Fresh Fish Before Refrigeration


I won’t specify the words I uttered when the lights went black and the refrigerator fell silent that night. One of the noreasters that hit our state a few weeks ago had shut off the power.  My life, like that of most Americans today, is miserable when the power goes out. Everything is stunted, from work to communication to leisure. This makes it amazing to me to consider how most people throughout history had lives that were not paralyzed by the flicker of a light bulb. People built cities, published books, and made music without electricity. A person from two hundred years ago, in fact, would have been better able to deal with my refrigerator of spoiling food than I would be.

Societies that existed before electric power had ways of preserving foods, including fish, for months or even years12 without refrigeration. Some of these methods have survived though the millennia. The need to preserve fish before modern refrigeration required that decay – causing microorganisms be thwarted2, and this was achieved by the methods described below – one of which I have tried.

Why Bother to Preserve Fish?

If extra fish were caught in the days before electricity, they were too valuable to be left to decay. The next fishing trip could fail,  and any additional fish needed to be preserved for food should this happen1. Also, some of the food obtained in seasons where it was plentiful had to be conserved for seasons where food was scarce. Another factor that made fish preservation necessary was the challenge of moving these fish for trade, etc. As transportation was slower, it was hard or impossible to move unpreserved fish any distance without it spoiling2.

Preventing Decay

To preserve fish meant a need to stave off bacteria and fungi that could cause decay. Hence, though those who developed methods of preservation didn’t know it at the time, this was how their techniques worked2.  Bacteria and fungi need warmth and moisture to thrive. Due to this, many of the successful preservation methods cooled


the fish, dried it, and / or shortened the time for which it remained moist and /or warm1.

Fish Preservation Methods Before Modern Refrigeration

A fish drying rack.

One of the most ancient ways to preserve fish1 is to fillet it and then dry it in the sun or positioned over a fire6. Wind can also aid in the drying process2. Racks are typically used to suspend the fish2, often along with fine wire or thread6.  Whether or not fish drying works depends on the humidity of the location in question. Were drying to be attempted in a humid place, it wouldn’t be complete before decay could progress2.

A modern facility for hanging fish to dry.

Drying is still used today12 , and fish that has been dehydrated can be consumed months into the future1. To be made edible, dried fish fillets must be left in water overnight.  Fish  are dried in many places such as Goa, Italy, Russia, Iceland, India, and Indonesia12.

Salting was another early preservation technique that drained the water out of fish to deter bacterial growth. This time, though, salt was used to dehydrate the fish. When fish is drenched in salt, the water in the flesh is drawn out into this salt2.  Like drying, salting can preserve fish for

Salted fish (cod).

months and requires that the preserved fish be soaked in water before being eaten1. Salted cod, or bacalhau as it is called in Portugal, is a dish served in many European countries11.

Another process, smoking, is often begun by salting the fish for a time2. The fish is then placed into a smoker7.  , for a period of time depending on its size4.  Native Americans as well as Ancient Romans and Greeks used smoking to preserve fish4, . In  modern times, however, fish smoking can be done to only alter flavor – a process that takes less time than smoking for preservation5.

Preservation of fish by fermentation.

Fermentation is yet another way to preserve fish that has its roots in ancient times9. The process is carried out by a microorganism such as bacteria or  yeast that breaks down a food anaerobically (without the use of oxygen). This gains the microorganism energy, and an alcohol or acid is formed which prevents decay. Consequently, the two main requirements for fish fermentation are the fish itself and a food for the bacteria to ferment10.  By the end of the 900’s AD in China, fish was being preserved along with rice. This rice allowed fermentation to occur, likely by being the food on which the bacteria fed to produce the preserving alcohol or acid. As mentioned in the recent blog post on sushi, once the fish was preserved the rice was thrown away. This fish fermented in rice was an ancestor of modern sushi9.

Pickled herring served on crackers.

Fermentation is sometimes part of another fish preservation method called pickling. To pickle fish, the fish must be submerged in a solution that will keep it from decaying. There  are two main forms of pickling, the first being soaking the fish in vinegar. Vinegar is acetic acid, which kills bacteria. The second form is fermentation, already discussed13.

Demonstration of Salting Cod 

Recall that, in salting, fish is put into salt that draws out the water and renders it an environment unfit for the survival of decay – causing microorganisms1. I tried a  simple salting procedure on two cod fillets. This method involved sandwiching the fillets between layers of salt, under weights, for two days6.

Each fillet first needed to be rolled in salt.



The first fillet placed in the salt at the bottom of a glass tray, then covered with salt itself.

The second fillet placed atop the first.

One of the dried fillets. Note the stiffness.


A well – dried portion of one of the fillets.


At the conclusion of the two days6, I was met with fish fillets that were only partially salted. The procedure had indicated that a fish eight pounds and under be left in the salt for only two days6, but I hadn’t known how much the fish that produced the fillets had weighed. Perhaps, though I had assumed the fish to have been under eight pounds, it had been heavier. It is also likely that the glass container required6 would have worked better had it been a jar rather than a tray. Overall, it is clear that the salting procedure used was beginning to work but would have needed more time to finish.

Following is a link to some fish preservation ideas. If you print one of these ideas, then the next time that power is gone for days (and it will be) your fish spoiling is one less thing you’ll have to worry about.


Works Cited

1. Eaglescliffe, Beth. “Food Preservation: Drying, Salting, or Freezing Fish.”
Delishably, 26 Dec. 2017,

2. Nubie, Steve. “7 Ways The Pioneers Preserved Food Without Electricity”.
Off The Grid News (Better Ideas For Off The Grid Living), 2017,
Accessed 25 March 2018.

4. “History of Smoked Salmon”.,2018, /
Accessed 27 March 2018.

5. Crapo, Chuck, Shallcross, Leslie, “Smoking Fish at Home”.
University of Alaska Fairbanks, September 2017,

6. McGlynn, Fiona. “Five ways to preserve fish without refrigeration”.
Ocean Navigator, 1 July 2016,

7. Botzek – Linn, Deb and Shafer, William. “Preserving fish safely”.
University of Minnesota Extension, 2011,

9. “History of Sushi – Sushi Main.”
Sushi Encyclopedia, 2007,
Accessed 23 Feb. 2018.

10. “Fermentation”.
Accessed 30 March 2018.

11. “Do seculo XV aos dias atuais.”,
Accessed 30 March 2018.

12. “Dried fish”.
Wikipedia, 2 March 2018,
Accessed 31 March 2018.

13. Exploratorium. “What Is Pickling?”.
THE ACCIDENTAL SCIENTIST, Science of Cooking</em?,
Accessed 3 April 2018.

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