Getting to Know the World's Largest Flatfish
Halibut: firm, white, savory, easy to cook. It is a seafood cook's dream. Few fish lovers dislike it, and for those worried about declining fish stocks -- and many of us are -- most halibut on the market is sustainable.
Halibut are more than one sort of fish, however. They are all large flatfish, ranging from the relatively small California halibut to the gigantic Pacific halibut, which can grow well beyond 500 pounds. Those of us who eat a lot of Pacific halibut typically eat it as steaks, because the fillets on a 500-pounder are larger than your front door.
As a rule, most halibut in markets is Pacific. This is primarily an Alaskan fishery and it is healthy -- these fish are not being hammered like the Atlantic halibut, which is so overfished I would advise you not to buy it.
If you are in California, however, there is a California halibut, which can grow larger than 60 pounds but is typically caught between 4-12 pounds. You will most likely see this fish sold as fillets; this is a good way to tell what kind of fish it is because you will rarely -- if ever -- see Pacific halibut sold as a fillet.
I have eaten both California halibut and Atlantic summer flounder, also known as fluke, and I find them very similar. Any California halibut smaller than 10 pounds can be cooked as a flounder.
From a cooking perspective, all halibut is firm, mild and white. It lends itself to really any cooking method except slow, dry heat; the meat is too lean to stand up to that sort of thing.
Common Cooking Methods:
- Batter-frying. Halibut makes fantastic fish and chips.
- Grilling. Halibut's large flakes allow it to stand up to a grill without falling to pieces. Watch it with the smaller California halibut, however.
- Steaming. This is where California halibut comes into its own. Because it is more like a true sole or a flounder, California halibut can be steamed and remain delicate. By all means use Pacific halibut in steamed dishes, too -- you will just get a chunkier outcome.
- Sauteing. A good crust on a seared piece of Pacific halibut is a joy to behold.
- Broiling. Just an indoor version of grilling, when the weather turns foul and you want to grill a halibut steak, use the broiler.
All varieties freeze well, and vacuum-sealed Pacific halibut has been known to remain at high quality for a year.