Red snapper, served whole with its rosy skin, can make a handsome display on the dinner table. Recipes for whole fish, however, often say "scale the fish," without providing details. Scaling a snapper or other skin-on fish is a basic kitchen skill that can be accomplished with simple tools. While many cooks find scaling a messy chore, knowing how to scale fish properly can enhance your cooking repertoire without ruining your kitchen or your disposition.
Cut off the snapper's head unless your recipe specifies otherwise: Slide your knife under the large gill on one side of the head. Straighten the knife, lifting the gill, and bear down until you sever the bone; on a large fish, this may require sawing the blade back and forth several times. Save the head to make fish stock.
Spread newspapers, garbage bags or other counter protection under the fish. Put on rubber gloves, so that you can grasp the fish firmly by the tail. Holding your knife perpendicular to the fish, stroke firmly from the tail end toward the head to dislodge scales. Picture the layers of scales as shingles on the side of a house; your aim is to catch the lower edges of the shingles and push them off the wall. Keeping your strokes short will keep flying scales from going beyond your protective surface. Press down on the fish gently and stroke your knife from tail to head, 3 to 4 inches at a time.
Wash the fish thoroughly and remove the rubber gloves long enough to feel for remaining scales. Re-scrape any remaining scales to remove. You are now ready to gut, halve, or filet your snapper and proceed with your recipe.
If you have occasion to scale fish often, purchase a fish-scaling tool at a sporting goods store. This small hand tool looks a bit like an embossed snow scraper and comes with directions for removing scales.
Another way to control the spread of loose scales is to cover your work surface with a large plastic garbage bag and place the fish inside the bag. It takes a little practice to scale your fish using only feel and partial vision, but it will help keep scales from scattering everywhere. Another approach is to scale the snapper under water.
Work slowly until you are comfortable with this new technique, to avoid cutting the skin of the fish. Use gloves to prevent your skin cuts from fins, fish bones and the knife.
Wash and inspect previously scaled fish to make sure the job was done completely.