There are countless ways to prepare tilapia, and it turns out just as delicious with each and every one of them.
And if you’ve cooked a little too much of it than you and the members of your household can eat in a single meal, which is probably the case since you’re reading this article, you can always put the cooked tilapia in the fridge or freezer and save it for later.
But you may be wondering, exactly how do you store cooked tilapia? And by when should you and the family eat it all up? For the answers to these questions and the ones you didn’t know you had to ask, read on below!
How Long Does Cooked Tilapia Last?
The key thing to know is that the bacteria that make tilapia spoil and cause food poisoning for those who eat it thrive at room temperature, multiply slowly in the fridge, and go into pause in the freezer.
This is why cooked tilapia can only be left out and kept in the fridge for so long. Technically, frozen food stays safe to eat forever. But its texture, aroma, and taste degrade the longer you store it, so you shouldn’t wait too long to thaw, reheat, and serve it on the dining table.
As a general rule, cooked tilapia keeps for 1-2 hours at room temperature and 3-4 days in the fridge. Although the food in your freezer stays safe to eat indefinitely at 0°F (-18°C)1“Are You Storing Food Safely?” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/are-you-storing-food-safely, frozen cooked tilapia only retains its best quality for 1-3 months, after which it begins to dry out and lose flavor.2“Leftovers and Food Safety,” Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/leftovers-and-food-safety
Can You Eat Old Cooked Tilapia?
Don’t eat cooked tilapia that’s been on the kitchen counter or dining room table for more than 2 hours, or that you’ve kept in the refrigerator for more than 4 days. If you do, you may get food poisoning.
Even if the tilapia looks, smells, and tastes fine, don’t eat it; this is no guarantee that it’s safe to eat. Not everyone knows that the bacteria that make cooked tilapia (and all other foods) spoil are not the same as the pathogens that cause foodborne illness.3“Do spoilage bacteria make people sick?” AskUSDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/Do-spoilage-bacteria-make-people-sick
In other words, cooked tilapia that seems perfectly fine may still be overgrown with disease-causing bacteria. If the tilapia is too old, discard it. Try as you might, but is impossible to determine whether or not it’s safe to eat in the confines of your home, without laboratory equipment.4“Food Poisoning (Food-borne Illness,” Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, https://food.unl.edu/food-poisoning-foodborne-illness
Will Heating Old Cooked Tilapia Make It Safe to Eat?
Let’s talk about a dangerous misconception that many of us have about the food that we eat.
Reheating, recooking, or incorporating old cooked tilapia into another dish won’t make it any safer to eat. (And this rule applies not just to tilapia, but to all fish and seafood as a whole.)
Exposure to heat does eliminate the pathogenic bacteria on the cooked tilapia. However, those bacteria may have left heat-resistant spores and toxins behind on the flesh, which can just as well cause food poisoning.
To protect yourself and those you cook for from food poisoning, discard cooked tilapia if you suspect that it’s too old to still be safe to eat, especially now that you know how old is too old.
How to Store Leftover Cooked Tilapia
Never leave leftover cooked tilapia at room temperature for more than 2 hours, whether on the kitchen countertop or the dining room table. (In the summer, when it’s 90°F/32°C or hotter outside, this time is reduced to only 1 hour.)
Allow the leftover cooked tilapia to cool down, then refrigerate it for storage of up to 4 days or freeze it for long-term storage (properly stored in the freezer, cooked tilapia keeps its best texture, aroma, and flavor for no longer than 3 months).
Contrary to what many people think, warm or even hot tilapia can be placed directly in the refrigerator. However, it’s better for the rest of the food in your fridge if you first chill it in cold water or an ice water bath, especially if you just took it off the heat.
Before refrigeration or freezing, seal the tilapia in ziplock bags or food storage containers with the lid closed. Some people will wrap theirs in aluminum foil or butcher paper instead, although it’s worth keeping in mind that loosely wrapped tilapia can get damaged by freezer burn in the freezer.
The Takeaways: Cooked Tilapia’s Shelf Life
Depending on the storage method, cooked tilapia keeps:
- For 1-2 hours when left out on the kitchen countertop or dining room table
- For 3-4 days when stored in a ziplock bag or food storage container and refrigerated
- Indefinitely when frozen, although it only retains its best quality for 1-3 months
When in doubt, follow food safety rule #1 and throw it out. Remember that spoilage bacteria and disease-causing bacteria are not the same thing, and cooked tilapia that hasn’t yet spoiled can still be unsafe to eat.
- 1“Are You Storing Food Safely?” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/are-you-storing-food-safely
- 2“Leftovers and Food Safety,” Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/leftovers-and-food-safety
- 3“Do spoilage bacteria make people sick?” AskUSDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/Do-spoilage-bacteria-make-people-sick
- 4“Food Poisoning (Food-borne Illness,” Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, https://food.unl.edu/food-poisoning-foodborne-illness