Chef John Howie Shares Tips On How To Cook Halibut Without Drying The Fish Out



Chef John HowieIt’s halibut season. What people probably don’t remember anymore is that halibut season used to be five or six very short (24 hour) openings in the spring for the most part, and a bit into the summer. Now why was that? Because Alaskan halibut or Pacific halibut, which is one of the most sought-after fish nowadays, was caught in what they call `Derby style’.

Derby style went something like this: fishing would be on opened up with an announcement on, say, 15 March, and boats would be told to go catch as much fish as they liked. So the boats would go out and catch as much as they could in one day, come back, and then the fish would be checked. The fisheries department would weigh all the fish and say, okay now we’re going to go have another Derby Day on this date.

So what really happened was that you got fresh halibut for say two, three or four days maximum. The rest was frozen, and the price was lower because all the halibut was in the market at the same time.

About 20 years ago, a very smart decision was made, that helped sustain the fish in a more reliable way. Instead of Derby style, each boat was given a certain amount of fish that they could catch (a boat quota) and they were given a timeframe within which to catch it. Say 15 March to 15 November. So the boats decided among themselves when they were going to go out and catch the fish. Now everybody goes out in the beginning of the season obviously, because it has been four months since they have had fresh halibut and everybody wants it, but as the year goes on, certain boats may see a salmon fishery they want to go after instead of halibut. So they stop fishing halibut for a little while, and go after the salmon, before coming back to the halibut again.

What this does is it creates a fresh supply of halibut from March to November, so we always have really great quality fish.

Now, halibut is a fish that some people struggle with because they think they cannot cook it at home because it gets too dry. Of course, if they still feel that way they can always come to my restaurant, but there are ways to cook halibut that are absolutely wonderful.

One of the best ways to eat halibut is fish-and-chips – lightly battered, deep-fried and served with tartar sauce. There are other great ways to cook it too.

On the barbecue, get a nice coal fire going with a little smoke, and grill the fish to 120 degrees to 130 degrees maximum internal temperature. The key is using a bio-thermometer and checking the internal temperature of the halibut. The fish will stay nice and moist. Another way to do it is to slice the fish half-inch thick and sear in a hot pan in a very short period of time. Sear for 30 seconds, then turn over and do another minute to minute-and-a-half and it’s done. And the fish is still nice and moist inside.

Last but not least…Plank cooking, a style originated by the Pacific NW Native Americans is effective at providing a great halibut experience.  Either bbq grill or interior oven planks, can be used to create amazing halibut dishes that are much less likely to come off dry and overcooked. The planks don’t conduct heat so the fish cooked on a reusable oven plank is cooked  by the heat surrounding the plank. Bbq planks (one-time use) do emit heat from the plank because they actually char on the bottom, but if for some reason you leave it in the oven or on the grill a little too long, it is likely your halibut will still be moist.

So…be thankful that fresh halibut is available 8 months of the year, instead of 5-6 times a year, and don’t be afraid to cook it at home Just use one of the methods I’ve reccomended.

Or you can always come visit us at John Howie Steak, Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar, SPORT Restaurant or The Beardslee Public House, as they all serve fresh halibut…from March to November!