How Long Can Cooked Fish Sit Out?

According to Central District Health, State of Idaho, “Foodborne illnesses are responsible for approx 76 million illnesses, 235,000 hospitalizations, and 5000 deaths each year in the United States.” 

This made me sit up and look at the risk factors. After all, we all want to improve the quality of life and add years of healthy life. 

One particular food my family is fond of is fish. I love making it in my air fryer, in my slow cooker, and also in my frying pan.

Eating fish is an everyday affair in our home.

While I eat early, my kids come late, and I usually leave it on the countertop. I wonder how long can cooked fish sit out?

How Long Can Cooked Fish Sit Out? 

According to the US Department of Agriculture,

Cooked fish should be consumed within two hours at room temperature. Fish kept out for longer than two hours increases the risk of biological contamination. 

These are often microscopic organisms and are usually grouped into five categories: Bacteria, Viruses, Parasites, Fungi, and Yeast Bacteria. 

There are some specific conditions bacteria need to reproduce. We can understand this by remembering the acronym FAT TOM.

  • F stands for food. Bacteria require a high protein and high carbohydrate sources like seafood, meat, and poultry. 
  • A stands for acidic food. The bacteria cannot reproduce in foods that are highly acidic, like lemon. 
  • T stands for temperature. The ideal temperature for bacteria to reproduce is between 41 degrees to 135 degrees F. This is also known as the danger zone. 
  • The other T stands for Time. If given enough time, the bacteria will replicate rapidly between 41° F to 135° F. The risk time starts after two hours and maximizes at four hours. 
  • O stands for oxygen. Certain bacteria, like aerobic, require oxygen to reproduce, and certain bacteria, like anaerobic, do not require oxygen to replicate.
  • And finally, M stands for Moisture. 

Bacteria require moist foods to grow. It requires a water activity of 0.85 or higher to replicate.

To sum up, harmful bacteria replicate rapidly in a temperature zone of 41-135 degrees, especially if the food has been in this temperature zone for quite some time. 

Coldwater fish (e.g., rainbow trout, salmon) have high levels of unsaturated fats and spoil faster compared to fish with low levels of fatty acids (e.g., catfish ).  

Also, the time frame of two hours decreases as the temperature increases. 

The two-hour rule is good for food at room temperature (68-72° F). If the food is kept in a hotter environment, like 90° F or direct sunlight, it is safe to be out only for an hour. 

To keep cooked fish safe to eat, it is important to keep it out of the temperature danger zone.

The following table shows the safe temperature ranges for cooked fish:

TemperatureSafe Range
Below 40 °FSafe to eat
40 °F – 140 °FDanger Zone
Above 140 °FSafe to eat
Also read: How To Reheat Fried Fish To Make It Crispy?

How Long Can I Store Cooked Fish? 

To confirm the storage of cooked fish, I began researching on the official website of the United States government and found an app that was developed by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, Food Marketing Institute, and Cornell University. 

Foodkeeper App

The name of the app is food keeper App. It is available both on Android and Apple devices.

According to the app,  all sorts of cooked fish should be consumed in 3-4 days if refrigerated.

If the cooked fish is frozen, you can consume it in one to two months. Here is the screenshot I took from my android.

Cooked fish consumption time

Important Tips for Refrigeration 

  • If the cooked fish has been sitting for more than two hours, do not refrigerate it. Throw it away as the bacterial contamination would have already set in. 
  • Do not put hot fish in the refrigerator. Allow it to cool down before storing. 
  •  Cover the fish with a lid or plastic wrap before storing it. 

Factors Affecting Shelf Life of Cooked Fish

Several factors can impact the shelf life of cooked fish:

  • Temperature: It’s best to store cooked fish at a temperature below 40°F to prevent bacterial growth. If the cooked fish is left out at room temperature, bacteria growth will start making the fish unsafe to eat.
  • Humidity: Fish should be stored in a cool, dry place. Moisture can encourage bacterial growth and cause the fish to spoil more quickly.
  • Type of the fish: How fast the spoilage starts in cooked fish would also depend on the type of the fish. Some fish species (such as salmon and tuna) have a longer shelf life than others. Typically, fish that have a higher fat content tend to spoil faster.

Signs of Spoilage in Cooked Fish

It is important to be able to recognize the signs of spoilage in cooked fish to avoid consuming unsafe food.

Here are some common signs that cooked fish has gone bad:

  • An intense or unpleasant odor
  • Mold or other visible signs of decay
  • A slimy texture
  • A greenish hue

If you notice any of these signs, it is best to discard the fish immediately.

Consuming spoiled fish can lead to food poisoning, which can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.

It is also important to note that not all signs of spoilage are visible. Bacteria can grow in cooked fish even if it looks and smells fine.

This is why it is important to follow food safety guidelines and refrigerate or freeze cooked fish promptly after it has been left out at room temperature for more than two hours.

If you are unsure whether cooked fish is safe to eat, it is best to tread with caution and discard it.

Consuming spoiled fish can have serious health consequences, so it is always better to be safe than sorry.

How to Thaw Cooked Frozen Fish 

According to Central District Health, there are three acceptable techniques to thaw food.

One is under cold running water, the second is defrosting in the refrigerator, and the third is part of the cooking process.

You should never thaw the frozen fish on the countertop at room temperature. This exposes the fish to danger zone temperature. 

While running water is an excellent thawing technique, the texture of the fish may change if you are not careful. 

The best technique I found was to defrost in the fridge or use the air fryer to defrost/reheat the cooked fish.

In case you want to refreeze the heated fish, do it within an hour or two. 

Different Types of Fishes and How Long They Can Sit Out 

Let us now look at the different types of fish and their acceptable sit-out durations.  

Three factors influence the sit-out durations of different fishes 

  1. The original temperature source
  2. The saturated and unsaturated fat content 
  3. The water content inside the fish 

The Original Temperature Source 

Fishes from tropical and subtropical regions are used to warm temperatures in the water.

These fishes fare better at room temperature conditions. Examples are catfish, alligator gar, catfish, and mahi mahi.

In the same way, fishes from cold temperature waters like ice cold waters go bad faster compared to warm water fishes. Some examples are salmon, tuna, mackerel, etc. 

Saturated and Unsaturated Fat Content 

Fishes having more concentration of unsaturated fat content get spoiled faster by oxygen.

Cold water fishes have more unsaturated fatty acids. Example- Salmon 

Fishes having saturated fats do not spoil by oxygen exposure quickly. Example- Catfish

The more saturated fats, the longer the sit-out durations. 

The Water Content Inside the Fish 

The more dense the fish, the better for freezing. Example- mahi mahi. 

The more water content inside the fish, the more chance of changes in the texture of the cooked fish. 

You have to freeze these fishes carefully by vacuum sealing or flash freezing to prevent the texture change.

The Methodology of Freezing Cooked Fish 

Let me now tell you about the correct way to freeze cooked fish 

Step 1 – Cool Your Fish 

Allow the fish to cool down before freezing.

Usually, the fish will cool down in about half an hour to 45 mins. Make sure it is no longer warm, and keep the time limit of fewer than two hours in mind. 

Step 2 – Freeze It Up 

The best method for freezing the fish is Quick freezing or Flash freezing.

To do this, you need to set the freezer thermostat to the lowest temperature possible. 

Take a shallow metallic tray and place your cooked fish. 

Place the tray in the freezer rack for a few hours until it is frozen (zero degrees). Reset the freezer temperature back to the original temperature. 

Flash freezing is done to prevent the fish from changing its texture. 

The quicker the freeze, the small will be the water particles and the lesser the fish muscle will stretch out during thawing. 

Step 3 – Cover it Up 

You can either use a lid or plastic wrap like freezer-safe Ziploc bags.

You can use specialized vacuum sealing bags to eliminate the chances of moisture and oxygen. 

If you are vacuum sealing, you need to cut the fish into smaller portions. 

It is a good idea to label the cover, so you know the exact date. You can also cover the first packaging with a second layer of aluminum foil. 

Final Thoughts

I hope you have got a good idea of how to handle cooked fish.

Do not let it sit out for more than two hours at room temperature. The warmer the temperature, the more the chances of rapid bacterial contamination. 

Similarly, apart from temperature and time duration, certain factors can spoil the fish quickly.

I have mentioned them as the original temperature source, saturated and unsaturated fat contents, and the level of water content inside the fish. Do read the details of each mentioned above.

I have also mentioned how to freeze and store the cooked fish. Follow the technique instructions, and the tips to stay safe and healthy. All the best!

Other articles you may also like:

I’m Jueria and I am a regular contributor on In my articles, I share time-saving techniques, appliance wizardry, and health-friendly recipes to bring taste and wellness to your table. So raise a glass (or a spatula) with me, to good health and good food, made easy!