Ways to Preserve Fish

Three raw whole fish over ice with garnish


If you’re improving your diet by eating more seafood, you can certainly appreciate the importance of preservation. We know how frustrating it can be to shop online for fresh fish when it’s so susceptible to spoilage, but preservation might just be the tool you need to make the fish you buy last much longer. People have been preserving fish for thousands of years by drying, pickling, salting, and smoking. Although ancient techniques are still used to this day, fish are now being preserved by canning and freezing as well. Poorly preserved fish or inappropriate practices can result in food-borne pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, C. botulinum, or even noroviruses. In this guide, we explore the many ways to preserve fish. With this information and our help, you can preserve fish in a safe and sanitary way.

Ways to Preserve Fish

Canning: This preservation method is popular amongst sailors due to its ease and consistency. You should only can fresh fish that has been cleaned and gutted within two hours after catching. You can easily clean a fish by removing the head, tail, fins, and scales. Wash and remove all blood before splitting the fish lengthwise. Keep the cleaned fish on ice until you’re ready to start canning. You will need a pressure cooker, canning jars, lids, rings, a canning funnel, a stock pot, bowls, large spoons, a sharp knife, towels, and a large bowl to bring your fish in salt water. You should soak your fish in a salty brine for one hour before canning. Drain the fish for 10 minutes before storing them in the canning jars, skin-side next to the glass. Leave at least one inch of space at the top of each can. Using pint-sized canning jars, you should plan for 100 minutes of pressure canning per fresh fish or 110 minutes for smoked fish.

Drying: When you lack the specialized equipment for canning or pickling fish, drying is a quite convenient method. You should first clean and fillet the fish you plan to dry, slicing it into thin strips. Hang each fish strip out to dry in the hot sun with thread or thin wire for 12 hours. Once the fish strips develop a dry coating, bring the fish inside. As fish continues to dry, the lack of water will suspend all microbial activity. Once dried, your fish can be used to make soups, stews, or condiments. If you plan to smoke your fish, you can dry the fillets in a smokehouse at 85 to 100º F. High-temperature drying is ideal for large whole fish and destroying any present bacteria.

Freezing: Fish should be as fresh as possible before freezing. Remember to wash and remove any scales from the fish using the dull edge of a knife or spoon. Pretreat your fish for freezing according to the amount of fat in its flesh. Fat fish should be dipped 20 seconds in an ascorbic acid solution made from two tablespoons of crystalline ascorbic acid to one quart of cold water to preserve natural flavors. Lean fish should be dipped for 20 seconds in a brine of ¼ cup salt to one quart of cold water. Alternatively, you can use a lemon gelatin glaze. Place the fish in moisture-vapor resistant paper or place in freezer bags. Label and freeze for two to three months, or up to six months for lean fish.

Pickling: After fresh fish is cleaned and cut, you should soak the fillets in a weak brine made up of one cup salt to one gallon of water for one hour. Drain the fish and pack it in a heavy glass, enamel, or plastic container in a strong brine made up of two-and-a-half cups salt to one gallon of water for 12 hours in the refrigerator. Rinse the fish in cold water. Combine a quarter-ounce bay leaves, two tablespoons allspice, two tablespoons mustard seed, 1 tablespoon whole cloves, one tablespoon ground pepper, half a tablespoon of ground dried hot pepper, one-half pound of sliced onions, two quarts distilled vinegar, and five cups of water in a large pan or kettle to prepare up to 10 pounds of fish. Bring the mixture to a boil, add the fish, and simmer for 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork. Remove the fish from the liquid and place in a single layer on a flat pan. Refrigerate and cool quickly to prevent spoilage. Pack the cold fish in clean glass jars. Add a few whole spices, bay leaves, freshly sliced onions, and slices of lemon to every jar. Strain the vinegar solution and bring to a boil. Pour the vinegar solution into the jars until fish is covered. Seal the jar immediately with a two-part sealing lid and store fish in the refrigerator as soon as possible. Pickled fish taste best when used within four to six weeks, and it should be stored in the refrigerator at no higher than 40º F.

Salting: Brine-salting is a popular Scandinavian method for keeping fish fresh and flavorful for up to nine months. You will need a crock-pot or glass container and several cups of fine-grained salt. After cleaning and preparing your fish, roll each fillet in salt and layer them in the crock-pot. Add salt to the bottom and between each layer of fish. Salt draws water out of the flesh and creates a brine that prevents certain microorganisms or enzymes. Submerge the fish in the brine with a weight to prevent spoilage. Fish that weighs eight pounds or less can be cured for two days. Larger fish may require curing for up to 10 days. Once cured, repack the fish in fresh salt and store below 70º F. Rinse and cook the fish for several hours before cooking.

Smoking: Wash freshly caught fish thoroughly. Brine the fish in a solution of one-and-a-half cups salt to one gallon of water in the refrigerator for 12 hours. Then brine the fish in a solution of four cups salt to one gallon of cold water for 15 minutes. Remove the fish from the brine and rinse. Place the short stem of your meat thermometer in the thickest portion of flesh. Add fish to the smoker once the air temperature reaches 100º F. While smoking fish, the air temperature should rise to 225º F. Fish flesh should reach and be kept at 180º F for 30 minutes. Smoked fish tastes best if used within one month and should be safely stored in the refrigerator.

Now that you know more about the popular ways to preserve fish, we hope that this guide has inspired you to start preserving fish right at home. We offer a wide selection of fresh and frozen seafood to help you get started. If you have any questions about this guide or would like to learn more about our selection of fish, please contact us today for additional information or further assistance.