A part of the fish that mostly makes it to the dumpster instead of your plate, fish heads have acquired an unfairly bad rep, more because of how they look and all the bad light surrounding offal and organ meat, than how it tastes.
Because let me tell you this—if you’ve ever tasted fish head, you know that this part is the literal crowning glory of the fish; a flavour bomb through and through, with a sweet-but-umami flavour from all the concentrated fat in this part.
Many cultures already know and appreciate this—from the south of India to the kitchens of Spain to Singapore and Malaysia, fish head curries, roasts, soups, and broths occupy a place of pride and love at the table.
The taste isn’t the only reason an increasing number of people around the world are adding fish heads to their diet—in a world that’s somehow simultaneously struggling with rising food prices and food waste, fish heads aren’t just cost-effective but perfectly in line with using every part of the animal.
So, mis amigos, fear not the fish head, and instead, try these creative ways to use up fish heads in your cooking.
Why Use Fish Heads In Cooking?
While being cost-effective, minimizing waste, and being flavour bombs are all good, fish heads are brimming with nutritional goodness in healthy fats, protein, iodine, iron, calcium, omega 3, and vitamins A and D.
These nutrients help enhance brain, cardiovascular, skeletal function, immune, and muscle health, in addition to having anti-inflammatory properties.
How To Use Fish Heads In Cooking
Here are some ways in which you can (literally) look your food in the eye and use up your fish heads instead of discarding them.
1. Roast The Fish
Whole roasted fish is a delicacy in many parts of the world. The best part about fish heads is that they’re hard to overcook, which makes them perfect even for amateurs to tackle.
Cut the head (salmon works beautifully) down the middle with a sharp knife to ensure even cooking. Then, pop the meat into an oven preheated to 200℃ on a roasting pan lined with foil or parchment pepper.
Season, let it cook for about 15 minutes, and then finish it off on the hob with some tomatoes or dig into your fish head straight out of the oven!
The roasted fish head is a lovely mix of different textures, from the velvety, jelly-like eyes to the melt-in-the-mouth meat of the cheek to the crispy, roasted skin outside.
One of the simplest ways to use fish heads is to make a stock out of them. Poach the heads in a pot of salted, almost-simmering water. You can throw in a few charred scallions and garlic cloves, as well as tomatoes, leeks, carrots, celery, parsley stalks, white wine, peppercorns, and minced ginger, for an extra hit of flavour.
Let this simmer for about 20 minutes, skimming any foam rising to the surface.
Once your stock is done cooking, you’ll have tender, juicy meat that easily comes off the bone that you can eat with a bowl of rice, while you can strain the broth and use this liquid gold in noodle soups, sauces, risottos, and chowders.
Fish stock can be preserved for up to a month in the freezer and a day in the fridge.
Fish heads have long been used to make mouthwatering soups for a while now—look a the classic French bouillabaisse, for example.
Even if you don’t want to complicate things to such an extent, you can whip up a simple but delicious soup using butter, thinly sliced onions, a couple of salmon heads, potatoes, bay leaves, fresh dill, and cream.
Fish heads in curry are all kinds of delicious, rich, and a staple in countries such as Singapore, the Phillippines, and India.
There are as many versions of a good fish head curry as stars in the sky. Still, I love taking a page out of the Singaporeans’ books and cooking my fish head with spices and aromatics such as ginger, garlic, fenugreek, coriander, curry leaves, chilli powder, cumin powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder, onion, tomato, red chillies, coconut cream, and that wonderful, tangy secret ingredient—tamarind.
You can also add veggies such as quartered eggplants and okra.
The folks of Kerala, in south India, also make a mean fish head curry, but only try this one out if your tastebuds can take the fire!
5. Other Methods
You can make a good braised fish head dish with red wine and Asian spices, veggies, and aromatics, or keep it simple by seasoning your fish head and just searing or pan-frying it.
Sourcing Fish Heads
Fish heads are easily available in markets as sellers break down fish daily. Your local fish dealer will also have plenty of fish heads stored up for disposal, which they’ll be happy to sell (or even give away) to you instead.
Some fancier supermarkets may charge you for fish heads by the kilo, but rest assured that there are plenty of spots to pick up safe, clean, fresh fish heads.
When buying your fish heads, ensure that they’re fresh. The eyes should be clear, bright, and bulging (not dry, cloudy, and sunken), and the gills should be red (the redder they are, the fresher they are).
Cleaning Fish Heads
Cleaning your fish head is quite simple. We want to get rid of the gills, as these are quite unclean and bitter. You may also have to remove bits of veins or blood. Get rid of these with a pair of kitchen scissors and the scales with a scaler. Finish off with a quick cold-water rinse.
Creative Ways To Use Up Fish Heads In Your Cooking: The Bottom Line
While the natural reaction that most people have to fish heads is aversion, fish heads are underrated parts that deserve a chance for a series of reasons. Whatever dish you put them in, you’ll find that they easily soak up flavours and respond well to various cooking techniques, from boiling to poaching to braising to smoking to roasting.