Sculpins are tasty, but extraordinarily ugly.Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images
If you've ever caught a live sculpin while fishing, you'll remember it vividly. They're relatively small fish, but strikingly ugly, the sort of thing Dali might have painted during an especially painful hangover. They resemble the Mediterranean rascasse, or scorpionfish, and share with it both that nickname and the poisonous spines that inspired it. Like the rascasse, it's a fine-tasting fish if you have the patience — and gloves — to fillet it.
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A Quick Sculpin Primer
Sculpins are a very large family of saltwater fish, with over 100 known species in Alaskan waters alone. Most are relatively small, seldom growing to more than a pan or two, and they're seldom harvested commercially. There's relatively little meat on them, and their poisonous spines make them tricky to fillet at the processing plant. If you find some at your local store, they're usually filleted and have the spines removed. If you purchase whole sculpin, or catch one yourself, wear gloves to protect your hands. Hold the fish by its lower lip and snip off the spines with kitchen shears, then scale it and either fillet and gut it as you would any similar panfish.
Keeping It Real
The unusual and dramatic appearance of sculpins and their kin makes them an interesting choice for cooking whole. Rub the skin lightly with oil and season it inside and out, then grill it at medium heat for four to six minutes per side, or until it's cooked at the backbone when you check it with the tip of a knife. Alternatively, bake it in a casserole dish or sheet pan with your choice of fresh herbs. Sculpin is also excellent when baked in a bed of rock salt. Preheat the salt in your oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, then use a spoon to bury the fish in the salt. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, then carefully lift them out and brush off the excess salt.
A Fine Fillet
Like other firm, white-fleshed fish, sculpin is most versatile in the form of boneless fillets. Check just above the rib area with your fingertips for small pin bones, which are sometimes missed during the deboning process. You can substitute sculpin in most recipes calling for cod, rock cod, haddock or similar fish. Bake the fillets for 8 to 10 minutes at 400 F, or bread them and fry them until golden in a hot skillet. Skin-on fillets are best for grilling, because sculpin is more fragile than some other fish and needs the skin to hold it together.
Soups and Stews
For coastal fishermen the relatively small and ugly sculpin was often left over at the end of the day, and like other unsold fish it became dinner. Hearty, rustic fish soups and stews — France's bouillabaisse, Italy's zuppa di pesce, California's cioppino and New England's chowder — are all suitable destinations for sculpin. Add filleted portions late, just in the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking, so the delicate flesh doesn't overcook and fall apart. The skin adds body and richness to your broth, so use it if possible. If you don't want skin-on portions in your bowl, reserve the skin when you prepare the fillets and simmer it in the broth. After it enriches the soup, remove and discard it.