How to Safely Store Fish

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 03, 2022
5 min read

Eating fish and shellfish, either fresh or frozen, can be an excellent addition to a healthy diet. When preparing fish at home, it’s important to know how to store fish properly and safely before you’re ready to cook it. Here are some fish storage tips to make sure your seafood stays fresh and delicious either in the fridge or freezer.

Fish safety begins with purchasing seafood from a reputable source. When you’re shopping for fish, check to make sure that it’s either displayed on a bed of ice or in a refrigerator with a temperature no higher than 40℉. Fresh fish shouldn’t have a fishy or stinky smell, and the eyes should be clear and shiny. The fish’s skin should be firm, and the gills should be red. If the fish is already cut into fillets, there shouldn’t be any discoloration around the edges.

If you’re buying frozen seafood, check to make sure that it’s packaged tightly, with no rips or tears. If you can see through the package, check to make sure that the fish doesn’t have any ice crystals attached to it. This is a sign that the fish has been thawed and then frozen again.

Freshly caught fish starts to deteriorate as soon as it's killed. If you’re catching your own fish, make sure to store it on ice immediately after you catch it. The best option is to place it in an ice slurry to keep it as fresh as possible until you return home.

Once you bring your fish home, it’s important to store it right away. When it comes to raw seafood, fish and shellfish can only last in the refrigerator for one or two days before cooking or freezing them. When storing fish in the refrigerator, make sure that the temperature is 40℉ or lower to keep the fish as fresh as possible.

You can keep fresh shellfish with completely closed shells in the refrigerator for up to seven days if you store them properly. This includes oysters, some clams, and cockles. You can only store shellfish with partially closed shells, like razor clams and geoducks, for three or four days.

How long can fish stay frozen? This depends on the kind of seafood. You can keep commercially prepared fish and seafood that’s already frozen, as well as most fresh fish, frozen between four and six months as long as you wrap it in freezer bags and store it below 0℉. You should only keep oily fish, like salmon and trout, frozen for up to three months.

There are several methods of fish preservation that you can use, depending on when you want to use your seafood and how you want to eat it.

Storing in the refrigerator. If you plan to use your finfish in the next day or two, keep it in its original wrapping or packaging and place it in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Normally, this is under the freezer or in the meat drawer. You should rinse mollusks and shellfish, put them on a shallow plate, and cover them with a damp towel or moistened paper towels. You shouldn’t store these kinds of fish in a sealed container.

Freezing. If seafood isn’t on the menu during the next couple of days, you can freeze fresh fish and shellfish to use at a later date. You can wrap small whole fish or fillets individually in plastic wrap and then place them in freezer bags. You shouldn’t put more than 1 pound of fish in a freezer bag. This will keep the fish fresh, and it gives you control over how many portions you want to thaw later. Be sure to write the date on the packaging.

If you want to freeze larger fish whole, put it in the freezer unwrapped and leave it until it's completely frozen. Once it’s frozen, take it out and dip it in water that’s almost completely freezing cold. Take the fish out and continue dipping until a protective layer of ice forms around the fish. You can then wrap it in freezer bags or moisture-resistant paper, being sure to label and date it.

Canning. If you have a pressure canner, you can preserve a number of different kinds of fish as long as you heat it to at least 240℉. To start the process, you should clean fresh fish, gut it within two hours, and keep it on ice until you’re ready to preserve it. If you’re using glass jars, leave at least an inch of space at the top of the jar before sealing it.

You should only store canned fish that you prepare at home for up to one year. You can keep commercially canned fish, like tuna and sardines, in your pantry for up to five years.

When storing raw seafood in your refrigerator, make sure to wrap it tightly and store it away from other foods to prevent cross-contamination. You should also keep raw and cooked seafood apart.

You should wash any objects that come into contact with raw fish, like cutting boards, utensils, or countertops, thoroughly with soap and hot water to prevent cross-contamination. Always wash your hands after handling and storing raw fish.

Fresh fish that’s gone bad will smell like ammonia or have a very strong fishy smell to it. If the whole fish has eyes, they shouldn’t look foggy or cloudy. The skin should be firm and shouldn’t be too soft. Shellfish, like shrimp and scallops, shouldn’t have any odor and should have a pearly color. Discoloration or smell is a sign that the seafood has gone off.

It’s important to store fish properly and look for signs that it’s gone off to avoid food poisoning. Scombroid poisoning is a type of food poisoning from eating certain kinds of fish that weren’t properly handled and stored. Symptoms usually begin within 15 minutes to two hours after eating the contaminated seafood. Most people recover within 12 to 24 hours without treatment but experience uncomfortable symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.