Commercial bulk fishing methods tend to result in lower quality fish. Trawling crushes and bruises fish in the cod-end of the net while gill-nets kill fish that often soak for many hours before the nets are cleared. Longline fishing generally lands better quality fish, but it depends on how long the line is left to fish. Too long and many of the fish die on the line, are mauled by sharks, or become infested with sea lice.
Fortunately for recreational anglers, fish taken on hook and line are always fresh. It’s what we do with them afterwards that makes all the difference at the table.
Step one is to land/boat the fish as quickly as possible to reduce the build-up of lactic acid in the flesh. The longer a fish struggles on the line, the greater the build-up of lactic acid and other chemical compounds.
Don’t leave a fish to die slowly. Once boated, kill it quickly and humanely. Allowing a fish to thrash around on the deck, the rocks or the jetty bruises the meat and causes a further build-up of stress-related hormones and enzymes that adversely affect eating quality. Cover the eyes of a thrashing fish to calm it and dispatch it immediately.
Learn how to kill fish quickly. For most species, a spike to the brain works best, though finding the right spot takes practice and the location isn’t the same for every species. Sometimes a blow to the head with a
billy club or ‘priest’ is a better option.
Either way, you’ll know when you get it right: the fish will shudder or twitch, and the eyes will centre.
Once the fish is dead, cool it as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is especially important for warm-blooded fish like tuna which heat up while struggling on the line. If not dealt with smartly by chilling, the heat build-up can quickly spoil the quality of the meat.
The best way to cool a fish is to immerse it in a slurry of ice and sea water. Mix equal quantities of ice with water, adding more ice as it melts. Immersion in ice slurry brings down the temperature of the meat more quickly than
any other method.
Alternative methods in descending order of effectiveness include packing the fish in saltwater flake ice, placing it in an insulated ice box with bagged ice or using frozen bottles of water to chill the air in the icebox (better to add seawater in with the frozen bottles, since water is a much better heat conductor than air). The important thing is to get the fish on ice smartly and keep it chilled until it reaches the kitchen. Don’t break the cold cycle.
Some fish types also benefit from bleeding out before chilling: kahawai, tuna and kingfish taste better if they are bled, and some people bleed snapper as well.
There is considerable debate about whether or not a fish should be eaten on the same day it’s caught. It’s nice to prepare a fish meal at the end of day’s fishing, and most of us do it, however freshly caught fish can be challenging to fillet, and the flesh sometimes falls apart during cooking. Many cooks swear that fish cooks better and tastes superior after spending a night on ice or in the refrigerator.
Chilled fish ‘sets’ so it is easier to fillet, and it also holds together better during cooking. I often leave my catch on ice overnight to fillet the next day.
Even sashimi is better for a night in the fridge. In Japan and Korea, people seldom eat sashimi or sushi sliced from freshly caught fish. Instead, they chill fish for at least 24 hours, usually longer, so the flesh sets and develops its full flavour.
Properly chilled fish will remain in good condition for days: much of the fish caught commercially is already several days out of the water when it is sold. However, if you have no access to ice or refrigeration, fish should be eaten as soon as possible.
If you have had a decent catch which you have had to fillet before chilling it down properly, make sure you do not put a large number of fillets on top of each other in a container.
In the fridge, such a container will chill slowly from the outside in, and this can result in the inside fillets spoiling. Spread the fillets out on a tray to ensure they all chill evenly.
Most people agree fish is best eaten fresh if not necessarily on the same day it was caught. However, if you have too much fish to eat before it spoils, or want to store it for later consumption, freezing is the usual practice.
I reckon frozen fish is never as good as fresh. That’s because freezing breaks down the cell walls and releases fluids into the flesh, affecting the texture of the flesh and the way it tastes once thawed. However, some types of fish freeze better than others.
Deepwater species such as hapuku, bass, bluenose and gemfish freeze relatively well, which is lucky because they are large and yield plenty of meat. Snapper freezes okay, as does blue cod and kingfish, but kahawai and albacore tuna should be eaten fresh.
The faster fish freezes, the better it will be when thawed. For best results, small quantities of fish fillets should be bagged in heavy-duty plastic, or better still, vacuum packed and laid on a tray in the freezer. Avoid piling bags of fresh fish on top of one another in the freezer because this slows the freezing process.
Smoking is another way to deal with larger quantities of fish. Cold smoked fish will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge, longer if well smoked, and can be frozen for later consumption. Hot-smoked fish is cooked and so keeps no longer than cooked fish of any kind.
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