Finfish Product Forms

Finfish Product Forms
At J.J. McDonnell our goal is to secure the freshest products direct from the source.
We offer a wide selection of fresh and frozen seafood and fish.
Below is the most common forms for Finfish

Whole Fish: The Key to Quality

DEFINITION: “Round fish” or fish “in the round,” with head, viscera, tail, etc. still intact. Among many fish offered whole are shark, tuna, swordfish, salmon, tilapia, red snapper, trout, mackerel, striped bass, ocean perch and black sea bass.


Cost. Whole fish is normally the least expensive form of seafood, if it can be carefully processed and fully utilized — as fillets, steaks, loins, even soup stock. (A word of advice: Learn species-specific yields for the various cuts from whole fish before you make your purchase, or you may wind up paying more than you expected for an “inexpensive” product. Suppliers should be able to provide you with information on yields.)

Quality. A whole fish affords an unequaled opportunity to assess the quality of the product, since key indicators — eyes, gills and scales — are still present.


Deterioration. Head, gills and viscera provide a source of bacterial and enzymatic contamination, so process whole fish quickly. Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are especially susceptible to rancidity if not stored properly or processed promptly.

Expense. Processing whole fish can be expensive, unless you have uses or markets for every part of the fish.

Waste. Disposing of unused or unwanted parts can present problems.


  • Fish should have a bright, shiny appearance and little or no aroma. Dull-colored skin suggests deterioration. 
  • Eyes should be bright and full, with black pupils and clear corneas. Clouded, sunken gray or pinkish eyes can indicate a lack of freshness.
  • Scales should be firmly attached, and gills should be red and free of slime, an indication that oxygen is present and that the fish is very fresh. 
  • Flesh should be firm and elastic to the touch. Check belly for swelling and gas; deterioration will rapidly spread to the flesh.

H&G (Headed & Gutted): An Economical Option

DEFINITION: Fish with heads and guts (viscera) removed, unlike “dressed” fish, which are typically sold head-on and gutted and with gills in or out. Though H&G fish provide several processing options, they are normally steaked crosswise to the backbone. Salmon, halibut, mahimahi, Chilean sea bass and tuna are among species typically offered this way


Shelf life. H&G allows maximum options and utilization of the net product without sources of contamination like the gills and guts.

Savings. Shipping costs for H&G fish are less than for whole fish. Labor costs associated with heading and gutting are also eliminated, as is the cost of disposing of unused parts of the fish.


Expense. Because it has been processed, H&G is more expensive than whole fish.

Labor. H&G fish, unless cooked in that form, normally require some further processing.


  • Like whole fish, H&G products should have a bright, shiny appearance and no “off” odors. Dull-colored skin suggests deterioration. 
  • Scales should be firmly attached. A few missing scales may or may not mean bad quality (some species’ scales detach more easily than others) but will detract from appearance. 
  • Belly should be free of all viscera or traces of blood, which will spoil the meat. 
  • Belly walls should exhibit elasticity. To test, stretch them a bit and see if they retain their shape.

Loin: The Prime Cut

DEFINITION: A cut, normally of uniform thickness, with no taper and no bones. Loins are taken from large fish like tuna, swordfish or shark, cut from the backbone lengthwise into quarters. Flatfish like halibut and sole are typically not loined.


Top quality. The loin is the highest-quality cut, offering the thickest, densest meat without the waste of skin or bones.

Versatility. Individual loins can be sold whole, cut into large pieces (“chunks,” “slabs,” “bullets” or “sides”) or sliced into individual, uniform steaks.

Custom cuts. Some suppliers offer loins from specific parts of large fish, or certain parts (“links”) of a large loin, like a center-section, which has the best taste and most uniform texture. Choice loins in large fish like tuna or swordfish are cut to avoid two “bloodlines” of darker, stronger-tasting meat that run parallel to the backbone.


Expense. Loins are among the most expensive cuts available. They often require further cutting and trimming into steaks before sale, which can result in unanticipated waste.

Shelf life. Careful handling is critical, since the exposed, skinless meat dehydrates easily.


  • “Natural” fillet loins of small or medium-size fish should be approximately the same size and configuration, with little tapering and no thin spots. “Cut loins,” taken from a longer strip down the back of the fish, may be thinner on one end.

Fillet: Mainstay of the Case and Menu

DEFINITION: Sides of a fish that have been cut away from the backbone and removed in one piece. Cut paral lel to the spine and muscle fibers, they run “with the grain.” Round fish like cod offer two fillets. Flatfish like flounder, halibut or sole offer four, two from the top side, two from the bottom. Fillets cut from a large flatfish and then further divided into boneless portions — often half of each fillet, or one-eighth of the entire fish — are called fletches. Fillets vary in length and thickness, depending on the size and species of fish from which they are taken. Fillets also vary greatly in color, depending on the species. Cod or haddock fillets, for example, are white. Bluefish can be grayish. Salmon fillets range from pink to a deep, rich orange.


Convenience. Bones are nearly or completely removed, so fillets require little further processing.

Versatility. Fillets absorb sauces well and can be fried, baked, broiled, sautéed or poached. Good portion control. Fillets can be sized for appropriate plate coverage.


Shorter shelf life. Shelf life averages three to five days with fresh fillets, since the product is relatively thin but has a large surface area that can readily admit bacteria or dehydrate quickly.

Easily overcooked. Extra care must be taken when cooking fillets, especially thin fillets of lean-meated fish species.


  • Fillets should be well trimmed, neatly cut and exhibit no blood indicating that the fish was gaffed, bruised or otherwise mishandled. 
  • Skinned fillets should show no traces of skin attached. 
  • High-quality fillets have shiny, smooth surfaces. Poor-quality fillets exhibit curling at the edges, and the meat may be yellowish and gaping broadly in spots. 
  • Dullness and a gray or brownish color can be a sign of oxidized, aging product.

Types of Fillets

Not common in the U.S. market, a whole fillet — skin-on or skinless, including pinbones, nape and belly flap — offers buyers a lower-cost option than V-cut or J-cut fillets. It can also be trimmed to meet individual needs — a boon for foodservice operators who use trimmings for soup stocks or as flavor additives.
Removes the pinbone (a set of small bones found behind the ribs), along with a strip of flesh extending one-third of the fillet’s length along its lateral line, from the thickest front portion of the meat toward the tail. Boneless V-cut fillets decrease risk to consumers and eliminate the need for any further deboning.
Removes the pinbone and nape, a small, thin, fatty piece of meat on the lower side of the fillet, forward of the belly. The J-cut may also remove the thin belly meat just behind the nape. Premium, J-cut fillets are often the most expen sive and usually offer slightly less yield than V-cut fillets. Some processors offer a “Boston cut,” which is often preferred by upscale restaurants. This cut removes 90 percent of the nape and leaves a small portion of the tiny pinbones, which break down when cooked and become indistinguishable from the rest of the fillet.

Steak: The Meat Eater’s Alternative

DEFINITION: Cross-sectional slices of fish, cut perpen dicular to the backbone, normally 1 to 2 inches thick. With some fish, like salmon, steaks often contain a thin band of skin and a piece of backbone. There also may be some pinbones and pieces of belly flap. In smaller fish like mahimahi or catfish, bone-in steaks are uniform in shape. In larger fish like halibut, tuna or shark, steaks come in several shapes and configurations: ovals, squared ovals, sandwich cuts, half-moons, quarter-bone squares and wedges.


Full utilization. Boneless, skinless steaks cut from the loins of large fish have no waste.

Economy. Cross-sectional steaks are generally less expensive than fillets or loins.

Portion pricing. Steaks can be priced by the piece, reducing the “sticker shock” of seafood sold by the pound.

Custom cuts. Though most portion-controlled steaks average 4 to 10 ounces apiece, suppliers can provide additional definitions and specifications to meet customers’ needs.

Customer appeal. Steak is an easy sell to consumers who usually prefer meat.


Shelf life. Mostly or entirely skinless and cut across the grain, steaks are vulnerable to dehydration and, thus, limited shelf life.

Bone-in cuts. Cross-sectional steaks are often less. popular at the foodservice level, owing to the inclusion of bones.


  • Like whole fish, H&G products should have a bright, shiny appearance and no “off” odors. Dull-colored skin suggests deterioration. 
  • Look for traces of browning, drying or curling around the edges, a sign of deterioration or over-extended shelf-life. 
  • Look for uniformity of thickness and size. Too much variation will make cooking times uneven.


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