Catching salmon yourself or accepting it as a gift from a trusted friend ensures the freshest fish possible — and once you’ve had truly fresh salmon, you’ll never willingly source it from the supermarket again.
Unlike seafood you purchase at the local grocery store, though, the salmon you or your friends catch doesn’t come with an expiration date stamped on the label.
Those who are new to harvesting and consuming their own salmon often have questions about how long it takes for it to go bad.
When salmon is spoiled, it can host a range of pathogens with the potential to make you ill. Fortunately, you can usually count on your nose to know when salmon is still safe to eat and when it’s time to toss it.
How Fishy is Too Fishy?
Fresh salmon should smell like the sea, with a faintly fishy smell at most.
Salmon and other saltwater finfish have a protective compound called trimethylamine oxide in their cellular tissues which begins to decompose into trimethylamine after the fish is caught and exposed to the air.
As the decomposition progresses, the flesh of the fish begins to take on more of that characteristically fishy odor.
The stronger the odor, the more likely that the fish is contaminated to the extent that it shouldn’t be consumed.
The biggest red flag when it comes to salmon is a sour or ammonia-like odor — the fish should be discarded immediately if either or both of these are part of the picture.
The Yuck Factor
Those with a normally functioning sense of smell know exactly what the “yuck” factor is — it’s a clear signal that the wisest course of action is to throw it out.
It can be trickier if the smell is strong but doesn’t quite trigger the yuck factor. Soak the salmon in milk for 20 minutes and then rinse it thoroughly with clean, clear water.
The proteins in the milk will bind with the trimethylamin and neutralize it.
The Touch Test
If you don’t quite trust your sense of smell, the touch test can tell you if the salmon is past its prime. The fresher the salmon, the more quickly it springs back when gently pressed with the fingers.
It should never feel fragile to the touch. Salmon should also feel slightly oily due to its omega-3 fatty acids, but never overly slick or slimy. It also shouldn’t feel as if it’s about to fall apart.
The flesh of fresh salmon also has a soft sheen on its surface.
If you’ve determined that the salmon is safe to eat but want to tone down its mild fishy flavor, try the following:
- Coat the salmon with honey mustard dressing, wrap in foil, and bake in the oven
- Brush salmon with olive oil, sprinkle on lemon pepper seasoning, and grill
- Mix white wine, lemon juice, and dill and poach the salmon
Don’t become overly dependent on sauces and flavorings. If your salmon consistently needs these to taste good, you need to review best practices for caring for your catch.
How to Prevent Salmon From Going Bad
Once you’ve had your first meal of freshly caught wild salmon, you’ll want to do everything possible to keep your future catch from going bad. Here’s what you need to do to prevent that:
Keep It Clean
The best practices for keeping salmon from going bad start before the fish is even caught. Your gear, deck, cooler, and everything else on your boat should be as sanitary as possible before you drop that line.
Adding one capful of bleach to a quart spray bottle full of clean water creates a simple sanitizing solution is enough to kill surface bacteria but not strong enough to harm the fish.
Spray this on all relevant surfaces and don’t rinse it off.
Bleed the Fish
Once you’ve caught your salmon, you’ll need to bleed it as soon as possible. Cut the gills and bleed your fish in a bucket of clean water, changing out the water as needed.
You can also hang the fish from a stringer over the side of the deck.
Clean and Gut the Fish
Clean your salmon on board your boat if possible instead of waiting until you get to a land-based fish cleaning station, especially if you plan to keep on fishing.
Cut out the gills, remove the internal organs, and thoroughly rinse the body. Check with local regulations — in some areas, it’s illegal to dispose of fish waste by putting it in the water.
Carry large plastic trash bags on board to keep waste contained until you can properly discard it.
Put the Fish on Ice
The sooner your salmon is bled, gutted, and put on ice, the fresher it will remain.
The best way to keep your salmon cold until it’s time to go home is to add just enough water to an ice-filled cooler to create a slushy consistency.
This cools the fish more quickly than just packing it in ice if you push the salmon down gently so that it’s covered by the slushy mixture.
Never allow fish to lie out in the sun. If you have no other way to keep it cool, cover the fish with a loose cloth and place it in the shade.
Refrigerate the Fish Immediately Upon Arriving Home
Once you arrive home, wrap the salmon in good-quality plastic cellophane, wrap it again in either butcher paper, and place it in the coldest part of your refrigerator.
Adding fresh slice of lemon or two can help neutralize any trimethylamine on the surface of the fish. Cook and eat the salmon within two days.
Any salmon that your household can’t consume within two days should be frozen and saved for later.
After wrapping the salmon in cellophane, wrap it again in freezer paper and place it in the freezer.
Better yet, invest in a home vacuum sealing device — vacuum packed fish lasts a year or more in the freezer without succumbing to freezer burn instead of just a couple of months.
No matter how you package it, place the fish on single layers on racks in the freezer until it’s frozen solid.
The takeaway here is to carefully care for your salmon from the time it’s caught until the time it hits your plate. If you’re lucky, you’ll harvest way more salmon than you can consume within a reasonable amount of time.
Rusty enjoys connecting food and nature and has done so since a child. He was fortunate enough to explore cuisine worldwide and work at great European restaurants. He now enjoys thinking up new recipes that he can find around him in nature in North America.