When cooking with meats like chicken or ground beef, you don’t think about smelling them unless they’ve been in your fridge for a long time. Most of the time you can just dump the meat out of the packaging, season it, and start cooking. Fish, on the other hand, smells pretty ripe. Fish has a fairly uniform scent, kind of like your trash can just took a nice dip in the ocean. And while this uniquely fishy smell is kind of pleasant, it seems strange that raw fish smells so strong, while raw meat from land animals has no scent. Why does fish smell? As it turns out, there’s a really interesting reason for it. 

The Science Behind the Stench

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Dea Uy

Okay, I'm about to pull out some chemistry here, so try to follow me. It all comes down to two chemicals: trimethylamine and dimethylamine, which are both derived from trimethylamine oxide.  

According to a New York Times interview with Dr. Hotchkiss, a professor of Food Science at Cornell, that fishy odor begins when the fish is caught, killed, and exposed to the air. When those chemicals are exposed to the air, it begins a process called carboxylation. The products of this process, amines, are what cause the smell. Essentially, the longer the fish is exposed to air or left sitting out, the smellier it becomes. 

Not all fish are equally smelly, either. Hotchkiss says that the enzyme is most common in "the flesh of fin fish, especially cold-water, surface-dwelling ocean fish." So if you really hate smelly fish, avoid fish from the ocean like haddock or cod and opt for something like freshwater salmon or trout. 

Why Doesn't Meat Smell?

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Shelby Cohron

Fresh raw meat doesn't really have an odor. As with any food, if meat sits out for too long, it begins to rot and starts to smell. But fresh raw meat itself doesn't really smell like anything. This is because marine animals have a high concentration of trimethylamine oxide and meat doesn't contain this chemical although it is produced in the body after the meat is consumed. So, when meat begins to smell, it's really time to toss it.

How to Neutralize the Fishy Smell

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Amy Dong

There's no denying that raw fish stinks, but that doesn't mean you don't want to cook it. If you cook the fish and it's starting to stink up your whole house, Good Housekeeping recommending mixing together oil and vinegar and letting it boil on the stove. Let it cook for a couple of minutes and the smell should disappear. 

Another tip comes from Epicurious. They tell us that if you notice your fish is starting to smell and you want to avoid your entire kitchen stinking up, either soak the fish in milk for 20 minutes or squeeze some lemon juice over the fish before you cook it. Both of these tricks should neutralize that fishy odor.

Now that you know the science behind the smell, try making some delicious fish recipes on your own. Just remember that when picking out a fish at the store, the smellier it is the older it is. And if you don't want the fish smell to linger, throw all the fish bits out immediately and take out the trash so the smell doesn't get any worse than it already is.