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Storing Fish and Wild Game Meat

Clean, handle, and store your fresh game meat or fish properly so that you can safely consume it days, weeks, or months later.

Many in the hunting and fishing world would say that when you kill your prey or catch a fish, the real work begins. At this point in the harvest, it’s important that you clean, handle, and store your fresh game meat or fish properly so that you can safely consume it days, weeks, or months later. The following steps will outline the minimum steps required to ensure that your meat or fish doesn’t spoil.

For Fresh Fish

It doesn’t hurt to have a strategy for transporting and storing your fresh fish prior to hitting the water. This way, you’ll have the greatest odds of preserving the fresh flavors and textures of your fish fillets. First, off, note that the quicker the fish is killed, the less stress it will experience. Fish that die slowly—sitting in a cooler or on the floor of a boat—will experience more stress, which in-turn reduces the quality. Once your fish are dead, follow these steps:

1. Clean the Fish

Clean freshly caught fish as soon as possible. If you’re going to continue fishing for a while, put your first catches on ice until you can clean them all at once. After cleaning the fish, rinse it with clean, cold water and pat it dry with a clean towel. Cleanliness throughout these steps is essential to prevention of food-borne illnesses. Next, wrap it in waxed paper, plastic wrap, or foil.

2. Cool the Fish

The key to keeping fish fresh is keeping it cool. For instance, if you aren’t going to immediately clean your fish, transport it from the water to home wrapped and on ice. Doing so helps maintain that freshly caught taste and texture. But it’s not as simple as tossing the fish in a cooler.

Get crush or cubed ice, which allows you to surround the fish with ice. A good ratio to keep in mind is two pounds of ice for every pound of fish. Also, if it’s a saltwater catch, try to get saltwater ice. While your fish is on ice, keep the drain plug on your cooler open and add fresh ice as it melts. Allowing your fish to sit in water or melted ice will result in a mushy texture.

3. Freeze the Fish

Frozen fish will often keep for 3-12 months. When preparing your fish for the freezer, avoid as much air contact as possible. A vacuum sealer is the best protection against freezer burn or dehydrated fillets. But you can also place the fish in a plastic bag and remove as much air from the bag as possible. You can also preserve your catch by smoking, brining, canning, pickling, or drying it. If you only need to keep it for a few days, then putting clean, wrapped fish in the refrigerator will suffice.

Another method for freezing fish is glazing it, which creates a thin, protective layer of ice on the fish steaks or fillets. To glaze fish: dip the fish meat in cold water and place it in a shallow pan or sheet tray. Put the pan in the freezer, and once the water has frozen, dip and freeze them again to create another layer of ice. By repeating this process, you’ll want to achieve a ¼-inch glaze before bagging and freezing the fish for the long-term (removing as much air as possible from the bag). Regardless of your route to the freezer, keep in mind that larger fish segments will keep longer than smaller ones. Also, leaner fish tend to store better than fatty fish.

4. Thaw the Fish

When you’re ready to eat your fish, don’t throw away all your efforts by thawing it improperly—in a microwave or at room temperature. Place the fish in the fridge overnight or put wrapped fish in cold water for faster thawing. Once the fish has been thawed, eat it within one day for the freshest flavor.

Wild Game

Breaking down or butchering a harvest can take a lot of time and effort, but done right, it can result in many delicious meals to come. Keep the following best practices in mind as you process and store your harvest:

1. Manage Your Harvest

Once you’ve taken down an animal, it’s time to dive into field dressing it or getting it to a cold storage unit as quickly as possible. When field dressing your harvest, be careful to use sanitary tools—including gloves, knives, and coolers—to prevent the growth of bacteria. If you’ll be butchering your own animal, avoid attempting to chill or freeze large cuts of meat, as they require much more time to freeze completely. The goal is to cool down the meat has quickly as possible, so prepare meal-sized cuts or quantities for storage. This way, you can avoid thawing and refreezing your game meat.

2. Avoid Air Exposure

While processing wild game, you want to minimize the meat’s air exposure. Use quality freezer wrappers that are designed specifically for freezing—the most common types include heavily waxed freezer paper or freezer specific plastic bags. Vacuum sealing these plastic bags is the best option to avoid spoilage or freezer burn. When doing so, squeeze out as much air from the bag as you can before using the machine to finish the work. Finally, inspect the seal for any leaks.

For ground meat, consider buying tube-shaped, polyethylene ground meat bags, which make portioning out your wild game easier. If you’re using your own freezer bags for ground meat, flatten the meat rather than balling it up. Flattening the meat will not only make it easier to stack in the freezer, it makes it easier to squeeze out the air in the bag, and the meat will thaw more efficiently.

It’s recommended that ground meat or stew meat is eaten within two to three months of freezing, while roasts and steaks can usually be frozen from eight to twelve months. Once thawed, wild game meat should be consumed within two to three days.

3. Organize Your Freezer

Before your meat reaches its final storage destination—your freezer—save your future self some hassle by labeling the packages. These labels should includes the contents of the package (or cut) and the date. Nothing deters a steak dinner like thawing out burger meat instead. It may not be the end of the world, but it may disrupt your dinner plans.

Then, strategically organize your freezer, being sure not to overload it and dispersing the packages throughout to encourage air circulation. If your freezer is stocked with meat from various animals, organize the freezer by harvest so that you can eat first what was added to the freezer first. While arranging your various packages of meat, be gentle. Even though the wrapping is heavy duty, you’d hate to unknowingly tear the package or destroy the seal on a freezer bag. Finally, avoid placing your freezer next to anything that produces heat—near a stove, water heater, or in direct sunlight. It’s important that your freezer maintains a consistently cool temperature.

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