Fabulous fillets start long before you begin preparing your favorite seafood dish. Any fresh fish you are not planning on eating within a few days MUST be properly frozen in order to maintain the fish’s freshness and delicate flavor. The major key to retaining quality and the fresh fish taste is timing. As soon as a fish dies, the flesh begins to breakdown if it’s not kept ice cold. Fish is also very susceptible to bacteria. Knowing that seafood is among the most perishable of all foods, great care must be taken from the time the fish is caught until it is consumed.
From fishbox to cutting board, immediately icing your catch is key to quality fillets.
Ice your catch right away.
Fish spoil quickly. As a matter of fact, the flesh begins to breakdown the moment the fish is out of its natural environment. If your boat is not equipped with an adequate fishbox, bring a large cooler with plenty of ice. A slushy solution of crushed ice and seawater, with the addition of kosher salt, will quickly chill the fish and maintain its vibrant colors. Do not leave your fish sitting in a cooler full of water. And if you intend on freezing tuna, make sure to bleed your catch the moment it hits the deck.
Fish should be as fresh as possible before freezing.
Do not wait a few days until the fish is almost spoiled before freezing. This will result in very poor quality fillets when thawed and ready to use.
Avoid freezing fish whole.
If you intend on baking a stuffed grouper or pan-frying whole yellowtail snapper, do so within three days of catching your quarry, making sure it is gutted, scaled, and kept packed in ice until doing so. Fish intended for the freezer should be filleted and skinned, making sure to trim off any undesirable scraps. I’m a stickler about ice and recommend you act the same way. Keep fillets on ice at all times until the point they reach the kitchen sink where they are thoroughly rinsed with cold running water.
Before packaging, place fillets flat and dab both sides dry with paper towels. If you want to try something new, squeeze a bit of fresh lemon juice on fillets after you’ve dabbed them dry. The flavoring will freeze into the fish and will be released when you cook them.
Air is enemy #1.
Freezer air that touches your fillet will dehydrate it and quickly destroy it with freezer burn. It’s that simple. So prevent air from contacting the fillets in order of preference by vacuum-sealing, glazing, or at the very least, wrapping the fillets tightly in Saran Wrap.
Vacuum seal fillets in appropriate proportions so you never thaw more than what you intend on cooking. It’s good practice to label each bag with the species of fish and date. Different fillets can look very similar, especially when frozen. A black Sharpie does the job nicely.
If you don’t own a Food Saver or other type of vacuum sealing system, purchase one. If you are an avid outdoorsman, they are worth every penny. Until you do, you can glaze your fillets by dipping them in cold water and laying them flat on a sheet pan in the freezer. Once the moisture freezes, repeat the process several more times until you achieve a ¼-inch thick glaze on the fillets. Afterwards, pack the glazed fillets in plastic freezer bags.
As a last resort, you can wrap your fillets tightly in Saran Wrap before packaging in plastic freezer bags, but I don’t recommend this method for long-term storage. It’s just not as effective at preventing freezer burn. Keep in mind that if done properly, freezing fillets is just fine for many fish, especially tilefish, seabass and deep water grouper and snapper. These fish spend their lives in chilly water so freezing the meat will not be as radical a change as it is for beef or poultry. This means you will get less of a loss in flavor with many frozen fish than you would with steak or chicken.
How long can you freeze your fish?
Never more than six months. Beyond that, and even the best-packed fish may have a noticeable decline in quality. Oily fish such as king mackerel and bluefish go downhill much faster. Consume these fillets within 60-days.
Properly thawing frozen fish is equally important.
When you thaw frozen fillets, do so gradually. Never thaw frozen fish in a microwave. Rather, let the fish naturally thaw in the fridge or in a cold water bath. Once fillets are thawed, avoid refreezing .
Following the above steps will guarantee that your hard earned fillets maintain their original quality and freshness with a firm, yet flaky texture even after months of freezing. Fresh fish is healthy and extremely rewarding, so spending the extra time and effort to freeze your fillets properly simply makes good sense.