Fish Handling, Safety & Storage

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Contamination Prevention | Cooking Safety | Proper Storage
Consumption Safety


When working with fish it is essential that proper handling and storage are used to reduce the risk of food-borne illness and ensure a quality product. You cannot see the harmful bacteria on the fish so you must handle it as if it is present. Salmonella and E. coli are bacteria that can cause food-borne illness and are sometimes found on fish. Follow the guidelines below to ensure safety against food-borne illnesses when handling fish.


Contamination Prevention

Cleanliness: A clean working environment is essential in the prevention of contamination when working with fish. Be sure to wash hands thoroughly before and after handling raw fish. The work area, cutting boards, and utensils must be thoroughly cleaned with hot soapy water after being exposed and should not be used for other foods until properly cleaned. This will prevent cross contamination of bacteria from the fish to other foods.

When working with other foods at the same time as preparing and cooking fish, be sure to use different utensils for each food. Do not use the same platter for cooked fish as was used for the raw meat, unless it has been properly washed and dried before using. If any preparation of the fish is done on a cutting board, it should be thoroughly scrubbed with hot soapy water after each use and periodically cleaned with a bleach solution consisting of 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water.

Handling Market Fish: Fresh or frozen fish should be purchased just before leaving the market so it is exposed to unsafe temperatures for as short a time as possible. It should be placed in a plastic bag to prevent any leakage from contaminating any other foods. Bring a cooler along to store the fish in while traveling home or pack the fish in ice. To maintain the quality of the fish, it needs to be kept at a temperature under 40°F. Do not allow the fish to set in a hot vehicle for any length of time unless stored properly. After purchasing it should be taken home and refrigerated as soon as possible.

When cooking and serving fish, the meat must be handled properly to prevent contamination. Use a different platter and cooking utensils for cooked fish than what was used for the raw fish, unless they have been properly cleaned and dried after exposure to the raw fish. Be sure the raw fish does not come in contact with foods that have already been cooked or foods that do not require cooking before being consumed, such as raw vegetables and fruit.

If taking cooked fish to be served at another location, be sure to pack the fish so it maintains the proper temperatures. If you are keeping it hot, it should maintain at least a 140°F temperature and if it is cold, it must be kept at or below 40°F.

Handling Fisherman's Catch: Keeping your daily catch safe from bacteria can be a challenge unless you are ice fishing. See the tips below for warm weather fish handling.

  • Try to keep the fish alive until done fishing and ready to take them in to clean and store properly.
  • If the fish cannot be kept alive, be sure to store them at a temperature below 40°F. Storing them in a cooler with plenty of ice will keep them cold you are ready to clean and store properly.
  • When cleaning the fish, be careful not to contaminate the meat when removing the stomach and intestine contents. If the meat does become contaminated, wash it immediately with cold water.
  • After cleaning, ice the fish down or keep cold (under 40°F) until you are ready to prepare it.
  • When cooking the fish, be sure it is cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of 145°F.


Cooking Safety

It is necessary to cook the fish completely to eliminate the chance of food borne illness. The safest manner in which to check for doneness is to check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer in several locations. Internal temperature should be a minimum of 145°F when checked in the center of the thickest area of the fish. If a meat thermometer is not available, check for doneness by using a fork to check if the fish flakes easily and to see if its appearance is opaque and not translucent and raw looking.

Deep-Frying Safety

Deep-frying, also known as deep-fat frying, is a popular cooking method used for fish. It is a process of immersing food in a pan containing hot oil, which cooks the food quickly, producing a crispy surface covering a tender and moist interior. Because of the large quantity of hot oil that is used for deep-frying fish, there are some safety concerns that must be considered when using this cooking method. The safety concerns are listed below.

  • For ease in handling and to prevent splashing of the oil when the fish is placed in the hot oil, it is best to use small pieces of fish.
  • Any utensils and equipment that come into contact with the hot oil must be thoroughly dried first. Moisture on the utensils will cause splattering, which can be dangerous.
  • The fish should also be free of moisture to minimize splattering when the fish is immersed into the hot oil.
  • If cooking commercial frozen fish that is to be immersed in the oil while it is still frozen, be sure that the fish is free of ice crystals.

Note: If the hot oil comes in contact with moisture it causes splattering of the oil. If an excess of moisture comes in contact with the hot oil it can cause major splattering and foaming of the oil, causing it to flow over the edges of the pan. Controlling the moisture contact with the oil is extremely important.

  • The hot oil should not be left unattended and children and pets should NEVER be allowed near the cooking area.
  • After the cooking is completed, the oil should not be transferred to another container or disposed of until it has completely cooled. It is extremely dangerous to pour the hot oil from the cooking vessel.
  • A fire extinguisher and heavy potholders should always be within reach.

Checking the Temperature of the Oil: A temperature between 350°F and 375°F is an ideal range for deep-frying. The correct temperature can be determined with the use of a candy thermometer. Another method that can be used is to place a cube of bread into the oil and if it browns in 45 to 50 seconds, the oil is at the correct temperature. The oil should not need to reach over 375°F to fry the fish. Oil above this temperature will brown the fish too quickly, not allowing it to cook properly all the way through. The undercooked fish poses a safety concerns.

Any cooking oil can be used for deep-frying provided it does not smoke or burn at temperatures that may reach as high as 375°F. For a healthier choice, oil low in saturated fat is best to use because the food will absorb a small quantity of oil during the cooking process.


Proper Storage

Refrigerating | Freezing | Super-Chilling | Freezing Tips

Properly preparing fresh fish for storage will allow it to be stored for a longer period of time and maintain its quality. Fresh caught fish should be gutted and cleaned as soon as possible and then stored at the proper temperature until ready to cook. For the best flavor and quality, fish should be prepared for eating within 24 hours of catching but if stored properly it is safe to keep refrigerated for 2 to 3 days.

Fresh caught or market fresh fish should be stored at a temperature 40°F or below and cooked fish should be kept at a temperature 140°F or higher to keep it outside of the temperature zone in which bacteria, that causes food borne illness, grows quickly. The danger temperature zone is a range between 40°F and 140°F. Raw fish can be stored in a refrigerator for 2 to 3 days. Leftover cooked fish can be stored for up to 3 or 4 days. If raw or cooked fish is not going to be used within the recommended time, it should be frozen to prevent it from perishing.

Refrigerating

Raw fish can be stored safely in a refrigerator at 40°F or lower for 2 to 3 days. Oily fish will store longer than lean fish and whole fish will store better than steaks and fillets. There are several factors listed below that will have an affect on how well the fish will store.

  • The amount of time that market fresh fish can be refrigerated will depend on:
    • If it was stored properly after it was caught, before it got to the market.
    • How fresh the fish was when purchased.
    • Whether or not the fish was stored properly on ice at the market.
    • The temperatures it is exposed to in transporting from the store to home refrigeration.
    • The type of packaging used.
  • The amount of time that fresh caught fish can be refrigerated will depend on:
    • How the fish was handled after being caught.
    • How long it was kept alive.
    • Whether or not it was bruised from flopping around on the bottom of the boat or on the dock.
    • If there was any damage done to its skin.
    • How soon it was cleaned and if it was cleaned properly.

Follow the instructions below to store fresh fish in the refrigerator properly.

  1. Remove the fish from the wrapper. Thoroughly rinse the fish in cold water.
  2. Pat it dry with a paper towel.
  3. Line a plate or pan with a double layer of paper towels and place the fish on the towels.
  4. Cover them tightly with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and place in the coldest part of the refrigerator, the top shelf in the back.
  5. Be sure the fish is tightly wrapped so that if there are any juices from the raw fish, they will not come in contact with any other food.

Cooked Fish Leftovers: Cooked leftovers should be cooled and refrigerated as soon as possible, limiting the amount of time the fish is exposed to room temperatures. Never leave the fish at room temperature for more than two hours. Store it in a shallow covered container to allow the fish to cool to the proper temperature more quickly. Cooked fish can be stored for up to 2 to 3 days in a refrigerator at 40°F or less. If leftovers are not going to be used within this time, they can be frozen and stored for up to one month.


Freezing

Fresh fish can be stored at 40°F or less for 2 to 3 days but if it is not going to be used within that time, it should be frozen to prevent it from perishing. Freeze the fish while it is as fresh as possible. Proper handling of the fish is also necessary to produce a quality frozen product. The same factors stated above will have an affect on the quality of the fish when it is frozen. Be sure the fish has been cleaned properly before freezing. There are several methods that can be used for freezing fish. The method you select may depend on if you are freezing whole fish, large cuts, steaks or fillets. Also, take into consideration how much freezer storage room you have available. Fish should be frozen in a freezer at 0°F or less. Several methods are shown below.

Double Wrapping: This method works well on smaller whole fish, steaks and fillets. It saves freezer storage space and the individual pieces thaw easier when you are ready to use them.

  1. Wrap the fish individually in plastic wrap. Wrap as tightly as possible.
  2. Wrap tightly again with another layer of wrap.
  3. Place the individually wrapped pieces into a sealable freezer bag or wrap tightly in aluminum foil. If using a bag, be sure to press out excess air from the bag.
  4. Do not package more that one pound in each bag. This will allow the fish to freeze more quickly.
  5. When placing in the freezer, do not stack a lot of packages together in one area. Try to spread them out in the freezer so they will freeze quicker. Once they are frozen, they can be stacked neatly on top of each other.

Freezing in a Block of Ice: This method works well for smaller pieces, such as steaks and fillets. Freezing in a block of ice protects the fish from being exposed to any air because the air cannot penetrate through the ice. This guards the fish against freezer burn. This method requires more room in the freezer for storage and is a little more work when it comes to thawing the fish.

  1. Select a container for freezing the fish in ice, such as paper milk cartons, small baking pans, loaf pans, or plastic storage containers. Select a container that would hold only enough for one meal. Do not use too large of a container because it will take too long to freeze and it will be harder to find room in the freezer.
  2. Cut fish into serving size pieces.
  3. Place the fish in the container, leaving an inch or more of headspace for expansion during the freezing process.
  4. Cover the fish with cold water.
  5. Place in the freezer so that the container sits level. Allow the water to freeze in a solid block.
  6. If the fish have floated to the top so they are not completely covered with ice, remove the container and add a layer of water to the top so the fish is completely covered and return to the freezer until the additional water is frozen.
  7. If the fish was frozen in a pan, run a little cold water on the bottom of the pan and pop the block of ice out.
  8. Wrap the block of ice with a double layer of plastic wrap or aluminum foil.
  9. Place the wrapped block in a sealable freezer bag. Remove excess air and seal. The wrapped block could also be wrapped in freezer paper rather than placed in a freezer bag.
  10. If a milk carton was used, cover tightly with aluminum foil. If a plastic container was use, place the cover on and seal tightly.
  11. Place the fish back into the freezer as soon as possible.

Glazing: This method works well for whole fish or large cuts. Glazing seals the fish with a thick layer of ice to protect it from exposure to air. Once the fish have been glazed they will require less freezer space.

  1. Lay the fish out on a baking sheet in a single layer without wrapping.
  2. Place in the freezer until frozen.
  3. Remove the fish from the freezer and dip each individual fish into a bowl of ice water.
  4. Place back on the baking sheet and freeze again.
  5. Repeat this process until the fish has an ice coating built up to at least 1/8 inch thick.
  6. Place the glazed fish into an airtight freezer bag or container.
  7. Place back in the freezer as soon as possible.
  8. Periodically check the glazing on the fish. A layer of glaze may have to be repeated if stored for an extended period of time.

When using any of the freezing methods, be sure to mark the packages with contents and the date so you can be certain of how long it has been stored in the freezer and what it contains.

Be sure all wrapped packages are sealed tightly and any fish frozen in ice is completely covered with ice to prevent ice crystals from forming on the fish. Ice crystals form because moisture has been drawn out of the fish, causing it to become freezer burned. Freezer burned areas of the fish become distasteful and tough or dried out. Store bought frozen fish should be left in the original package and place in the freezer as soon as possible. For extra protection place the store bought package in a freezer bag before placing in the freezer.

Freezing Cooked Fish Leftovers: If you have cooked fish leftovers that are not going to be eaten within 2 or 3 days, you can freeze them for extended storage. Place the cooked fish in shallow covered container to allow the fish to freeze more quickly. Cooked fish can be stored in the freezer for up to one month.

It is always best to freeze and store frozen food in a freezer unit, rather than a refrigerator freezer. The freezer units will maintain a temperature of 0°F or below, which will allow food to be stored for longer periods of time. A refrigerator freezer will generally only maintain a temperature of 10°F to 25°F and is opened more often, which causes fluctuation in temperature. If fish is stored in a refrigerator freezer, it should be used within one to two months. The chart below shows storage times for fish when stored in a refrigerator or freezer.

Storage Times
(Suggested times for maximum quality)
Refrigerator (40°F) Freezer (0°F)
Fresh Oily Fish - Whole Fish Two to three days 1 1/2 to 2 months
Fresh Oily Fish - Steaks & Fillets Two to three days 1 to 1 1/2 months
Fresh Lean Fish - Whole Fish Two to three days 4 to 6 months
Fresh Lean Fish - Steaks & Fillets Two to three days 3 to 4 months
Store Packaged Frozen Fish Use within 24 hours of thawing 3 to 6 months
Cooked Fish Two to three days One month

Note: If storing longer than the storage times shown above, the quality may be affected.


Super-Chilling Fish

Super-Chilling fish is a good method of storing fish that needs to be transported a distance when freezing capabilities are not available. If stored properly, fish can be kept fresh for up to 6 or 7 days. See instructions below for super-chilling.

  1. Clean fish properly and leave whole.
  2. Wrap the fish tightly with two layers of plastic wrap or with aluminum foil.
  3. Mix 1 pound of rock salt with 20 pounds of crushed ice. If storing a small quantity of fish the amount of salt and ice can be reduced proportionately.
  4. Add a 4 inch layer of plain crushed ice on the bottom of the cooler.
  5. Place a layer of the wrapped fish on top of the ice layer.
  6. Add another layer of the ice mixture on top of the fish.
  7. Repeat these layers until all the fish are covered.
  8. Be sure to have a thick layer of the ice mixture on top when finished.
  9. Place the cover tightly on the cooler.
  10. Occasionally check the level of ice mixture. More may need to be added as the ice melts.
  11. If transporting the cool in a manner that the water can drain from the cooler, leave the drain open. If not, you may have to stop occasionally to remove the cooler and allow the water to drain. Replenish ice mixture if necessary.
  12. This method will keep the fish chilled at a cooler temperature than if refrigerated.


Storage Tips:

  • Be sure fish is cleaned properly before storing.
  • When storing in a refrigerator, be sure the temperature is 40°F or less.
  • Do not allow cooked fish to sit at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  • DO NOT REFREEZE FISH THAT HAS BEEN THAWED.
  • Be sure all packages are marked with the content and the date it was frozen.
  • Wrapping individual pieces of fish in plastic wrap or foil and then placing in a freezer bag will allow you to take out only the number servings you need to prepare.
  • Freeze fresh fish as soon as possible to maintain the best quality.
  • Store frozen fish in a freezer unit to obtain maximum storage time.
  • Thaw frozen fish in the refrigerator or in cold water, changing every 30 minutes. NEVER thaw fish at room temperature.


Fish Consumption Safety

Today there is considerable concern regarding the PCB and mercury levels of the water in which the fish live, thus raising the PCB and mercury levels found in the meat of the fish. Consequently, fish are beginning to be listed into groups of species that should be consumed and species that should be avoided. It is generally agreed that most farm-raised varieties of fish are safe to eat (farm raised salmon are an exception because they typically require significant amounts of mackerel, herring, and other fish as feed, however, if the source is dependable and uses environmentally sound practices, then farm raised salmon can be considered safe to consume).

The charts below list the fish varieties harvested in their natural habitat that are considered safe and those that are questionable or known to be unsafe.

Fish Varieties Considered Safe
Catfish Ocean Perch Shrimp
Crab Oysters Striped Bass
Flounder/Sole Rainbow Trout Tilapia
Haddock Salmon - from Alaska Trout - Farmed
Halibut from the Pacific Sardines Tuna - Big-Eye
Herring Scallops Tuna - Yellowfin
Lobster    

 

Fish Varieties Considered Questionable
Cod - Pacific Orange Roughy Shark
Flounder - Atlantic Salmon - Atlantic Snapper
Grouper Salmon - Farmed Sturgeon
Monkfish Sea Bass - Chilean Tuna - Bluefin
Fish Varieties Known to be Unsafe
King Mackerel Swordfish Tuna - Fresh Sardines
Shark Tilefish  

Mercury affects the development of cognitive, motor, and sensory functions in the brain. It is especially harmful to unborn children and young children. The more mercury a person takes in its body and the longer the exposure time to the mercury, the more serious the affects can be. This is why unborn children and young children run more of a risk. The FDA advises that young children, pregnant women, women of childbearing age who may become pregnant, and nursing mothers should not consume fish that are known to have high levels of mercury. The FDA suggest that the pregnant women and nursing mothers also limit the amount of low mercury level fish to 12 ounces per week. The EPA suggests even a more strict limit on low mercury level fish, which is 8 ounces of uncooked (6 ounces cooked) fish one time per week and only 3 ounces of uncooked (2 ounces cooked) fish one time per week for young children. Men and women outside of this group should also limit the amount of fish with high levels of mercury to occasional consumption. Variables such as, the ability of a persons body to tolerate mercury, the level of mercury in the fish, how much fish is consumed, and the body weight of the person consuming the fish will all have an affect on the risks of the mercury consumption.

Fish Handling, Safety & Storage Reviews

fish handling safety and storage

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gigs User
Rating of 5 out of 5.0 stars
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"I appreciate the information on storing fish. When we go fishing and bring home fresh fish I always wonder what the best way to store it is and for how long can I store it. This article was very informative."
RTMember7047
Rating of 4 out of 5.0 stars
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"This is the first article I've been able to find about safely freezing prepared fish."
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