Most recreational fisherman take trips out to their favorite waters, not to just to chase the big one, but rather to catch fish that they can bring home for dinner. Deep frying, baking and barbecuing fish are just a few of the many great ways to prepare your prized catch; however, these methods are not always practical if you have large numbers of fish to clean and cook.
There are various methods available for anglers to process and store fresh fish — freezing fillets with water in zip-lock bags being the most common. In most cases, these techniques, if done right, can leave fish mushy and tasteless. Canning fish is not a new technique but rather a forgotten one. Our grandparents have been using this method for years on fish with excellent results. The canning system allows anglers to safely and easily process large amounts of fish so that they can enjoy it for months to come.
Canning your catch is a relatively simple way for outdoorsman to safely and effectively store fish for long periods of time.
First and foremost, safely processing any type of fish requires that a pressure canner be used. This type of canner is designed to heat and keep foods at temperatures above the boiling point and under steam pressure. The ability to keep foods at this high temperature and under pressure at all times is very important to the cooking process and in preventing the poison botulism from building in the jars of low acidic foods, such as fish. If you do not own or have access to a pressure canner, or if you can not accurately regulate the pressure at 5, 10 and 15 pounds, then you should not can meats or vegetables.
Two different types of canners are available to today's consumer:
- Dial Gauge Canner — This special type of canner has a dial pressure gauge attached to the canner lid so that you can accurately monitor the pressure throughout the canning process.
- Weighted Pressure Control Canner — This style of canner has a small weight placed onto its steam vent after the canner is filled to accurately release steam and regulate pressure.
- Canner lid — The lid for your pressure canner is a pretty simple device that has a safety valve and a petcock to allow venting of the inside contents. The underside of the lid should be lined with a rubber gasket to create a tight seal with the bottom canister. Before you start canning, inspect the rubber liner to make sure that no cracks are present.
- Bottom Canister — This part of the canner is simply the area that holds your jars and a little bit of water used to create the stream pressure. It should be made from heavy duty metal that allows it to heat evenly and quickly.
- Jar Rack — This device is located on the inside of the canner and keeps jars from touching the extremely hot bottom of the canner. If you are buying a second hand canner, make sure it includes a jar rack. Without the jar rack, you won't be able to do much with the canner at all.
Wide mouth mason jars fitted with threaded self-sealing lids are the most regularly used style of jar in canning. These jars are economical for home canning because, with careful use, they can be used time and time again to safely preserve food. These jars are available in half pint, pint, 1.5 pint, quart and half-gallon sizes.
For canning fish, the only viable choice is the wide mouth pint jars. Larger containers require long canning times leaving your precious fish mushy. If you plan on reusing jars, careful inspection is required before reuse. Look at the jar mouth for nicks, cracks and sharp edges. Any of these flaws will prevent your food jars from sealing tightly and processing properly.
Lids and Screw Bands
With each batch of fish you plan on making, you'll need to buy vacuum sealing lids and screw bands. While screw bands can be used more than once, the lids should not be. These special lids have a rubber seal that can crack after the heating and cooling that occurs during the canning process.
Before you start the canning process, make sure that your jars are properly cleaned, even if they are new. Wash jars in a hot water bath with detergent and rinse very well. While the jars are drying, sort the fish you plan to process. Sort the fish according to size, variety and condition. Remove heads, tails, fins and any bruised or blood spots that you encounter while cleaning.
After you have cleaned the fish, cut it into 3 half-inch lengths and pack it into the washed pint jars (skin side towards the walls of the jars). Leave a minimum of 1 inch head space at the top of each jar. Adjust lids and seal tightly with the screw bands.
In your canner, place 2 to 3 inches of water, the jar rack and the sealed jars. Close the canner and heat the loaded canner quickly. For the first 10 minutes, leave the steam vent open until the steam flows steadily, ensuring the canner has reached the desired steam pressure.
When the pressure regulator or weighted control signals the canner has reached proper pressure, adjust the heat so that the needle stays steady (dial gauge canner) or the weight control bobbles (once every two seconds) releasing steam at a steady rate. Fish need to be processed for 100 minutes at 5, 10 or 15 pounds of pressure, depending on your altitude. To find out the appropriate canning pressure for where you live, contact your local Department of Natural Resources office. If at any time during your canning procedure the pressure falls below the required processing pressure, bring the canner back up to pressure and start the timing again for the full 100 minutes.
After your fish has been processed for the entire time, remove the canner from the heat source and allow it to cool until the inside pressure is zero. Give the canner an additional five minutes just to be safe, and then open the canner slowly to prevent a rapid change in internal pressure. Remove the jars and set them on a towel and allow them to cool for at least 24 hours. Once the jars have cooled completely, check over jars and discard any that have lids not tightly sealed or popped up; these jars were not processed properly and will not be safe to be stored.
Canning your catch is a relatively simple method passed down for generations by outdoorsman. This technique will safely and effectively store fish for long periods of time. What better way to remember that unbelievable fishing trip than to enjoy the fruits of your labor for months on end. After your next trip, try processing your catch in a canner. You, too, will see why this technique has withstood the test of time.