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Cooking Your Catch

Congratulations on Your Catch!

To make sure you eat your catch at its best, protect it from the beginning by cleaning, dressing, and freezing it as soon as possible. Prepare a fish for freezing in the same way you would for table use: scale, gut, remove the head and fins, wash thoroughly, and drain. Freeze small fish whole. They can be frozen in a block of ice by placing the fish, usually in a single layer, in a clean container with a tight-fitting lid. Cover the fish with cold water and freeze.

Fillet or steak large fish. Wrap the fish in heavy-duty aluminum foil, plastic freezer wrap or heavy-duty freezer bags. Separating fish layers with two thicknesses of packaging material will allow for easier thawing. Remember to label the package with the date it was frozen.

Remove the Fat

For larger fish caught in waters with consumption advisories, remove as much fat and skin as you can when you fillet or steak them. (Consumption advisory information can be obtained from your state health department.) The fat is usually found along the top, center, and bottom edges of a fillet, or on the fish as shown below. Although the fat found in certain fishes can be beneficial for its content of omega-3 fatty acids, fat is also the place in fish where contaminants accumulate (except for mercury, which is distributed throughout the fish). Cooking also helps remove contaminants, regardless of the method used. A 1993 study at Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Public Health found that trimming and cooking Great Lakes fish could reduce contaminants by as much as 81 percent in some cases.

Storage Life

The recommended storage temperature for fish is 0 degrees F or lower. Check the temperature of your freezer to be sure it's cold enough. Fish stored at 15 degrees for as little as two weeks show a significant loss of quality.

High fat-content fish generally develop a rancid odor and flavor more quickly during frozen storage than leaner fish. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Here is a general guide:

Approximate storage life of frozen fish
Species Months of Storage
Lake trout, rainbow trout, whitefish, carp, catfish, lake herring, smelt, northern pike 3-5
Chinook salmon, coho salmon, white bass, sucker, burbot 5-8
Walleye, yellow perch, bass, crappie, bluegill 8-12

Thawing Time

Fish should be thawed in the refrigerator, which takes about a day for a one-pound package. A faster method is to place the fish in cold water until thawed (1-2 hours). It should remain in a moisture-proof wrapping (like freezer bags) while thawing.

Still faster is the microwave. Thaw the fish in a closed package, glass baking dish, or loosely wrapped in waxed paper. Set the oven to defrost and microwave according to the schedule below. Only partially defrost the fish. Microwaving it too long will cook the outer edges. Remove the fish from the oven and let it stand for five minutes. If necessary, finish thawing under cold water.

Approximate times for thawing fish
Fish Refrigerator Cold water Microwave
Whole fish (about 4 ½ lbs.) 20 hours 1 ¼ hours 5 minutes, turn over, 5-6 minutes
Fish steaks (1 lb.) 8 hours ½ hour 4-5 minutes
Fillets (1 lb.) 8 hours ½ hour 3 minutes, turn over, 3-4 minutes

Cook the fish while it is still chilled. Prepare it in the same manner as fresh fish. If the fish is only partially-defrosted, allow additional cooking time. When cooking in a microwave, the cooking container should have a cover to prevent excessive moisture loss. Plastic cling wrap makes a convenient cover for most recipes. A hole should be poked in the wrap to allow steam to escape. Only use cling wraps specified for microwave use. Never refreeze fish. Although refrozen fish can be safe to eat when properly cooked, refreezing can cause a substantial loss of taste and texture.

Cooking Hints

  • Don’t overcook your fish. Cooking fish at too high a temperature or for too long a time toughens it, dries it out and destroys the flavor.
  • Fish is done when the flesh changes from a translucent to an opaque appearance. You can test for doneness by placing a fork in the thickest part of the flesh. The fish should flake easily when pierced with a fork.
  • Fish flesh is tender and should be handled as little as possible during and after cooking to preserve its appearance.
  • Fish to be breaded and stuffed is easier to handle if it is thawed first. Frozen fillets and steaks may be cooked without thawing, but additional cooking time should be allowed.


You don’t have to be a gourmet to enjoy cooking fish. It’s fun and easy when you know the various methods. Here's a glossary of terms:

cooking in a simmering liquid
cooking by steam generated from boiling water
cooking by dry heat, usually in an oven
cooking in a liquid at a rolling boil
a dry heat method — the heat is direct, intense, and comes from only one source
Charcoal broiling
cooking over hot coals
Deep-fat frying
cooking by immersion in hot fat or oil
Pan frying
cooking in a small amount of fat or oil
Oven frying
Oven frying produces a product similar to fried fish, but the cooking time is shorter than regular baking because the temperature is higher. This method is especially good for serving fish to large groups.

Timetable for cooking fish


Baked Stuffed Lake Trout

  • 2 lb. lake trout,whole
  • 1 small can, tiny, broken shrimp
  • ½ cup bread crumbs
  • 1/3 cup chopped onion
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
  • ¼ tsp. celery seed
  • 1/3 cup mushrooms
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice

Clean trout, leaving the head and tail intact and wipe dry. Debone. Saute onions and mushrooms; combine with rest of ingredients. Fill the trout with dressing and if you want, sew together the sides of the fish with heavy thread. (Remember to remove the thread before serving!) Rub the trout well with oil and place in an oiled pan. Cover tightly with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. 4 generous servings. (From Kitchi Gami Cookery, Jean B. Humphrey.)

One method of deboning fish is to cut the backbone behind the head from inside the body cavity. Using your thumb and forefinger, slowly run your fingers along the ribs, gently squeezing away the flesh. Pull the backbone away as you go. Cut the backbone in front of the tail and remove.

Poached Fish Fillets With Cheese Sauce

  • 1 lb. fish fillets, any kind
  • Dash of pepper
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 Tbsp. flour
  • 2 Tbsp. cooking sherry or white cooking wine
  • 3 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • Dash of paprika
  • ½ tsp. salt

Put ¾ cup of milk, cooking sherry or wine, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper into skillet; mix and heat to simmer. Add fish fillets. Cover and poach until done. With a slotted spatula, carefully remove fish to a serving platter. Cover to keep warm. Combine ¼ cup milk and flour in a bowl; stir until flour is dissolved. Add to simmering liquid in pan and stir well with a wire whisk. Add grated cheese and stir until melted and thick. Pour over fillets; sprinkle with paprika and serve. Serves 2-4. (Developed by the Wisconsin and Minnesota Sea Grant Programs.)

Fish Steaks With Lemon-Thyme Marinade (for the microwave)

  • 4 fish steaks each about 1 inch thick
  • 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. grated lemon peel
  • ¼ cup dry white wine
  • ¼ tsp. dried thyme, crumbled
  • 4 Tbsp. minced green onions

Arrange fish, thickest parts to the outside, in microwave-safe baking dish. Combine soy sauce, wine, 3 Tbsp. green onions, oil, lemon peel and thyme. Pour over fish; turn over to coat both sides. Marinate 30 minutes, turning fish over once. Carefully discard excess marinade. Cover dish with wax paper or plastic wrap. Microwave on medium-high (70%) 2 ½ minutes. Turn fish over and sprinkle with remaining green onions. Cover and microwave on medium-high 2 ½ minutes longer, or until fish flakes when tested with fork. Serve immediately. Serves 4. (Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.)

Pan Fried Fish

  • 1 lb. fish fillets, any kind, or 1 lb. dressed smelt
  • 1 Tbsp. milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp. oil or margarine
  • ½ cup cornmeal
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Clean and wash fish. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Roll in cornmeal, dip in egg diluted with milk or water. Roll in cornmeal again. Heat 2 Tbsp. oil or margarine in skillet. Using low heat, brown the fish on one side, then the other.

Variations: Soak the fish in lemon juice for 10-15 minutes before frying to bring out the delicate flavor. Other crumbs can be used instead of the cornmeal: bread crumbs, cracker crumbs, crushed cornflakes, or flour. Serves 4. (Minnesota Sea Grant.)

Charcoal Broiled Salmon or Lake Trout

  • 2 lbs. salmon or lake trout fillets
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ cup butter, melted
  • ¼ cup brown sugar

Melt butter, add soy sauce and brown sugar and mix. Place fillets, skin side down, on grill over moderate charcoal fire and cover with foil. Baste fillets occasionally during cooking with mixture. Do not turn fish. When flesh flakes easily (after approximately 12 minutes depending on grill temperature and fillet thickness) lift fillet off skin with a spatula and serve. Serves 4. (Dexter Nelson, Lake Superior charter captain, First Mate Charters.)

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This page last modified on May 04, 2016     © 1996 – 2020 Regents of the University of Minnesota     The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
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