What Is Sablefish?

A Guide to Buying and Cooking Sablefish

cook sablefish

The Spruce Eats / Bailey Mariner

When you're deciding what type of fish you want to make for dinner, there are so many variables, from whether the fish is sustainable, what its mercury levels are, and whether it provides Omega-3 fatty acids. Not to mention, does it taste good, and is it easy to cook? Sablefish happens to be a winner in all of these categories.

What is Sablefish?

Sablefish, also known as black cod, live on the ocean floor and have been found at depths of more than a mile below the surface. The skin of a sablefish is charcoal gray, and the fish itself doesn't look like much, but this deep-dwelling predator is like a diamond ring in a plain brown wrapper.

Another nickname for sablefish is "butterfish," and the reason is simple: Few fish are as silky rich in omega-3 fats as the sablefish.

Sablefish live only in the Northern Pacific, and most are caught in the Bering Sea. Thankfully, they are abundant, and because sablefish's taste, appearance and texture are similar to Chilean sea bass, sable is an environmentally superior choice to sea bass, which is threatened in some fisheries.

In the kitchen, sablefish offers a striking yin-yang appearance—creamy white flesh juxtaposed against black skin.

Sablefish is considered a sustainable fish, and its mercury content is considered moderate, which means adults can eat four or more servings per week, and children two servings per week. 

How to Use Sablefish

Sable is versatile, and its high-fat content makes it forgiving to the novice cook because the fat acts as a buffer against overcooking. Its fat content also makes it a prime candidate for smoking.

Beware, this fish has large pin bones, which are curved little bones that run along the fish's centerline. They need to be removed before you go any further with your preparation. Do this with a pair of needle-nosed pliers.

As Sushi or Crudo: Do you like the fatty toro tuna or salmon belly at sushi restaurants? Then you will love sablefish raw. It is also luxurious dressed at the table with a splash of Meyer lemon and sea salt. You can also use it in ceviche recipes as you would salmon.

On the Grill: Again, the fat is a savior here. It lets you slap a sable fillet on a hot grill without worrying too much about it turning into fish jerky if you look away for too long. But its fine texture means you should use a cage or at least have the grill well oiled.

Pan-Roasted: Just a simple saute lets you savor the depth of sablefish, which offers a richer mouthfeel and longer finish than a lean fish does.

Confit: Poach sablefish slowly in olive or some other kind of oil. Think you like slow, oil-poached tuna? Then you will love the same treatment with sablefish.

Smoked Sablefish

Sablefish is an excellent candidate for smoking, because its fat content helps prevent it from drying out. Smoked sable, as it's known, is a staple of Jewish delicatessens, where it's sold, sliced, as a topping for bagels, alongside the smoked sturgeon and smoked whitefish. 

In the Pacific Northwest it's called smoked black cod. 

What Does It Taste Like?

Sablefish has a rich, buttery flavor and a smooth, silky texture. It's fattier than Pacific cod and halibut, with a more luxurious mouth feel, but milder than salmon and tuna. 

Sablefish Recipes

You can substitute sablefish in these recipes:

Where to Buy Sablefish

If you live on the west coast, especially in the Pacific Northwest, you can usually find fresh sablefish at supermarkets and fish markets from early March until mid-November. Elsewhere it's available frozen. Fresh and frozen sablefish are also available online from a number of retailers. 

And if you live near a Jewish delicatessen, you can find the smoked version there. Likewise, you can order the smoked version online. And to truly do it justice, get the good bagels to go with it.