Fish is one of the healthiest protein sources on the market! This makes it a coveted item to include in your regular diet. However, the one caveat is that this meat is known to spoil more quickly than other options, and, for those who are preparing the catch of the day or serving their store-bought salmon for dinner, how long can cooked fish sit out before it spoils?
We go over what you need to know so that you won’t be floundering!
Cooked fish, no matter what type, should sit out for no longer than two hours at room temperature. Otherwise, you risk dangerous bacteria beginning to grow.
However, depending on the species of fish that you are cooking, some options should be moved to refrigeration sooner.
Coldwater fish with high levels of unsaturated fats, like salmon and rainbow trout, will spoil faster than warm water fish with low levels of these fatty acids, such as Mahi Mahi and catfish.
This is why it is so important to use warming trays when your cooked fish will be left out for extended periods of time.
- Seafood Storage Guidelines – Cooked Fish
- How To Properly Freeze Cooked Fish
- Final Thoughts
Seafood Storage Guidelines – Cooked Fish
Room Temperature Safety
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “seafood should never be left out [for] over two hours.” When perishable foods, like cooked fish, are allowed to sit out at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for long periods of time, they will begin to rapidly grow dangerous bacteria.
This applies to both raw and cooked types of fish as well as cooked fish sauce.
Additionally, environmental factors can play a detrimental role in the longevity of your food. The 2-Hour Rule only applies to foods sitting indoors at room temperature (between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit).
If the temperature rises above 90 degrees or the food are left in direct sunlight, this time frame will drop to one hour.
Fridge & Freezer Recommendations
Seafood products will always be safest when stored in the refrigerator or freezer. However, due to the truncated time frame that fish remains fresh, it is best to only keep cooked fish in the fridge for three to four days after cooking.
If it will not be consumed within this time frame, then make a point to freeze the fish prior to the four-day mark. When stored properly, cooked fish can last up to three months in the freezer. After this, the quality of the fish will greatly degrade.
IMPORTANT NOTE:If you have allowed your cooked fish to sit out for longer than two hours, do not consume or freeze it. Discard it instead.
You do not want to risk contracting a food borne illness. Thus, if your cooked fish is left out overnight, it is not longer safe to eat.
Thawing Frozen Cooked Fish
Fish is a naturally flaky and lean protein source. This lack of fat causes it to dry out easily.
It can also make it more susceptible to texture changes when exposed to extreme temperature changes. What this means is that you need to be extra cautious when defrosting your fish.
In order to maintain consistency, always place the frozen fish in the fridge at least 24 hours before consumption. This is exceptionally important for species with a high water content where texture changes are more likely.
Additionally, make sure to reheat your fish within three to four days of thawing.
Furthermore, NEVER allow the frozen cooked fish to sit out on the counter to thaw. This is not a safe technique. Moreover, a cold water bath is not a good option either because it will change the consistency of the fish.
When either of these techniques is used, you cannot refreeze the cooked fish if you find yourself unable to reheat it after thawing. If you do want to refreeze your fish, it must be done within 24 hours of defrosting in the refrigerator.
The Species Of The Fish Impacts How Long It Can Sit Out-Comparing Mahi Mahi, Rainbow Trout, Catfish & Chinook Salmon
Climate Where It Originates
Fish are cold-blooded creatures that spend their lives submerged in water. This means that their surroundings are what dictate their internal temperatures and their bodies have acclimated to handling these types of conditions.
Time is of the essence when it comes to storing your fish, especially for species that live in cold climates. Fish like tuna, salmon, tilapia, rainbow trout, and mackerel thrive in ice-cold waters and will therefore go rancid the fastest.
Conversely, fish found in tropical and subtropical ocean environments as well as those that inhabit warm rivers and streams, such as mahi-mahi, catfish, and alligator gar, will fare much better in room temperature conditions.
The species of fish that you cook will determine how long it can sit out. This means that while you can leave cooked fish out for two hours, you will notice more rapid changes in the flavor, texture, and aroma of the fish from cold-water environments, so it is best to move those varieties to refrigeration sooner.
Saturated Versus Unsaturated Fat Content Levels
A major adaptation of cold-water fish is a high concentration of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. This allows them to better regulate their body temperatures in these extreme environments.
While these unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) are an integral part of a healthy diet, they also make your fish more susceptible to spoilage by oxygen.
Thus, unlike their warm-blooded counterparts that you find in the meat section of the supermarket, this protein source will go bad much more quickly, even in proper storage.
This plays a huge factor in the time you can safely allow your cooked fish to sit out in room temperature conditions.
Conversely, saturated fats are much more stable when oxygen is present. This means that the higher the level of this fatty acid, the better the cooked fish will handle sitting out for long periods of time.
|Mahi Mahi||Rainbow Trout||Catfish||Chinook Salmon|
(per 100 grams)
|1.38 grams||0.72 grams||3.10 grams|
(per 100 grams)
|0.14 grams||1.51 grams||0.86 grams||
(per 100 grams)
|0.10 grams||1.98 grams||0.84 grams||
*These values are for raw fish.
While high in saturated fats, salmon also has notable levels of unsaturated fats, confirming that it will not do well in room temperature conditions for long. This can also be seen in the stats for rainbow trout.
Conversely, the warm climate fish, catfish, and mahi-mahi have extremely low levels of these healthy fatty acids, allowing these cooked fish to sit out for the entire two-hour window with much less worry of spoilage.
Water Content Of The Fish
Another factor in food storage is water content. The higher the percentage, the greater the likelihood of texture changes that will occur during freezing.
Catfish has the highest percentage, followed by Rainbow Trout and Salmon. Mahi Mahi comes in last, making this dense and meaty fish the most ideal option to freeze.
That is not to say that all of these species of fish can be kept in cold storage. It just means that the method of freezing is imperative to keeping the original consistency. Therefore, flash freezing and vacuum sealing are paramount for preserving these high water content species.
How To Properly Freeze Cooked Fish
Step 1: Prepare Your Fish To Freeze
The first step in freezing any cooked product is to allow it to FULLY cool. However, leaving the cooked fish to sit out on the counter for long periods is not a safe way to achieve this result.
As mentioned, you need to leave the food out for less than two hours. When you approach the end of this time frame, transfer the cooked fish to the fridge until it is no longer warm.
Step 2: Flash Freeze Your Cooked Fish
Why Flash Freezing?
Flash freezing is the ideal process for preserving seafood items because it limits texture changes in the meat. By allowing the food to quickly reach zero degrees Fahrenheit, you diminish the instance of large ice crystals forming in the muscle fibers.
Why does this matter? When these water particles expand and contract during the freezing and thawing processes, it stretches out the muscle. Additionally, fish is extremely low in fat and connective tissue.
This means that once it is stretched, texture changes will be much more evident. The quicker the freeze, the smaller the water particles will be.
Quickly Freeze Your Fish
The easiest way to flash freeze in a household refrigerator is to lower the appliance’s temperature. First, set the thermostat to the lowest setting possible.
Second, clear off the shelves that you will be putting the fish on to ensure that there is ample airflow. Also, make sure that none of the air vents in the freezer are obstructed.
Next, take a baking tray that will fit in your freezer and line it with wax paper. Then, place your fish fillets evenly along with the sheet.
Slide the tray into the freezer and let the cooked fish sit for a few hours in order to reach zero degrees. Once frozen, reset your freezer to the original temperature.
Step 3: Package The Cooked Fish
There are two methods for packaging cooked fish – vacuum sealing and freezer-safe ziplock bags. The first method is the optimal choice because it will completely eliminate the instance of oxygen and moisture.
The latter technique is much more affordable but can bring the need for a shorter time in freezer storage.
When vacuum sealing, it is imperative that you portion out your fish. Conversely, when using freezer-safe ziplock bags, you can easily extract the amount you need and then place the remainder back in the freezer.
Whichever method you choose, package the flash-frozen cooked fish. Make sure to remove as much air as possible with the ziplock bags before sealing.
Then, apply a tight layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil over the top of the plastic and label it with the date. Freeze the fish for up to three months.
If you want to let your cooked fish sit out for long periods of time, it is important that you utilize a warming tray. This can safeguard your meal and greatly elongate the time you can keep it out of refrigeration.
Finally, since fish is much more likely to dry out in cold storage, the last thing you want to do is exacerbate the problem when reheating your cooked fish.
Thus, always add a moisture source to the pan or baking dish. This can include olive oil, lemon or cream based sauces or even just a dash of water. Moreover, cover the pan to trap in the steam!
Heidi is a wife, mother, Newfie owner, writer and Meteorologist. She was born and raised in Texas and has worked in the broadcast industry for over a decade.