How to Store Fresh Fish

How to store fresh fish

Purchasing the best is only the beginning of serving the best. All chefs want to serve the highest quality seafood possible, but are reliant upon the quality standards of the entire process from boat to table. Of course, this process starts with the fisherman and how the product is handled from hook to boat, then from the boat to the processing plant, and finally to your establishment. But once it’s received at your door, you need to know how to store fresh fish and seafood. What are the best practices for prolonging the quality shelf life of your seafood? Controlling seafood temperature is the most effective way to slow bacterial growth, delay spoilage, and maintain the quality of your seafood.

Seafood Spoilage

When dealing with fresh fish there are several factors which contribute to its quality, or the lack thereof. It’s well known that bacteria are the major cause of seafood spoilage, which can result in that “fishy” odor, or the taste associated with “past it’s time” seafood.

But, natural enzymes can also cause spoilage. In living flesh, enzymes help build tissue, enable muscles to contract and relax, and help digest food. But after death, enzymes begin to breakdown the flesh, resulting in softer, lower quality meat which spoils faster than normal. Have you ever had salmon fillets with a “gelatinous” texture or look in part of the flesh? This may have been due to enzymal activity.

Even oxygen can contribute to spoilage! Oxygen breaks down the oils in seafood and causes rancidity leading to off-odors and flavors, especially in high-fat species such as Salmon or Mackerel.

Time and Temperature

Time and temperature are the primary enemies of all fresh seafood. Maximum shelf life varies by species, intrinsic quality, and the temperature zones it has been held at from catch to plate. The maximum life of most fresh fish, depending upon species, is 10 to 15 days from time of harvest. By the time you get it, most seafood only has 2 or 3 days of high-quality life on it (assuming you treat it properly and hold it at 32° – 34°). After that, it typically has an additional 2 to 5 days of usable life on it (again, assuming that it is held at  32° – 34°) before a customer may notice an off flavor or aroma. When you store fish, having a proper rotation program is essential to saving money and serving the best product. For storing fish at home, most refrigerators hold at about 40°, so for best quality eat your fish the same day you purchase it because you only have at best 2 to 3 days before it is questionable quality. By the fourth day it may be spoiled.

The best quality fresh fish are caught and returned to the processing plant on the same day. However, many fishermen will stay out for 2 or more days, icing the fish down until they return to the fishery. Whenever possible, know how long the fish you purchase has been on the boat and more specifically, the actual catch date so you know how old it is before you receive it. Many vendors are now able to provide this kind of detail, and some special vendors will provide a whole chain of custody certificate which will track the fish from a specific boat and captain through the whole process right to your receiving dock.

Chart Shows Number of Days Lost for Holding Fish Above 32°
 Time Held at Temperature Numbers of Days of Shelf Life Lost
34° 36° 38° 40° 65°
2 Hours -0.1 -0.1 -0.1 -0.2 -0.7
1 Day -0.2 -0.5 -0.8 -1.1 -7
2 Days -0.5 -1.0 -1.6 -2.2 dead!
3 Days -0.7 -1.5 -2.3 -3.3
4 Days -0.9 -3.1 -4.4
5 Days -1.2


Keep Fresh Fish Cold

Make sure that your fresh seafood takes high priority with your receiving crew! How they handle and store fish has a huge impact on quality and shelf life. They should verify that the product meets your standards for quality fish. Do not allow your fish to sit on the receiving dock while they put away other less volatile items. The same goes for prep time. Don’t allow the cooks to pull out a bunch of fish at once, or work on other products while the fish sits on their cutting board. They should pull out of cold storage only what they can prep within the next 15-20 minutes, and then they can pull the next batch to prep.

When considering how to store fresh fish remember that as a general rule of thumb, fresh fish will lose one day of shelf life for every 2°F above 32°. And fish held at 38°F have half the shelf life of fish held at 32°F. Fatty fish tend to spoil faster than non-fatty fish. And fish with more bloodline also tend to spoil more rapidly. When handling whole fish, loins, or fillets (sides), always pick it up with two hands. Never grab fish by the tail with one hand! Or even by the head for that matter. Doing so will cause the spine to stretch or separate, allowing blood to ooze into the surrounding tissue which will cause the flesh to deteriorate faster. It can also cause the flesh to separate resulting in portions which look torn, stretched, or separated.

Storing Whole Fish

The best way to store Whole fish, Rounds, and H&G fish is to store them surrounded by shaved ice. And ideally, they will be placed in the ice in the same position in which they swim. This allows gravity to have its normal effect upon both tissue and bloodlines and results in the least damage to the structure and texture of the flesh. It also allows for fish which have been dressed (eviscerated) to drain excess liquid from the cavity, however, if you store fish like salmon on its side the cavity will not be able to drain fluids and ice-melt, which can increase discoloration and deterioration. For H&G fish, the best practice is to wrap the exposed flesh at the head end with plastic to protect it from direct contact with the ice.

Be sure to use a double bin method with the top bin having drainage holes to allow ice-melt water to drain. This should be placed over a deeper bin (lexan, hotel pan, whatever) to catch the excess water. This catch pan should be at least 2” – 4” deeper than the perforated drain pan so that the fish will never be sitting in standing water.

Storing Fish Fillets, Steaks, etc

Another very important point when considering how to store fresh fish is that the flesh of fish should never be exposed directly to ice or water. Fish fillets & steaks should be wrapped in plastic, placed in the double bin system as described above (with the seam on the plastic down, under the fish), and covered lightly with plastic bags loosely filled with about 1” of shaved ice and the end tied to prevent water loss as the ice melts. Plastic bags which are about 8” x 4” x 30” work well for this purpose. The ice bags should be replaced daily, and the water-melt emptied daily.

Alternately, your fish fillets & steaks can be wrapped in parchment paper and plastic (with the seam of the plastic down, under the fish), placed in the double bin system as described above for whole fish, and covered lightly with 1” – 2” of shaved ice, and arranged loosely in the perf-pan so that as the ice melts the water can still drain.


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