Recipes for California Scorpionfish (called sculpin in SoCal)

Ken Jones

Staff member
McClane’s Fish Buyer’s Guide: California Scorpionfish — (A) Flavor: mild (B) Texture: dense (C) Flake: fine (D) Fat Content: very low (E) Odor (Raw): bland (F) Color after Cooking: white (G) Cooking Methods: poach or steam

Posted by Ken Jones

From Pier Fishing In California, 2nd Ed. — The second fish that I caught on a California pier was a California scorpionfish. I still remember that particular fish because I nearly grabbed it and if I had I would likely have received a painful sting from the spines. This is fairly common unless there is a nearby fisherman willing to offer some advice — which is what happened to me. I was fishing on Newport Pier in May of 1962 when I landed the sculpin, the name given to the fish by "chief," a regular at the pier. He quickly pointed out to me the poisonous spines and showed me how to safely handle the fish. To this day I have only been stuck once by a scorpionfish spine (which was entirely my fault), and once was enough. The sting is relatively harmless but does produce intense pain, pain which can last for several hours.

Sculpin are a frequent catch at Newport Pier as at many other southern California piers. Although commonly called sculpin, they are actually California scorpionfish, a member of the rockfish family and one of the tastiest fish that a pier angler will encounter in southland waters. The truth to that assessment was proven to me when I had the opportunity to share several days with Eric Kramer, a fellow teacher, and an avid angler. I learned that during the summer he supplemented his earnings from teaching by commercial fishing. He and his son Tim would go out in their small boat and fish specifically for sculpin. They used rods and reels for their catch and delivered the sculpin live to the fish buyers. Turns out that sculpin are one of the premier fish sought out by many buyers, especially those who buy live fish for the sushi restaurants, and they're willing to pay a top dollar for these fish..

Recently, I was able to acquire a recipe for pan fried sculpin from one of Orange County's leading restaurateurs, Bob Roubian. He is the owner of the Crab Cooker Restaurant which sits just up the street from the Newport Pier (and a second Crab Cooker is located in Tustin). His recipe is about as short and simple as possible (the KISS approach) and is appropriate for any white fleshed, mild flavored fish (croaker, bass, rockfish, sole, halibut, cabezon and lingcod).

Pan Fried California Scorpionfish

• sculpin fillets
• salt, as needed
• butter
• skillet (Mr. Roubian recommends an iron skillet)

Put a small amount of butter into a skillet and place it over a very high flame. As the butter melts, roll the skillet as to coat the pan with the butter. When the butter begins to turn brown in the hot skillet, add the sculpin fillets. If you get a loud searing sound and the skillet spits hot juices at you, then you have done everything right. Salt the up side of the fish and let it hot-cook at this point for about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes (depending on temperature and thickness of the fish). Peek at the pan side of the fish; if it is not sticking, and is crisp and brown like a piano leg (say what?), turn it over. Now cut the fire down to very low. After another minute or two cut into the thick part of the fillet. If it is tender and opaque it is done, if not, let it cook a little longer. Top it with lemon and butter and "Eat Lots of Fish."

Posted by Ken Jones on July 11, 2004

What's your best recipe for scorpionfish aka sculpin in southern California? (Not to be confused with true sculpins such as cabezon or the small staghorn sculpin — scorpionfish are actually a member of the rockfish family).

Posted by gyozadude

I love a recipe from a So Cal relative who uses this recipe successfully with all sorts of firm, white-fleshed fish.

• Fillet the fish, cut into 1" wide lateral strips, and marinate in buttermilk, pepper, some Italian seasonings, garlic, cayenne, salt.
• Prepare a tempura batter, with a small amount of sesame oil made thicker by adding more corn starch and a bit more baking powder/soda mix for fast rising. Stir batter vigorously until smooth.
• Marinate for 4 - 8 hours in fridge. Bass, stripers lean toward 8 hours, Rockfish can go with 4 hours.
• Take out, dredge in dry corn starch, shake loose stuff off, then dredge through batter, into 380 F oil.
• Fry and rotate until light GBD (Golden brown delicious).
• Remove, drain, let cool.
• Serve with ranch or tartar sauce. Yum! Gyozadude — Proud UPSAC Member

Posted by frozendog

Here’s a dinner suggestion that's easy to prepare for those of you who are always saying, "What am I going to do with all these fish?" Tonight's dinner menu was sautéd sculpin — you use the fish that you have, of course — and Rice-a-Roni with added veggies. Being organized, you start with the rice because that takes the longest. We used chicken Rice-a-Roni, because that's what we had in the pantry — Spanish Rice-a-Roni works equally well.

• Following the directions, while browning the rice, added 1/2 diced onion and 1/2 of a diced zuchinni.
• Added water, mixed with chicken broth and brought to a boil, simmering 5 minutes before adding the rest of the veggies.
• Meanwhile, back at the chopping block, diced red bell pepper, 1/2 of a Jalepeno pepper, 1/2 box fresh mushrooms and fresh asparagus (peeled and diced) and a 1/2 can of Rotel diced tomatoes.
• Added to rice and simmered 10 more minutes or until liquid absorbed.
• Meanwhile, beat up an egg with a little water and dipped boneless, skinless fish fillets.
• Dropped fish into a Ziplock bag filled with Contadina Italian bread crumbs with Parmesan cheese (or whatever you like or have handy — just coat the fish.
• Warm up frying pan to medium. Add just enough butter to cover the bottom of the pan when melted.
• Add fillets, don't crowd, and cook approx 3 minutes on first side; be careful since the Parmesan cheese in the crumbs will burn.
• Turn fillets, cook another minute, approximately, depending on size — bigger fillets take longer. I catch small fish so mine don't take long.
• Cover the pan, turn down heat and let steam for two or three minutes — until the top of the fillets just start to crack because they are so tender. Bon Apetit! Mucho Gusto! or whatever term is appropriate. Enjoy! PS Choice of veggies is optional — put in what you ever you like.

Other Recipes

Posted by Amateur Pier rat on December 8, 1999

How would you prepare a sculpin??? I went fishing on a party boat with my class today and have a sculpin sitting on the counter. I can’t find Ken's book so I’m referring to the message board. The spines have been removed but it is not yet filleted... Please respond a.s.a.p. or else it will go bad. Any info is greatly appreciated!

Posted by Snookie

First, still be very careful! Use a long bladed knife to fillet the fish. I usually use a pair of pliers to hold the fish. Make sure the fish is on a surface that it won't slip on. I have filleted many of these fish, and thus far I have not been injured. I always use caution with these fish because I have seen those that didn't.

For cooking the sculpin I would just fast fry it in butter. Don't overcook it because it is a delicate fish. You may coat it with a light dredging of a mix or batter. There are other ways to cook this fish, but this is the easiest and one of the best ways. Bon Apetit. Snookie

Posted by Ken Jones

As usual, Snookie is right. Take care in cleaning the fish (to avoid the spines) and from that point the meat can be considered the same as most rockfish — white meat, flaky and mild. It's perhaps best fried but can be broiled or baked and also is considered one of the better rockfish for sushi.

Posted by Amateur pier rat

Thanks Snookie and Ken; Tasty!!! I cooked my fish and it was the best fish I've eaten. I think it was the way Snookie said to cook it and not the fish meat itself.

Posted by frozendog

Fish, onion and potato pie — One of my favorite creations is fish, onion and potato pie. I have used this recipe for rockfish, eel, cabs, and sculpin. My wife thought it sounded rather odd, but she ate her half and has requested it since. You could eliminate some of the butter and replace it with chicken broth, if you are on a restricted diet. I live in SoCal, so this dish is best in the winter when it is damp and cold — that means you could eat it all year in the Bay area.

• Slice and sauté one sweet onion until soft and caramelized.This can sauté while you prepare the rest of the dish.
• Thinly slice a large Russet potato.
• Precook sliced potatoes in the microwave 2-4 minutes. I used small fish fillets that would cook before the potatoes. If you use thick fillets omit precooking.
• Oil bottom of a baking dish and line with half of the pre-cooked potatoes. Salt and pepper and season with a little Cajun seasoning.
• Arrange boneless fish fillets on top of potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. If you like a little more kick, use green chili slices. Dot with pats of butter.
• Arrange the caramelized onions on top of the fish fillets.
• Cover with rest of potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Dot with more butter.
• Bake 25-30 minutes at 375 degrees. Half way though, top with grated Parmesan cheese.

Another method of cooking: Cut boneless fillets into finger sized pieces (4-6 per filet). Dip in egg wash and roll in Italian bread crumbs. Briefly deep fry or shallow fry in frying pan with an inch or two of oil. Drain. We like ranch dressing for a dipping sauce. Add some clam chowder and a salad for an easy meal.

As to tips on cleaning sculpin. Always leave them in the ice-chest until they are chilled and firm — usually over night. Use a sharp knife. I bleed my fish by cutting its throat. This gives you something extra to hold on to in addition to the mouth when you are cleaning. I put my fingers in the mouth, like lipping a largemouth bass (I've seen pictures, not my cup of tea) when I am cleaning. Be careful of the small pin bones in the rib/stomach area - always feel carefully to make sure they are all removed.

Posted by FakeFisherman on April 17, 2006

Cooking sculpin

Keep it simple — Coat a wok or frying pan with some olive oil and sauté some yellow onions, green onions, sliced ginger and sliced jalapenos. Add salt and pepper and cook over medium heat.

Heat another pan on HIGH and add some butter or olive oil (mo' butta is betta). Add the sculpin and season with salt, pepper and a little garlic salt. Cook on high heat just til both sides are browned — not too long or the fish will be tough.

Toss in the vegetables and chow down. This works well with any fish, but it's especially good with sculpin and bass.

Posted by tsang151

i like to either fillet them out (watch out for spines because the sting will swell your arm up if you get pricked) and just make fish and chips with them. Otherwise i will gill and gut the fish, and steam it Asian style. First steam the fish in a plate about 8-10 min/lb. You then pour out the water from the steaming process, and get another pan and heat some oil, julienne some green onions, scallions, cilantro, and ginger. Put the julienned ingredients on top of the fish, and once the oil is hot pour over the entire fish and add light soy sauce to taste. Have it with a bowl of steamed rice mmmm mmm...
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