It’s happened to all of us at some point or another. You open a package of chicken and catch a whiff of something—off. Should you ignore it, or is does the odor mean that you need to throw the meat away? Let’s find out.
The main reason why chicken might smell or taste like fish is because it’s spoiled. But if you’re certain that the chicken is fresh, then there’s something else behind the fishy flavor. Maybe the chicken was fed fish meal during its lifespan, or you cooked it in oil that was previously used for fish.
What Causes Fishy Chicken?
Why would your chicken smell like fish? The first and most obvious response is that the meat has gone bad (see separate section below for more details).
But if you’re sure that the chicken was fresh when you cooked it, and it still has a fishy smell, it’s possible that the issue is due to mishandling. This is unfortunate, but not necessarily dangerous.
How To Tell if Chicken is Bad
Spoiled chicken will usually announce itself without you having to second-guess anything. Here are a few of the signs to watch out for.
When chicken goes bad, it gives off a foul odor. The actual smell may vary. Sometimes it’s reminiscent of rotten eggs, other times it might smell overly sweet or sour. In some cases, it smells like fish.
If you notice any of these smells when you take the meat out of the refrigerator, discard it at once. Fresh raw chicken shouldn’t smell like much of anything unless it’s been given the royal treatment in a marinade, in which case it will take on the scent of those ingredients.
Another way to test for freshness is to check the texture of the meat. It should feel slightly damp to the touch, but not slimy or sticky. These signs indicate that bacteria have already made themselves at home on the surface.
Check the color of the chicken, too. Raw chicken ranges in color from pale peach to dark pink, sometimes nearly purple. If it’s turning gray or green, or if you notice any spots of mold, it’s time to throw it out.
It’s important to point out that raw chicken is no longer safe to eat if it’s been left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. In this case, you might not notice any suspicious signs, but the bacteria that cause food poisoning are likely still there.
Cooked chicken plays by the same rules. Never eat any leftovers that have been sitting out for longer than 2 hours. Also, in very hot weather, chicken should be refrigerated within 1 hour, whether it’s cooked or raw.
Why Would Chicken Taste Fishy?
Let’s assume your chicken passed the inspection, and you prepared it according to your chosen recipe. When you bite into it, though, it tastes like fish. What could be the problem?
The first and most obvious response is that you waited too long to eat it after it was cooked. Leftover chicken only keeps for 3 to 4 days in the fridge. After that, it will begin to show some of the signs of spoilage we’ve just discussed.
Assuming that the chicken tastes fishy as soon as it’s finished cooking, the problem might lie elsewhere. If the meat came into contact with fish at some point during processing, it might have taken on a hint of the fish flavor.
Some food processors might also feed their chickens fish meal. While it makes sense from a nutritional standpoint, and while the chickens are likely happy with the arrangement, this can have an adverse effect on the taste.
Chicken can also taste fishy if it was prepared poorly. Even if you thought you were doing everything right, your technique may be the culprit.
For example, if you re-used oil that was previously used to fry fish products, the chicken is bound to taste like fish. This is particularly common if you have a deep-fryer, as you might not remember that the oil came into contact with fish in the past.
You can head off this problem by changing the oil in the pan or fryer more frequently. If you’ve used the oil to cook any type of fish, now is the time to discard it and give the unit a good cleaning.
Also, consider your storage practices. When you refrigerated the chicken, were there any fish products close by? If so, the meat could very well have been contaminated with a fishy taste.
There are a couple of other possibilities, though they’re less likely than the rest. If you’re suffering from a sinus infection or other illness that affects your ability to taste and smell, then that might be the problem.
Similarly, pregnancy can affect your body’s reactions to food, even ingredients you’ve enjoyed in the past. If your chicken smells or tastes like fish while you’re pregnant, chances are that there’s nothing wrong with the meat—you just have an aversion to it.
Can You Eat Fishy Chicken?
That depends on the cause. If you think the chicken smells like fish because it’s spoiled, then obviously the answer is no. But if it’s taken on a fishy flavor due to storage or preparation issues, you can still eat it—assuming that you want to.
How To Fix Fishy Chicken
Fortunately, this isn’t a common issue. But meat products do get mishandled from time to time. Here’s how you can circumvent the problem and salvage the fishy chicken.
First of all, resign yourself to the fact that you won’t be having the meal you planned on serving. You’ll need to reinvent the dish in order to cover up the fishy taste.
The key is to use an acidic ingredient to mask the taste. It might not taste much like chicken anymore, but chicken has a mild flavor on its own anyway.
Vinegar provides a nice burst of acidity, and there are numerous types available. Try cutting the chicken into strips and tossing them with a raspberry balsamic vinegar, then using these to top a salad.
Tomatoes offer a similar benefit. You can add the chicken to a tomato-based pasta sauce and throw in a handful of fresh herbs. Chances are, no one will notice that there was ever anything “off” about the flavor.
If those options don’t appeal to you, try warming the meat in a marinade of lemon juice and herbs. Lemon is a popular marinade ingredient, especially for mild-tasting meats like chicken and fish. This is a particularly nice option during the summer months.
Tips for The Future
Now that you know what might have caused the chicken to taste fishy, what can you do to prevent it from happening again?
First of all, you might consider buying your chicken from a local farmer instead of visiting the supermarket. That way, you’ll be able to learn about the feeding and slaughtering practices. As a bonus, the meat will keep longer in your fridge.
If that’s not a possibility, keep an eye on the labels. You might notice that some brands of chicken are more likely to taste fishy than others. Steer clear of any that have caused problems in the past.
Once you’ve done everything in your power to ensure that the meat didn’t have a fishy odor or flavor when you bought it, it’s time to turn to your own storage and handling practices.
Don’t store fish next to any other meat product when it’s in the fridge. Keep it in a designated area, and make sure it’s tightly wrapped. Since you should cook it as soon as possible after bringing it home, this shouldn’t pose a problem.
As we mentioned before, you should also discard any oil or fat that you used to cook fish in, and clean the pan thoroughly afterward. You might even consider keeping designated utensils on hand for cooking fish products.
You should prepare and cook chicken within 2 days of purchase. The longer it hangs around in the fridge, the more likely it is to pick up other odors and flavors. It might also start to spoil after 2 days, so cook it as soon as you can.
Since we’ve established that bold flavors and acidity can mask the fishy taste, consider marinating your chicken beforehand. Just don’t overdo it—a few hours in an acidic marinade is sufficient for chicken breasts.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to use a marinade, opt for a good seasoning rub instead. Even a hearty dose of a seasoning salt such as Lawry’s can go a long way toward boosting the flavor.
When it’s fresh, chicken shouldn’t have a discernible odor. But even fresh chicken might taste fishy, depending on how it was handled and prepared.
By taking the steps we’ve mentioned, you should be able to avoid the fishy chicken phenomenon. But if you do encounter it, there are ways to make the meat palatable again.