Should You Rinse Fish Before Cooking?

Published Categorized as Cooking Tips
A photo of a man rinsing a fish in the sink

The smell of fish will guide you to your next culinary adventure. Or will it? What you need to know about prepping fish for cooking.

When cooking in the kitchen, you should wash some things, like your cutting board, cookware, and utensils, with warm soapy water.

Others, like fruits, vegetables, and fresh herbs, just need to be rinsed thoroughly to remove the bacteria from the dirt (or, before they got to your fridge, the harvest and storage).

Raw red meat and poultry shouldn’t go anywhere near running water. The only thing you are doing when you rinse them is spreading the harmful bacteria around your kitchen and onto yourself, encouraging cross-contamination and food poisoning.

So where does raw fish stand in all this?

To prepare raw fish for cooking, rinse it under cold running water and then pat it dry. This will tone down the strong, fishy odor that’s typically caused by surface decay.

This applies to whole fish and pieces of fish, fresh-caught or packaged and refrigerated.

“Rinse cleaned whole fish and precut pieces thoroughly in cold running water,” American culinary writer Harold McGee says in Keys to Good Cooking, “scraping away any residual blood or organs from the belly cavity, then blot it dry.”

“Strong fishy smells come mainly from deterioration,” he adds, “and should wash away.”

Considering that, before Keys to Good Cooking, McGee wrote On Food and Cooking, arguably the best book ever written on the subject of the science and lore of cooking, I am inclined to trust him.

Why Does Fish Needs to Be Rinsed Before Cooking?

Fish are cold-blooded creatures that swim in the oceans and rivers, where the average temperature is well below room temperature.

According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, the average temperature of the ocean is 39°F (3.9°C), which is just about as cold as in the back of the lowest shelf of your fridge.

This means that fish taste their best when they’re caught and cooked fresh from the water, and start to deteriorate as soon as you throw them in the fishing bucket and let them sit.

This also means that the flesh of fish—thanks to the enzymes that it contains and the surface bacteria that eat it—will rot much faster than red meat or poultry, even if you keep it in the fridge.

Serious Eats editor Sho Spaeth goes as far as to recommend keeping fish fresh by surrounding it with ice cubes or ice packs when refrigerated. Do your own due diligence on the topic, and you will see that he is far from the only one.

Related: Is Fish Considered Meat?

How to Rinse Raw Fish in the Sink

Raw fish can harbor harmful bacteria and parasites that can give you food-borne illness.

The key to rinsing raw fish for cooking, then, is to do it safely and properly. Whenever you’re doing this, you’re basically looking to achieve two things:

First, you want to rinse off the yellow gunk that builds up on the surface of the fish. That gunk comprises fishy fats gone rancid and bacterial decay.

Secondly, you want to do it in such a way that you don’t splash that gunk all over yourself and your kitchen, along with the harmful bacteria that may be on the surface of the fish.

So, it’s best to rinse the fish in an empty sink under a gentle stream of cold running water and hold it near the bottom of the sink without the two touching (you don’t want to transfer bacteria from your sink to the fish, now do you?).

Blot the fish with a paper towel that’s thick enough to not impart its flesh with pulp, then lay it carefully onto the skillet, to which you’ve already added a generous glug of olive oil and which you’ve preheated while rinsing the fish.

Remember to wash your hands and sanitize anything you touched, whether by washing it with warm soapy water or by wiping it down with 70% isopropyl alcohol.

(I’m the cleanly type, so I put disposable gloves on my hands and wash them after.)

What If You Don’t Rinse the Fish Before Cooking?

Well, you will probably end up with fishy fish!

Fish should smell like the ocean or river it came from. Although fish that live in mudwater smell distinctly of… err, mud, they shouldn’t have a distinct fishy odor either.

That fishiness, as we’ve already established, comes from the bacterial decay and rancid fats on the surface of the fish, which you can easily get rid of with a quick rinse under cold running water.

So nothing bad will happen if you don’t rinse the fish. But the fish won’t taste as good as when you do go through the hassle of rinsing it either. 🙂

Final Words

The question posed “Should you rinse fish to prep it for cooking?” has a resounding answer of “Yes, you most definitely should.”

Fish, unlike raw red meat and poultry, is ameliorated by rinsing as it removes the yellow gunk from the flesh, toning down its fishy odor and improving its taste.

For food safety reasons, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that you cook the fish to an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C) as measured by a meat thermometer.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.