Lemon Juice Is Your Best Defense Against Kitchen Fish Smells

Fish is tasty, healthy, and a great option for a weekday meal, but it also tends to leave behind a very particular smell, especially when handling it raw. Fret not, however: There's a way to get all the delicious benefits of cooking fish without having to put up with the odorous aftermath. The solution lies in lemon juice and the way the acidity counteracts the natural compounds that give fish its characteristic smell.

Lemons provide a multitude of advantages when they're paired with fish in the kitchen. For one, the citrus fruit is a common seasoning for fish, working to bring out more flavor notes when it's squeezed on top. Other acidic substances like vinegar and tomato will also work, but lemons tend to offer an especially palatable taste when incorporated into a fish recipe. Lemon juice is also a seasoning that can double as a cleaning fluid, only without the cost and chemicals. If you're worried about the fish smell sticking to the surfaces of your oven, you can spray pans, grids, and utensils with a solution of lemon juice and water to quickly and efficiently rid your kitchen of the fishy scent.

Why does fish smell?

When you smell fish, you're really smelling the compound known as trimethylamine, or TMA for short, found in ocean fish. The substance is actually present in human bodies, as well, when gut bacteria send it to the liver to break it down to trimethylamine oxide (TMAO). An inability of the digestive system to convert TMA properly can even result in an unpleasant condition known as fish odor syndrome. However, in fish, the opposite reaction happens upon their death. TMAO helps fish cells process salt water to maintain fluid balance, but enzymes break this compound down into TMA when the fish is exposed to air. TMA's role in regulating salinity is also why freshwater fish have a less pungent stink. Fish that smell too much are usually spoiled since most of the TMAO has turned into TMA, and it's best to just toss it.

Lemon juice and other acids, however, stop this volatile reaction in its tracks. That's because the "-amine" part of TMA refers to its classification as part of the same compound group as ammonia. The acidity (which refers to a low pH value) of lemon works to neutralize this basic (high pH value) substance, turning the TMAO into odorless, stable ammonium salts instead of the fishy-smelling, gaseous TMA.

What to do with lemon and fish

Not only does lemon get rid of a fishy smell, but it also tastes delicious on fish. Think of lemon-herb-crusted cod or roasted herb and lemon red snapper – delicious.

The easiest and simplest way to get the best use out of this no-stink trick is to squeeze some drops on top of a fish you're about to cook. Milk, which is another substance that stops the TMAO-to-TMA reaction, also helps with this, so you can also soak your fish in a bath made out of both. Frying fish in the same pan as lemon will also reduce the stink, as will using lemon as a sort of sponge to mop up your knives and whatever else has touched the fish, including your hands. In fact, lemon is so versatile in its anti-odor properties that even tossing thin-sliced lemon rinds down the drain (if you have a garbage disposal) or into your trash can will help, too.

Lemon may not be a miracle cure for the fish smell that can invade your house, but you'll find it will probably help significantly, especially if you apply it to raw fish immediately out of the package. More common-sense ideas like opening windows and throwing out fish trashy will also help, but lemons provide a way to effectively neutralize the odor at its source while adding zest to your seafood.