Keep seafood tasting its best by preserving and storing it right.
Sometimes we Gulf Coast anglers get lucky and catch a really big mess of fish—too much fish to eat all at once. What we do with the surplus fresh fish will largely determine how good the fish is for later consumption.
People have been struggling forever with the problem of what to do with seafood when it arrives in great quantity. Folks have salted and dried fish. Folks have smoked fish. Folks have done lots of things to try and preserve seafood for future use.
“When we get lucky and get our limits on a fishing trip, we generally have more fish than we can consume fresh”
When we get lucky and get our limits on a fishing trip, we generally have more fish than we can consume fresh, and we need to do something to preserve the high quality of the fish so we can have a fish fry in the future, even if we can’t catch enough fish at that time.
We’re lucky today to have very efficient home freezers that allow us to freeze and store seafood for future use. But like all things in this world, if we don’t follow good techniques, we won’t get good results. Properly freezing seafood (or not) can make a huge difference in the taste of the seafood when it is used later.
There’s nothing quite as good as absolutely fresh seafood cooked up right, and no one will ever claim that even the very best frozen seafood is as good as fresh, but properly prepared frozen seafood can still be very good.
What to Freeze & What Not to Freeze
When it comes to freezing seafood, not all fish and shellfish are created equal. Some fish freeze very well while others are very poor after being frozen.
First, the good ones to freeze. Most folks have very good luck freezing light-colored, low-oil fish. This means fish such as redfish, snapper, grouper, and flounder all freeze well. These fish, if frozen properly, will be quite tasty and firm for up to six months after being caught.
Tuna, if properly treated after being caught, freezes well. Tuna needs to be bled quickly when caught and then put in an ice bath immediately. Tuna can be superb when carefully cared for. But not treated right, tuna can be awful.
Shrimp freeze quite well. Shrimp should keep for about six months after being frozen and still be very good for cooking and eating.
For fish that are not so good to freeze, we don’t have to look far. One of the most commonly caught (and delicious to eat) fresh fish from the Alabama Gulf Coast is speckled trout. These prized fish are great for fresh cooking and eating. However, specks don’t freeze well at all. The flesh of speckled trout turns to mush after it thaws out from being frozen. The taste is fine, but the speckled trout fillets just fall apart after being frozen.
The same is true of white trout. They are very good when eaten fresh, but they are not so good for freezing.
Mackerel, both Spanish, and king, are not good candidates for the freezer. Their dark, oily flesh doesn’t freeze well, and king mackerel especially can get very tough and dry after being frozen.
Mullet can be wonderful when used fresh, but mullet doesn’t freeze well at all.
Crabs should not be frozen whole. Picked crab meat freezes fairly well, but it isn’t nearly as good as fresh. Oysters can be frozen in cartons with their own juice. But again, the texture and taste will not be as good as fresh.
How to Handle the Seafood before Freezing
Probably the most important step in the entire freezing and keeping process happens long before the fish ever see the freezer. How we care for the just-caught fish makes a huge difference in how the fish tastes and freezes later.
If we toss a bunch of fine fresh fish into a hot, dry ice chest with intentions to “ice it up later,” we have doomed the fillets to a very poor future. Fresh-caught fish should go into an ice and water bath which will help keep the flesh firm and will keep the decay process from starting.
“How and where we clean our fish makes a big difference in the taste later, too.”
This means that before every fishing trip where we’ll be keeping fish, we should start with full ice chests and extra ice if the weather is warm. Keeping fresh fish cool can’t be over-emphasized.
The Louisiana State University Ag Center and Sea Grant Factsheet on Handling and Freezing Seafood at Home says that initial icing of fresh fish requires at least one pound of ice for each pound of fish.
The Factsheet also recommends that as ice melts, the meltwater should be poured off the fish and more ice added.
Then, how and where we clean our fish makes a big difference in the taste later, too. Most boat ramps and launch areas have fish cleaning stations provided, and this is a very convenient thing. However, just think about the surface of the fish cleaning station.
And think about how many fish have been cleaned on that surface and how much blood, guts, and other not-so-tasty stuff has been allowed to dry and bake on the cleaning surface. Think about how many gulls have perched on the cleaning surface and left little surprises there. I don’t like to clean my fish in that kind of situation.
Using a public cleaning station is fine, but anglers will want to have either a wooden fish cleaning board or a thin plastic cutting board which can be used to keep the fresh fish out of the nastiness. Fish cleaning boards are not expensive, and they go a long way toward keeping fresh fillets clean for freezing.
The plastic fish cleaning boards are super-easy to clean. Just hit them with some water and a little bleach solution, wipe off to dry, and that’s it until next time they are needed.
Next, fillets should be immediately bagged in Ziploc or other plastic bags and put right back on ice. At all steps of the cleaning process, the more the fresh fish can be kept at almost freezing temperatures, the better it will taste and will keep.
Properly Freezing Seafood
Freezing seafood is really not rocket science. It comes down to this: Keep air away from the fish and it will keep longer and taste better. There are lots of ways to do this.
The LSU Factsheet on Handling and Freezing Seafood says that seafood should be frozen rapidly. First, pre-chill the seafood. Research has shown that rapid freezing results in the best quality of the seafood. Make sure that the temperature of the freezer is around 0 degrees F. Put the seafood in small packages and spread them out to allow cold air circulation around the bags until frozen.
Fillets freeze best when placed flat in sealed freezer bags. It’s not necessary to add water. Before completely closing the bag, force the air out through a small opening (this is crucial!) and quickly finish zipping or closing the bag. The bag should be pulled tight around the fillet, like a vacuum package.
A very important last step in the freezing process: Get a Sharpie marker and put the date the fish was frozen on the package. This will help the angler and cook to keep track of what frozen fish need to be used first and will keep the fillets from spending too much time in the freezer before being used.
Freezing larger, whole fish is tough. The LSU Factsheet recommends that large, whole fish with skin on are best when they are first frozen, then dipped in ice water to form a protective glaze over the whole fish, and then wrapped in freezer paper for long-term freezing.
Of course, if an angler has access to a vacuum-bagging machine, the whole freezing process is much easier and much more likely to produce good results. When using a vacuum bagging machine, try to not put too many fillets in a single package. The fillets need room to freeze quickly and thoroughly.
Now, when it comes to actually using the frozen fillets, anglers and cooks need to know that just as rapid freezing was crucial for best results, so is the thawing of frozen seafood for cooking.
The LSU Factsheet recommends that rapid thawing is important to protect the quality retention of rapid freezing. Seafood should be thawed in the package under running water—slightly warm—not hot. Simply opening the package and putting the seafood directly in the water may cause texture, color, and flavor changes; in other words, keep the water away from the thawing seafood.
How Long Will It Keep?
Freezing seafood should not be seen as a long-term situation. For most frozen seafood, about six months is the longest period that the frozen fish will remain of a high quality. The sooner the frozen fish can be used, the better will be its quality.
I have eaten fish that has been frozen for considerably longer than six months, and in some cases, it was not too bad.
However, there are limits. I found a package of frozen yellowfin tuna in the bottom of our freezer the last time we emptied the freezer for cleaning. The package had been frozen for almost three years, but I was really hungry for some grilled tuna. I thawed the tuna, and then I seasoned it and put it on the grill. It looked good when it was done.
When it came time to eat, well, let’s just say that the wonderful taste of fresh tuna was not there. In fact, there was no taste at all.
So, with freezing seafood, there are limits on how long the frozen fish will keep. But with just a little care and good kitchen technique, frozen seafood can help provide some good meals later in the season, and can help make some great days outdoors—on the table.