Sablefish is best known as “smoked sable” in New York delis or “smoked black cod” in the Pacific Northwest. In California, it is known most often as “butterfish.” The reason is simple: Few fish are as silky rich in omega-3 fats as the sablefish or black cod.
Don’t Judge a Fish by Its Skin Color
This deep-dwelling predator is one of only two fish in its genus. The other is skilfish. Sablefish steak, or 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 fish is like a diamond ring in a plain brown wrapper.
Sablefish live only in the Northern Pacific, and most are caught in the Bering Sea. Thankfully, they are abundant and because sablefish’s taste and appearance—if not 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, or black cod, if you prefer, offers a striking yin-yang appearance—creamy white flesh juxtaposed against black skin.
A Very Forgiving Fish
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.
Sablefish Shines in Preparations and Recipes
As for 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. Don’t use sablefish for ceviche, however; that dish goes best with lean fish.
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 it’s 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?
1 Prepare sauce: In a large sauté pan, mix the sake, rice vinegar, canola oil, soy sauce, and ginger. Bring to a simmer on medium to medium-high heat.
2 Simmer fish in the sauce: Lay each fillet in the pan. (If using skin-on fillets, place the fillets skin-side down in the pan.) Use a spoon to baste the tops of each fillet until you see the flakes of the fish separate a little, which should take about 30 seconds to 1 minute per fillet.
Let the fish simmer for 3-6 minutes, depending on how thick they are. Estimate 3 minutes for a 1/4 inch-thick fillet, up to 6 minutes for an inch-thick fillet.
Gently move the fish to individual plates. If you want, use (clean) needle-nosed pliers or tweezers to remove the pin bones in the fillets.
3 Reduce sauce: Increase the heat on the sauce and boil vigorously for 1 minute, stirring constantly to reduce the sauce.
4 Serve: Spoon a tablespoon or more of the sauce over each fillet and discard the rest. Drizzle a little bit of sesame oil over each fillet, then garnish with the green onions and toasted sesame seeds.