Supper time looms, and your stomach rumbles audibly. You’ve had a hankering for a classic shore lunch for a while now, so you raid the freezer for preserved provisions. Your excitement soars lifting the insulated lid, only to find that your bounty hasn’t fared well. The fish you reeled in and carefully cut smells rancid with desiccated edges coated in freezer burn. Wild food takes much effort to procure and process, so it’s sad to see it go to waste. We’ve all done it. I can think of a few times that I went to grab a pack of fish only to discover that dog food was in order—not a fancy dinner. As an angler, it’s important to know how to properly freeze fish.
For anglers fortunate enough to put a limit on the stringer, freezing the catch can preserve the tasty flesh for future meals. But let’s be honest, the best way to eat fish is to not freeze it at all and go straight from the water to the plate. Fish flesh breaks down as the delicate cell membranes burst when they freeze and thaw.
Much of the time though, eating fresh is just not an option—especially if you have a big haul. So, if you spent all that time getting wind- or sunburned you need to have a good system to preserve fillets for later. Enter the art of freezing—and it is an art. With a few simple steps, you can be confident that the next time you dig into the freezer your fish flesh will be almost as good as when you packed it away.
Fresh fish tends to spoil quickly so you need to be cognizant of how you handle it. Keep your fish as cold as possible from when it leaves the water to the time it hits the fillet table. If you’re planning to keep fish when it’s warm out, bring a cooler packed with ice.
Try not to drop the fish or let it flop around on the ground or in the boat; impacts like these can bruise the flesh. These stressors also make the muscles contract, leading to tougher, bloodier meat. To avoid this, use a stringer, fish basket, or livewell if you don’t have access to a cooler. Keeping the fish alive in the water ensures it will be as fresh as possible when you finally get to processing. When you are ready to clean the fish, make sure to dispatch it quickly with a blunt strike to the top of the head.
Next, remove the guts and gills if you’d like to freeze the fish whole. I like to freeze trout and other smaller fish intact. They thaw perfectly for the smoker or a stuffed trout dinner. There are a lot of great dishes you can make with fish heads, fins, skeletons, and other parts as well. Most folks choose to fillet, however.
Much debate hovers over removal the skin or scales from your fillets. I tend to skin fish with sturdy flesh, such as walleye and catfish, but leave the skin on fish with delicate meat like trout and salmon. That outer membrane will help hold the muscle together, but it does contain the mucus or “slime” layer that protects fish from infection. It’s usually this mucus that creates any “fishy” or unappealing flavor you may have experienced. So, if you’re going to leave the skin on, scrape off the scales and mucus with a scaling tool. A bottle cap, serrated side out, glued or pinned to a popsicle stick works just as well as any commercial scaling tool.
Always clean anything you’ll be freezing with cold, running water and pat dry. The idea is to wash away mucus and bacteria that can create off-flavors in the freezer.
Remember that air is your enemy when freezing fish. Direct exposure to cold air dries out the flesh and changes the color, texture, and taste to a point where it’s inedible. Lean fish species like cod, snapper, pike, and walleye are particularly prone to freezer burn. High-fat fish, such as salmon, trout, and whitefish, are susceptible to going rancid in the freezer. Rancidity is caused when fat cells oxidize from exposure to air, creating a foul scent and flavor.
In my opinion, the three best ways to freeze fish are vacuum sealing, freezer paper combined with freezer plastic or a Ziploc bag, and ice glazing. All three work well to prevent air contact while the fish is frozen.
I’m a big fan of vacuum sealers. If you haven’t tried one yet, I’d encourage you to consider it. They are a lifesaver for a number of reasons outside of freezing fish. When you begin vacuum sealing, make sure to use a large enough bag and remove any excess water that might prevent the package from sealing. I tend to check periodically on any fish that I’ve vacuum sealed just in case the plastic has been punctured or the seal broken. Handle the sealed fish carefully because ice crystals and pin bones can create tiny pinholes in the bag and let in air. If you end up finding a package that has lost its vacuum, remove the fish and seal it in a new bag. Vacuum sealing is a great and efficient method for separating fish into meal-sized portions that will thaw quickly without making a mess.
Freezer paper is my dad’s favorite way to keep fish firm and fresh. This method is more durable than vacuum bags. Dad prefers to freeze fillets in fryer batches, which he first packs into a Ziploc freezer bag, removes the air, then wraps in freezer paper. I’ve used packages of fish from him that are over a year old, and they were as fresh as if they’d been frozen yesterday. I can say with confidence that this works great. A suitable substitute for the Ziploc is plastic freezer wrap. Sure, pre-wrapping the fish and then using freezer paper, which has a plastic coating on the inside, might seem like overkill, but going the extra mile will give you comfort in knowing that the fish is good to go.
The third option is to glaze the fish by dipping them in ice-cold water and putting the dipped fish in the freezer on a pan lined with parchment paper. Preferably use a deep freezer for the coldest temperature possible. Let that water freeze, then repeat the process until the fish has a thick ice glaze of ice between ⅛- to a ¼-inch thick. For storage, you can either vacuum seal the fillets or wrap in plastic bags.
Properly frozen fish will retain its freshness for a year or more. If you follow one of these methods, you should have no worries when you decide to have your next fish fry. Just remember to gradually thaw the fish in the refrigerator or under cold, running water. There’s nothing better than a pan of fresh fish straight from the water, but with proper technique and respect for the animal, your frozen fish can be damn close.