Species Spotlight: Halibut

Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus), Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) and the related Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) are right-eyed flounders and the biggest species of flatfish. Besides being larger and thicker than their cousins, halibut are also not as wide compared to length. This diamond-like shape, along with tail shape and eye placement make the halibut species stand apart. The Greenland halibut, also known as a Greenland or Newfoundland turbot, occupy both Northern Atlantic and Pacific waters and has the ability to swim vertically like other fish.The size of halibut are legendary, with records of Atlantic halibut exceeding 500 pounds. The other species do not get as large, but can also get very big.

Halibut were once a trash fish in the United States, eaten by the fishermen that caught them. But with the arrival of railroads and refrigerated freight cars, a full on gold-rush was at hand on the banks for these mighty fish. As local stocks were depleted the halibut fishermen would then have to go farther and farther afield to find a trip’s worth of fish. After the 1930’s there really was no more halibut industry, the fish were still being caught, but not as a target species. As landings of Atlantic halibut began to decline in the late 19th century, Pacific halibut was caught in greater numbers to meet the demand.

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Buying Halibut

Halibut, is not a cheap fish even where locally caught. Halibut is meaty in texture and very white when fresh, coming in thick steaks or fillets. It can be prepared simply grilled or even done as a roast. Halibut cheeks are a tender little delicacy sometime available locally or online. Today Atlantic halibut is a protected species in American waters, only a single large fish is allowed per trip. However it can be found in fish markets, either caught locally or imported from the Canadian Maritimes. It can also be found online. Today the vast majority of halibut seen on menus and in markets are Pacific halibut. Greenland halibut is still fished in Europe and Canada, but it is a much smaller fish than the other halibut. It is sold commercially as Greenland turbot in the United States, turbot in Canada, and Greenland halibut in Europe.

If halibut is unavailable or out of your price range, monkfish, red snapper and striped bass share halibut’s firm texture but are also mild tasting. Mahi mahi, also has that firm, almost steak-like texture, but with more flavor, so adjust recipes accordingly. For me, I usually substitute swordfish for halibut, or vise-versa depending upon what I find at the fish market.

Historic Recipe

Baked HalibutĀ  (1887)

Take a nice piece of halibut weighing five or six pounds and lay it in salt water for two hours. Wipe it dry and score the outer skin. Set it in a dripping pan in a moderately hot oven and bake an hour, basting often with butter and water heated together in a sauce pan or tin cup. When a fork will penetrate it easily, it is done. It should be a fine, brown color. Take the gravy in the dripping pan, add a little boiling water, should there not be enough, stir in a tablespoonful of walnut catsup, a teaspoonful of Worcestershire sauce, the juice of a lemon, and thicken with brown flour, previously wet with cold water. Boil up once and put in a sauce boat.

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