There’s nothing like salty, lemony, fork-tender fish right off the grill. Especially on a hot, sultry summer’s day in the company of family and friends.
As much as you may be enjoying the conversation, though, it’s a good idea to grab hold of those forks and bite in. Grilled fish, as it turns out, can only sit out on the table or your outdoor counters for that long before it starts to spoil.
According to the USDA, grilled fish shouldn’t sit out for longer than 2 hours at room temperature, or bacteria inside it will grow to dangerous levels. When the temperature is higher than 90°F, that time gets reduced to 1 hour.
Bacteria, the USDA says, grow the fastest in the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F, doubling its count roughly every 20 minutes. That includes Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella Enteritidis, Escherichia coli, and Campylobacter, all of which are known to cause food-borne illness.
It should go without saying that this applies to raw and cooked fish. And that fish spoils faster when raw than when cooked.
You’d think that grilling the fish kills all of these bad boys—and it largely does. But the problem is that, once you’ve taken it off the flame, they’ll quickly find their way back.
This rule of thumb is so important to our safety that the USDA has dubbed the 40 – 140°F temperature range “the danger zone” to help meatheads like me remember it.
Statistically speaking, the CDC estimates that 1 out of 6 Americans (that’s 48 million people, you all!) gets food poisoning every year. Of them, 128,000 get hospitalized (0.2%), and 3,000 (0.006%) die.
So, to protect yourself and those eating your food from getting sick in the stomach, make sure to eat or refrigerate grilled fish within 2 hours on most days or within 1 hour when having a heatwave.
How Long Can You Refrigerate Grilled Fish?
Refrigeration slows bacterial growth down, but it doesn’t halt it. That’s why grilled fish, even when it’s continually refrigerated, will eventually go bad.
Kept in a food storage container with the lid shut, grilled fish will stay good for 3 to 4 days in your fridge. As with every other perishable food, grilled fish leftovers will taste their best when eaten up sooner rather than later.
Instead of using an airtight food storage container or a zipper bag, some people will warp grilled fish tightly in tin foil or plastic wrap before storing it in the fridge.
I used to do this myself as well. Over time, though, I came to observe two problems with this method:
When you wrap fattier fish such as salmon or mackerel in tin foil to refrigerate it, fats can drip onto the glass shelves (before they cool down and turn solid) and make a mess.
Not only that, but the air in your fridge, along with all of the food items you’ve placed in it, can catch a fishy smell in a matter of hours. So a food storage container or a zipper bag are better options than tin foil for storing leftover grilled fish.
Freezing Grilled Fish
Tightly sealed in a freezer bag, grilled fish can be frozen for up to 3 months. Though it will stay safe to eat for longer than that, it will slowly but surely start to lose its best texture, aroma, and flavor.
To thaw frozen grilled fish, transfer it from your freezer to your fridge the night before you plan to eat it. Then reheat it as you’d normally do.
Reheating Grilled Fish
So you grilled more fish than everyone at the table could eat. Then you took me up on the advice and put it in the fridge within one or two hours.
Now, I hear you asking: “Sam, any tips for reheating it?” Glad you asked, and yes, I do.
In the Oven
The best way to reheat grilled fish is by splashing it with water, wrapping it in tin foil, and heating it for 10 to 15 minutes in a 275°F oven, preferably with the convection fan on.
The water, which shouldn’t be more than a splash or two depending on the size of the fish, will evaporate inside of the foil so that the fish comes out nice and tender instead of rubbery and dried out once reheated.
In a Skillet
In case you’re in a hurry, and you don’t have a quarter-hour to reheat the fish, you can just as well throw it in a hot skillet, preheated for 2-3 minutes over medium heat, with a drizzle of olive oil.
Reheat the fish for 3-4 minutes on each side. Keep in mind that, with this method, the fish will get noticeably crispier. So, when you’re dealing with dry fish, my best advice for you is always to reheat it in the oven.
In the Microwave
There’s also the microwave, which I ain’t a big fan of for reheating grilled fish. That being said, not all of you agree with me on this, so I’ve scoured the internet to give you the tip from a Pittsburgh, PA fish deli below.
Give the leftover fish pieces a splash of water, place them in a plate or bowl, and put them in the microwave under a vented, microwave-safe cover, reheating on low power and in 30-second intervals till done.
There here you have it. Grilled fish will stay good for 1-2 hours when left out at room temperature, for 3-4 days when kept in the fridge, and for 3 months when frozen.
And yet, no matter how good your storage method, nothing can trump the taste and smell of freshly caught fish right off the grill. Those of you who want nothing but the best better plan their fishing—and their grilling—accordingly.