Is your leftover fish safe to eat? We give you the lowdown on keeping cooked fish fresh and safe to eat.
The sun has set on your lively neighborhood fish fry. The laughter, the camaraderie, and the sizzle of fresh catch hitting hot oil are all but memories now.
In your refrigerator, amid the echoes of a successful event, lay the remnants: golden-battered cod and crisp-skinned salmon fillets, their once-crisp coats softened slightly.
Now, the question that lingers isn’t one of recipe or technique, but one of time. Just how long does cooked fish last in the fridge before it’s no longer safe to eat?
How Long Does Cooked Fish Last?
Knowledge is power, as the age-old adage goes. And when it comes to food safety, knowledge is an absolute necessity.
Understanding exactly how long you can keep cooked fish for and how to store your fish properly can mean the difference between a casual weeknight dinner and a trip to the emergency room.
How Long Does Cooked Fish Last at Room Temperature?
Once your fish leaves the frying pan, a clock starts ticking.
If cooked fish is left at room temperature for too long, it can become overgrown with harmful bacteria and cause food poisoning.
At room temperature, cooked fish is safe to eat for 2 hours (on warm days, when the outside temperature is 90°F/32°C and above, that time is reduced to just 1 hour).1University of Nebraska-Lincoln (n.d.). Will Reheating Food Make It Safe If You Forget to Refrigerate It? UNL Food. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://food.unl.edu/article/will-reheating-food-make-it-safe-if-you-forget-refrigerate-it
So don’t leave cooked fish on the kitchen countertop or the dining table for too long. Beyond this time window, disease-causing bacteria can multiply rapidly, and the risk of foodborne illness significantly increases.
How Long Does Cooked Fish Last in the Fridge?
If you refrigerate leftover cooked fish within 1-2 hours, it can last for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.2Zeratsky, K. (2022, October 4). How long can you safely keep leftovers in the refrigerator? Mayo Clinic. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/food-safety/faq-20058500
With that being said, to get the best texture and flavor, it’s a good idea to consume refrigerated cooked fish the following day, or within two days at most.
The longer cooked fish is stored in the fridge, the more it will dry out and lose its appeal. Be sure to store it in airtight containers or tightly wrapped to help the cooked fish stay fresh.
How Long Does Cooked Fish Last in the Freezer?
Should you wish to prolong the shelf life of your cooking fish, the freezer is your ally.
From a safety perspective, frozen fish is safe to eat indefinitely. This is because freezing fish at 0°F (-18°C) inactivates the enzymes that make it go bad and puts the bacteria that grow on it into a state of pause.3(2023, January 18). Are You Storing Food Safely? U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/are-you-storing-food-safely
But from a quality point of view, frozen cooked fish can only spend so many months in the freezer before it starts to lose its aroma, mouthfeel, and richness of taste. For best quality, consume leftover fish within 3 months from the date of freezing.4U.S. Department of Agriculture. (March 22, 2023). How long can you store fish? Ask USDA. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/How-long-can-you-store-fish
Tips for Storing Cooked Fish Properly
Now that we’ve gone over the shelf life of cooked fish, the next step is to discuss how to store it correctly.
Refrigeration Tips for Cooked Fish
Refrigerate cooked fish in food storage containers or wrapped in plastic wrap or aluminum foil, ensuring that the lid or wrap is tightly sealed.
This will help to prevent air from getting in and keep the fish from getting tainted by smells from other foods in your refrigerator. Remember that cooked fish lasts for up to 4 days when it’s properly refrigerated, so make sure to eat it within this limit.
If you kept the fish for less than 4 days but you’re unsure whether it’s still safe to eat, use your senses. If it smells fishy or has a slimy texture, it’s best to err on the side of caution and throw it out.
And if you kept it for 5 days or longer, throw it out — even if it still looks and smells perfectly fine.
Spoilage bacteria and pathogenic bacteria are not the same thing. While the former give cooked fish a slimy texture and a bad smell, the latter are stealth and completely undetectable to our senses.5Jarvie, M. (2015, October 22). Food spoilage and food pathogens, what’s the difference? MSU Extension. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/food_spoilage_and_food_pathogens_whats_the_difference
In other words, fish kept for too long may appear good but nevertheless cause food poisoning.
Freezing Cooked Fish for Longer Storage
If you plan to store cooked fish for more than 4 days, freezing is the only option. Freezing food at 0°F (-18°C) pauses the activity and growth of bacteria, which can extend the shelf life of your cooked fish.
When freezing cooked fish, wrap it tightly in a freezer bag or aluminum foil and ensure that all the air is squeezed out. This will help to prevent freezer burn and maintain the quality of the fish.
Label the package with the date that you froze it so that you can keep track of how long it has been in the freezer.
When you’re ready to use up your frozen cooked fish, let it thaw in the fridge overnight or use cold running water.
Using the microwave to thaw it can leave the fish dry and gummy. Thawing in hot water or on the countertop can make it unsafe to eat.
From that first 1-2 hours post-frying, when bacteria may multiply rapidly at room temperature, to the chilly refuge of the fridge where your battered delights can hold their own for 3 to 4 days, to the deep freeze where they can brave for up to 3 months, you now understand the journey of cooked fish beyond the dinner table.
With each storage method, you gain a little more control over the clock, a little more assurance of the meal to come. Remember, maintaining the quality of your fish fry leftovers requires more than just understanding the timeframe — it also needs a commitment to proper storage practices.
Whether it’s ensuring a tight seal before refrigerating or packing them up carefully for their deep freeze, the choices you make here will determine if your leftovers still evoke the lively spirit of the original feast when you next revisit them.
- 1University of Nebraska-Lincoln (n.d.). Will Reheating Food Make It Safe If You Forget to Refrigerate It? UNL Food. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://food.unl.edu/article/will-reheating-food-make-it-safe-if-you-forget-refrigerate-it
- 2Zeratsky, K. (2022, October 4). How long can you safely keep leftovers in the refrigerator? Mayo Clinic. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/food-safety/faq-20058500
- 3(2023, January 18). Are You Storing Food Safely? U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/are-you-storing-food-safely
- 4U.S. Department of Agriculture. (March 22, 2023). How long can you store fish? Ask USDA. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/How-long-can-you-store-fish
- 5Jarvie, M. (2015, October 22). Food spoilage and food pathogens, what’s the difference? MSU Extension. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/food_spoilage_and_food_pathogens_whats_the_difference