How Long Does Fish Last In The Freezer?

The answer depends on the type of fish and how it’s stored.

Encountered a good deal at the fish counter while doing your weekly grocery shopping and you decided to stock up? Maybe you picked up fish for several dishes for the week but then your meal plans got sidetracked and you’re not going to have a chance to cook up the salmon or halibut you purchased, so you plan to freeze it.

Freezing fish is a good option to have healthy proteins available without having to plan in advance or make a last-minute trip to the supermarket. There are several things to consider before purchasing fish as well as how to package it and freeze it. This will influence the texture and flavor.

Here’s what you need to know about how long fish lasts in the freezer.

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The Type Of Fish Matters

Fresh or Frozen

Do you go to the fish counter or head straight to the frozen section for fish? The answer may surprise you. Fresh is best, right? Well, it depends.  Before choosing fish at the seafood counter, you may want to ask some questions, explains Tiffany Swan, Retreat Chef and Food Scientist. Some questions to ask: When was the last fish delivery? Has the fish been frozen before?

Fresh fish is typically frozen before it makes its way to customers and sometimes right after it's been caught from the sea. “Most groceries sell fish that they receive frozen, so if you know you aren't going to get around to cooking the fish right away, ask the butcher to provide you with something frozen,” says Swan. “Fish is often frozen immediately off of the boat, or even on the boat, in some cases so there is little to no aging.”

Because home freezers don’t compare to industrial freezers, the way fish freezes can be different. "The freezers used to freeze fish industrially are very cold, so the ice crystals form very quickly and are therefore very small and less likely to break down the cells of the fish,” Swan says. 

Fat Content

The fat content of the fish influences how well the fish freezes and defrosts. “Fatty fish freeze and defrost better and quicker than lean fish, because the flesh is softer,” explains Herve Malivert, Director of Culinary Affairs at the Institute of Culinary Education. But fatty fish have a shorter life span in the freezer, he says.  The fatter the fish, such as salmon and trout, the more prone the cell walls can be affected or damaged by ice crystals due to their softer flesh. “Because of their higher fat content, the oils in the fish can oxidize and become rancid in the freezer, even with the very best air-removal efforts,” explains Swan. 

The way home freezers work can affect the texture of the fish. Swan explains that freeze-thaw cycles of a freezer will continually break down the fish and make the flesh mushy, so a shorter stay in the freezer often results in a firmer piece of fish.

How To Package And Store Fish In The Freezer

The way fish is packaged to store in the freezer is key to the fish freezing well and how long it can last. Eliminating air before freezing is important to ensure the fish doesn’t go bad while frozen. According to Swan, “The goal is to remove the air around the fish to prevent freezer burn and rancidity of fatty fish.”

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There are a couple ways to package fish to store in the freezer. If you have a vacuum sealer, you’ll definitely want to use it for storing fish.

Vaccum Seal

According to Malivert, “The best way to package fish to freeze is to vacuum seal, with a vacuum sealer [because] this reduces the amount of oxygen the fish will be exposed to. With less oxygen, there is less oxidation and breakdown of the fish.” Swan agrees.  “Personally, I prefer the vacuum seal because it is fast and helps to pull out extra water so it doesn't break up the fish's cells too much as the ice crystals form,” she says.

Freezer Bags

The second option is to use freezer bags. “Place your fish inside a freezer Ziploc-bag, then seal the bag, leaving just the last inch or so of the seal open,” explains Malivert.  “Next, lower the bag into a pot of cold water [and] as the bag gets lowered, water pressure will push air out of the bag through the small opening. Seal fully.”

How Long Does Fish Last In The Freezer?

The answer depends on the type of fish and how it’s stored. Chefs offer up some guidelines: “Generally, I like to consider fish stored in a home freezer for 3-4 months to be the maximum amount of time,” says Swan. But for Malivert he makes a distinction on whether it’s a fatty or lean fish and if it’s vacuum sealed or not.  “In a home freezer, fatty fish like tuna, salmon or sardine can last up to three months,” he says. “A leaner fish like halibut will last up to six months."

You may be surprised that vacuum sealed fish can last  a while  in the freezer. “When vacuum-sealed and properly stored in the freezer, fish can last for as long as a year,” adds Malivert.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it safe to refreeze fish?

    Ever take out a piece of fish from the freezer to cook a specific meal and then your plans completely change and the next time you’ll likely be cooking is several days away? If you’re thinking about putting the fish back in the freezer, you may want to reconsider. “Since fish is pretty delicate, in general, it is best not to refreeze fish that has already been frozen,” says Swan. “Each time it is frozen, then thawed, it will become increasingly more soft and mushy.”

  • Can fish go bad in the freezer?

    Yes, fish can go bad while in the freezer! You’ll likely know because of the strange smell. Swan compares frozen rancid fish to the smell of waxy crayons. And now you’re wondering, is the fish still safe to eat? “This won't hurt you, but it doesn't taste very good,” she says.

  • Where is the best place to store fish in the freezer?

    You’ll want to avoid the doors since there are temperature fluctuations. “Store fish in the coldest part of the freezer, often the very back,” advises Swan. “This will prevent large swings in those freeze-thaw cycles and will allow the fish to remain at a higher quality for a longer period of time.” 

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