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Stock Up Your Catch for Winter

How to freeze your rockfish

We baked a whole, handsomely fat, 34-inch rockfish in a Cuban barbeque box (lacajachina.com) for my middle son’s college graduation. It was delicious. The remarkable thing about that treat was not that the dish came out so well (the barbeque box is simple to use) but that the fish had been stored in the freezer since the middle of last season. It tasted almost fresh-caught.
    Years past, I experienced much disappointment in freezing fish for longer than one or two months. Fish frozen for longer sometimes resulted in strong-tasting and stronger-smelling dinners.
    The difference is that vacuum-packing machines are much better at eliminating all air from the package; contemporary plastic bags also seem to be more durable and puncture-proof. Allowing any air to reach the fish during storage is a sure way to ruin its table quality.
    Preparing whole fish for freezing is a fairly simple affair. The fish should immediately be immersed in ice (but not ice water) after catching. As soon as practicable, it should be thoroughly scaled, eviscerated and the gills and all traces of organs removed. This includes scraping the backbone and inside of the head of all dark meat.
    The fish should then be thoroughly rinsed and dried. Finally rub it, inside and out, with olive oil. The coating of oil further protects the fish from air and allows it to slide into the ­vacuum bags without difficulty.
    Be careful to prevent the many sharp spines of the fish’s fins from puncturing the plastic bag during processing and storage. If the fish is moved at all within the freezer to access other foods, it should be
re-examined for vacuum failure.
    Now vacuum pack and store each fish individually in the freezer — not stacked together — to minimize freezing time.
    Freezing rockfish fillets is even simpler. Again, ice the fish immediately after catching. Fillet and skin as soon as possible. Remove the dark lateral line by incising along each side at a sharp angle, pulling that meat away and discarding. The dark meat is strong tasting, and that taste only gets stronger and migrates to the rest of the fillet over time in storage. The dark meat section is also where toxins tend to concentrate.
    Using the vacuum packer as before, process the flat fillets in quantities that are convenient to use all at once.
    If you don’t have a vacuum machine, fillets can be frozen almost as effectively by placing the pieces in appropriately sized heavy-duty zipper-locking freezer bags and adding water. Wrap the bags tightly against the fish, force out all the air and as much water as possible, seal and place them individually in the freezer. The added water insures that no air will reach the fish during storage.
    Maintaining a cold — at least zero-degree — freezer is also essential to long-term storage. Above that, bacteria can emerge and eventually cause unwanted flavor changes. Commercial fish storage is generally maintained at minus-20 degrees, but a household fridge may not be able to reach that temperature. Use an aftermarket temperature gauge and the lowest possible freezer setting for best results.
    I routinely can keep vacuum-packaged whole and filleted fish up to a year and water-filled frozen fillets up to six months without risking culinary disappointment. However, if the integrity of the vacuum sealing has been compromised during storage, there are only two remedies: thaw and cook the fish immediately or redo the packaging. Attempts to repair holes in the bags with tape or glue inevitably result in poor table quality.