The weekly grocery fliers arrived yesterday, and when I saw the QFC ad for ‘Fresh Wild Coho Salmon’ I was reminded of a frequent shopping dilemma: should I buy whole fish or fillets?
This week’s offering is $9.99 for the fillets, or $6.99 for the whole fish. I have no idea which price is the better deal. I know that most groceries and markets will fillet your whole fish for free, but once you get rid of head, tail, fins, skin, and bones, how much are you really paying per pound for the fish that remains?
Yesterday I went looking for the answer. Here’s what I found:
- According to the New York Times, “flat fish like gray sole can lose as much as two-thirds of their weight after they are filleted”.
- The food encyclopedia Practically Edible tells us that “when buying a whole fish, allow 1 pound per person (450g); when buying fillets [or steaks], allow 1/4 to 1/2 pound per person (110 to 225g).” From this we can infer 50-75% waste.
- Fannie Farmer’s 1918 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book includes a table titled ‘Composition of the Various Fish Used for Food’. The first column shows ‘Refuse’ in percents. Most whole fish contain between 40 and 55 percent waste, with a couple of outliers (including flounder, aka ‘sole’) in the low 60s.
So when you’re standing at the market wondering what to buy, a 1:2 ratio would make a good rule of thumb. This means that whole fish need to be half the price of pre-cut fillets or steaks to break even.
If you want to do advance calculations for a particular type of fish, the Fannie Farmer fish table will give you the most accurate answer. Salmon, to return to my initial example, typically has 39.2% waste. A 10-pound fish at $6.99/pound would cost (rounding) $70 and net me just over 6 edible pounds. Cost per pound, about $11.50 — not a bargain when pre-cut fillets are $9.99.
One other factor to note: fish stay fresh longer when they’re whole rather than cut. So all else being equal, go for the whole fish and have it cut on the spot.