The Beautiful Taste: Fish handling, Part 1

When it comes to “beautiful tastes,” there is perhaps none more beautiful than the taste of fish when the season, harvest, handling and preparation all come together…when we are lucky to taste a fish as good as it can be.

How a fish is caught and handled during its first three hours out of the water determines its eating qualities, at least that is what I found after I started paying attention to the relationship of flavor to fish handling on my own salmon troller in SE Alaska, studying hook-and-line fishing methods in different parts of the U.S. and Europe and working with chefs and fishermen conjointly to correlate what happens on deck with what happens in the pan and on the palate. The concept is simple but it took something like 10 years for the light bulb to go off.

Hook-and-line gear (longline, troll, jig, rod and reel) offers the potential for the  highest quality fish because they come aboard and can be dealt with individually. Here are the steps I have found that produce the highest quality, best tasting and most beautiful fish.

  • As soon as the fish come aboard or even before, the fish is stunned by a sharp blow to the top of the head. The heart is still pumping but the fish won’t flop and bruise itself and we can prevent the lactic acid build-up associated with struggle. The stunning step also prevents scale loss. Scale coverage is essential to the manufacture of protective slime when rigor mortis sets in. Complete scale coverage makes for beautiful, shiny fish and is probably the best indicator of how well a fisherman has handled the fish.

  • Bleed as soon as possible while the fish is alive by severing an artery between the heart and the gill. This allows the fish to die a relaxed death and removing the blood results in cleaner flavor.

  • Dress. Remove the entrails and rinse as soon as possible.
  • Get fish into ice before it goes into rigor mortis (gets stiff). Fish should be straight when they go into rigor. Pre-rigor icing is the key step to supple, resilient high quality fish.

  • In a perfect world, the fish would be left in rigor iced until it started to come out. Gaping sometimes seen in very fresh fillets (see below) comes from handling and filleting in rigor, especially if the fish in rigor gets bent in the process.

For the best flavor, texture and “mouth-feel,” the time to eat a fish is just after it comes out of rigor when the aforementioned steps have been accomplished.

It is counter-intuitive, but fish can be too fresh. Depending on the species, cooking a fish in rigor can result in a weird texture, i.e. soft, grainy or, in the case of sturgeon, like shoe leather.

For more on fish handling see: The Beautiful Taste: Fishing with Chefs in Boston. Fish Handling, Part 2

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17 Responses to The Beautiful Taste: Fish handling, Part 1

  1. Pam Okano says:

    A shirt tail family member caught a halibut up in Alaska, had it commercially frozen, and brought us back some fillets. I cooked them the way I usually cook halibut (which I normally buy from U Seafood & Poultry). Both times, they turned out TOUGH! I frequently cook halibut during the year and know I didn’t overcook. Am wondering whether handling caused the toughness. Have never had tough halibut before.

  2. Jon Rowley says:

    It is hard to offer a theory without seeing and trying it but here is one possible scenario: the fish might have been too fresh if frozen before it went into rigor. It would then proceed to go into rigor very slowly while frozen so maybe was in still in rigor when you cooked it. That’s my best guess.

    Do you still have some of the fish? If you can ask the person who caught and had it frozen how much time elapsed from catching to freezing, it might shed some light.

  3. Mike G says:

    Hi Jon. When is a fish coming out of rigor? You mention it is best to fillet and eat a fish as it comes out of rigor mortis.

  4. Jon Rowley says:

    A fish gets stiff when it goes into rigor mortis and relaxes when it comes out. Easy to tell.How long it takes is widely variable depending on numerous factors…a few hours to several days. Fish with scales manufacture a bright slime when they are in rigor.

  5. Pingback: The Beautiful Taste: Fishing with Chefs in Boston. Fish Handling, Part 2 | The Beautiful Taste

  6. Gordon says:

    1. Since your blog is new, wondering if you’d rate best-to-worst Chinook you had all season last year. For So.Cal. the best I could find (passed on the $40/lb CR, and none of the local retail outlets were interested in pursuing the limited Yukon) was from the Columbia River, in the month of August. Pale orange color flesh—didn’t look great but it sure did taste good. Great quality/price ratio-was on sale for <1/2 what CR costs; supple-juicy flesh, long persistent lingering flavor from high-fat. Young's Bay Chinook was inferior, Yukon Coho better than Young's as far as fat content and less dry texture, but Columbia was really there this season.

    2. A lot of other Alaskan rivers have salmon runs nearby the Yukon area; how do those compare to Yukon & CR Chinook, and will those other river's Chinooks be seen in the lower 48 in the future?

  7. Tags says:

    My brother says he heard of a trick where you put Alka Seltzer in the water with the fish after catching it and it relaxes and goes to sleep right away. Have you heard this?

  8. Jon Rowley says:

    I have not heard that.You are talking the live fish, yes?

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