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Meat and fish

Preserving fish safely

Deb Botzek-Linn and William Schafer

Why and how does freshly caught fish spoil?

Freshly caught fish spoil easily and need to be properly preserved. The four most popular methods of fish preservation are freezing, canning, smoking, and pickling.

Top quality fresh fish are essential for fish preservation. Of all flesh foods, fish is the most susceptible to tissue decomposition, development of rancidity, and microbial spoilage. Keep freshly caught fish alive as long as possible. A metal link bag will permit fish to remain alive longer in the water than a stringer. Spoilage and slime-producing bacteria are present on every fish and multiply rapidly on a dead fish held in warm surface water.

Fish begin to deteriorate as soon as they leave the water. To delay spoilage, clean the fish as soon as possible. Thorough cleaning of the body cavity and chilling of the fish will prevent spoilage. Fish spoilage occurs rapidly at summer temperatures; spoilage is slowed down as freezing temperatures are approached.

Freezing fish

This is the simplest, most convenient, and most highly recommended method of fish preservation. A good quality frozen product requires the following:

To freeze fish

Option 1

Remove the guts and thoroughly clean the fish soon after catching.

Prepare the fish as you would for table use. Cut large fish into steaks or fillets. Freeze small fish whole.

Wrap the fish in heavy-duty freezer bags. Separate layers of fish with two thicknesses of packaging material for easier thawing. Store at 0° F or lower. When ready to use, thaw in the refrigerator.

Option 2

Cut large fish into steaks or fillets.

Small fish, such as sunfish and panfish, or small servings of fish can be frozen in ice. Place the fish in a shallow pan or water-tight container. Cover with ice water and place in the freezer until frozen (8-12 hours). Remove block from container, wrap, and store in freezer.

The storage life of good quality frozen fish held at 0° F or lower follows:

(Source: Minnesota Sea Grant, 2012)

Canning fish

Fish is a low acid food and can be processed safely only at temperatures reached in a pressure canner. Failure to heat process fish at 240° F or higher may allow spores of the dangerous heat-resistant bacteria, Clostridium botulinum, to survive, germinate, and grow. The poison produced by botulinum bacteria causes botulism, a deadly food poisoning. The addition of small amounts of vinegar, or packing fish in tomato juice or tomato paste, does not remove the requirement for heat processing fish in a pressure canner.

Use standard heat-tempered canning jars. All processing times in this publication are for 1-pint jars. Wide-mouth pint jars will be easier to fill than narrower ones.

General USDA method for canning fish without sauce (including blue, mackerel, salmon, steelhead, trout, and other fatty fish except tuna)

Clean and gut fish within 2 hours after catching. Keep cleaned fish on ice until ready to can.

Note: Glass-like crystals of magnesium ammonium phosphate sometimes form in canned salmon. There is no way for the home canner to prevent these crystals from forming, but they usually dissolve when heated and are safe to eat.


Remove head, tail, fins and scales. Wash and remove all blood. Split fish lengthwise, if desired. Cut cleaned fish into 3½ inch lengths. Fill pint jars, skin side next to glass, leaving 1 inch headspace. Do not add liquids. Adjust lids and process.*

Processing procedures for Minnesota altitudes

  1. Dial-gauge pressure canner
    Pints — 100 minutes 11 PSI
  2. Weighted-gauge pressure canner
    Pints — 100 minutes 15 PSI

Heat fish to boiling temperatures for 10 minutes before tasting or serving. Canning fish in quart jars see


Pickling is an easy method of preserving fish. Pickled fish must be stored in the refrigerator at no higher than 40° F (refrigerator temperature), and for best flavor must be used within four to six weeks. Only a few species of fish are preserved commercially by pickling, but almost any type of fish may be pickled at home. Refrigerate the fish during all stages of the pickling process.

Ingredients for Pickled Fish

General method for precooked pickled fish

Soak fish in a weak brine (1 cup salt to 1 gallon of water) for one hour.

Drain the fish; pack in heavy glass, crock, enamel, or plastic container in strong brine (2-½ cups salt to 1 gallon of water) for 12 hours in refrigerator.

Rinse the fish in cold water.

Combine the following ingredients in a large pan or kettle. This makes enough for 10 pounds of fish.

Bring to a boil, add fish, and simmer for 10 minutes until fish is easily pierced with a fork.

Remove fish from liquid, place on a single layer on a flat pan. Refrigerate and cool quickly to prevent spoilage.

Pack cold fish in clean glass jars, adding a few whole spices, a bay leaf, freshly sliced onions, and a slice of lemon.

Strain the vinegar solution, bring to a boil, and pour into jars until fish is covered.

Seal the jar immediately with two-part sealing lid, following the manufacturer's instructions. Pickled fish must be stored in the refrigerator as stated in general directions.

Caution: The broad fish tapeworm

The broad fish tapeworm infection can be contracted by humans from eating raw or undercooked species of fish found in the Great Lakes area.

Those who wish to prepare
raw pickled fish should first
freeze the fish at 0°F for 48 hours.

The larvae of the broad fish tapeworm pass through smaller fish until they lodge as hatched small worms in the flesh of large carnivorous species of fish, like northern pike, walleye pike, sand pike, burbot, and yellow perch. This worm, if eaten by humans in its infective stage, can attach to the small intestine and grow to lengths of 10 to 30 feet.

The infective worms are destroyed readily either by cooking or freezing. Two recent outbreaks of this tapeworm in Minnesota were related to eating uncooked pickled pike.

Smoking fish

Smoking has long been used as a means of temporarily preserving fish. The steps in the smoking process are necessary not only for safe preservation, but also to produce good flavor and aroma. Carp, suckers, buffalo catfish, salmon, trout, and chubs may be successfully smoked. A safe, high quality product can be produced using the following brining and smoking procedures.

Certain steps in the brining and smoking process require careful attention.



Steps for safe smoked fish

Use freshly caught, dressed fish, whole or filleted. Wash fish thoroughly.

Related resources

2011, Reviewed by Kathy Brandt 2017

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