Fish can be a super simple, super quick, delicious and flavorful dish at any time of the year. Certain times, fish is caught local and super-fresh, other times it's frozen, and in February and March, the observation of the season of Lent is one of the highest consumption times. No matter what the circumstances for eating fish tonight, tomorrow, or next week, do you know how to store it safely? Do you know how to prepare it and cook it safely as well, and how much fish is safe to eat?
Know how to buy the freshest.
Starting at the basics is the best way to ensure your fish comes as free of contaminants as possible. Buying a fish and using all your senses to make the purchase is surprisingly important. Excellent, fresh, probably handled and stored fish shouldn’t smell or taste overly “fishy.” Fresh fish should only have a mild, or faint odor and be firm to the touch. When touched, fresh fish skin or flesh will spring back into place immediately after you remove your finger. If the fish eyes look sunken and shrunken, or If you see a fingerprint after you remove your finger after you touch it and not a strong odor, it’s not fresh. Don’t buy it!
When choosing seafood, note how it is displayed. Is cooked seafood, such as shrimp, crab, or smoked fish in the same case as the raw fish? Juices from the raw fish can transfer bacteria onto the cooked. Don’t purchase cooked seafood housed near or in the same place as raw.
If purchasing frozen, do you see what looks like a coating of frost, or well-formed ice crystals? These are signs the fish has been frozen for a long time, or thawed and refrozen, meaning that is not a safe piece of fish to eat.
Just like mom said: always wash your hands.
Wash your hands thoroughly before handling fish, during, and after. If you touch anything after touching the fish—wash whatever you touched (if possible) and then hands before going back to the fish.
Store it right.
Seafood is one of nature’s best foods to get all the protein your body needs, not to mention crucial omega-3 fatty acids. But, because fish is so high in protein, fish degrade quickly and can spoil within days. As the degrading process begins the moment the fish dies, placing a fish on ice immediately and keeping it on ice is key to the freshest tasting and safest fish.
The general rule for storing fish is 1lbs of ice per 2lbs of fresh fish. Frozen fish should be stored at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, as frozen fish can still degrade after time. Keep frozen fish no more than 30 days and never re-freeze seafood you have already thawed.
Safe storage tips: When storing it in the fridge, make sure:
- To remove the fish from any original packaging, butchers paper, deli wraps
- Rinse fillets or whole fish well
- Pat very dry with paper towels
- Place fish in an airtight container, removing as much air as possible. Fillets can be placed in a zip-topped bag, make sure to remove as much air as possible.
- Place ice in an aluminum pan or pan large enough for the fish.
- Place fish on top of first layer of ice.
- Place ice on top of fish.
- Place in the fridge.
Always store your fish in a single fillet or single fish layer. A stack of fish can quickly mingle juices, moisture and bacteria together making it the perfect breeding ground for rapid bacteria growth in the fridge.
Cook and eat your fresh fish stored this way within 2-3 days, no longer.
Thaw it properly
It’s true that fish cooks evenly and well when completely thawed, but do you know how to thaw it? If your instinctual answer was to let it sit on the counter, or to use a bowl of water, or even the microwave, you may wish to rethink your old thawing strategies. The absolute safest way for thawing fish is overnight, or longer, from freezer into the fridge. Microwaving delicate fish flesh can lead to a dry, tough piece of seafood.
Preparing and Cooking
General rules of thumb:
- Baking or broiling: 10 minutes per inch of thickness.
- Flesh should be white and flaky and register 155 degrees Fahrenheit on a food thermometer.
- Do everything you can not to overcook it. Too long and too high equals dried out, tough fish with flavors destroyed.
If you don’t have a food thermometer and wish to know when fish is completely done:
- Slip the point of a sharp knife into the flesh and pull it aside. Fish flesh should be opaque (not see through, not transparent) and separate easily. If you cooked it in the microwave, microwaves are notorious for not cooking evenly—so check multiple areas.
- Shrimp and Lobster: The flesh becomes pearly-opaque.
- Scallops: Flesh turns milky white or opaque and firms.
- Clams, Mussels, Oysters: Shells open, they are done. Discard and do not eat any shells that do not open.
Like all foods you prepare, handle and prepare your fish and seafood in a clean area to prevent cross-contamination. Remember to keep your hands, the preparation area—such as cutting boards or counters—and any utensils used, clean. Never let raw fish come into contact with already cooked or ready-to-eat foods (salads, fruit, smoked fish) if possible. In the case of making your own sushi, be extra vigilant and always use certified sushi-grade fish!
When storing your fish in the fridge, whether just until cooked or thawing it from the freezer, always thaw below any other food and make sure juices cannot drip onto your other foods below it.
- Marinades are great for seafood, but it should never be saved after use or used as a sauce unless the marinade is cooked to a temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Always wash the cutting board with soap and hot water to remove food particles and juices after using it for raw foods such as seafood, before using the board again.
- You can, if you feel the need, completely sanitize a cutting board by rinsing it in a solution made of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach in one quart of water. Plastic boards that are marked dishwasher safe can go in the dishwasher. Or, consider keeping one cutting board just for raw foods, and another for ready-to-eat foods such as bread, vegetables and already cooked meats.
- Look for, and use cutting boards that are not made of soft, porous materials. Choose boards made from very hardwoods, such as maple, or plastics free of cracks and crevices. Smooth surfaces are more thoroughly cleaned.
- Keep your cooked seafood away from plates that have touched any raw seafood or meats. Do not plate cooked seafood on the same plate it was on when raw.
- Use clean, different utensils for cooked fish and never use the utensils that have touched the raw fish.
You’ve probably heard it many times before, but it is good advice: always cook seafood thoroughly to completely minimize the risk of foodborne illness. A completely healthy person may choose to eat raw or partially cooked seafood, but young children, women who are pregnant or nursing, and immune-compromised individuals and older adults should try and avoid eating raw or partially cooked fish.
Cross-contamination can happen, but with these tips, tricks and advice in mind, you should be well-armed and well prepared to keep it to an absolute minimum while enjoying your favorite, juicy fish fillet without worry.