Species Spotlight on Halibut

Atlantic (Hippoglossus hippoglossus), Pacific (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 these species stand apart.

The Greenland variant, also known as a Greenland 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. They do not always get that big, size is not always dependent on age, but they are all long-lived and slow to mature. Size seems to be contingent on factors like food availability, habitat and intra-species competition.

The name of the fish may have come from hali and butt, archaic words for “holy” and “flatfish.” The name may be a nod to how it was eaten on fish days of the Catholic calendar due to its shape, reminiscent of a Latin cross.

Catching Halibut

Halibut were once a trash fish in the United States, eaten by the fishermen that caught them or smoked for a cheap snack. 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 fishermen would then have to go farther and farther afield to find a trip’s worth of fish.

historic halibut

After the 1930’s there really was no more Atlantic halibut industry, the fish were still being caught, but not in numbers to still be considered a target species. As landings began to decline in the late 19th century, Pacific halibut were caught in greater numbers to meet the demand.

At the time of writing, Pacific Halibut populations are considered healthy throughout their range along the West Coast of the US and Canada. They are mainly caught off Alaska using longline “ground trawls” of hooks of a particular size. Some are also caught in fish traps called “pots” much like Pacific cod.

Atlantic halibut are no longer being overfished, but are still recovering from the past. They are caught, but in very low numbers and high minimum size limits. When trawlers and longliners target other species that live on the same type of bottom, they are allowed to bring in one large fish per trip.

Buying Halibut

Halibut, is not a cheap fish even where locally caught. The fish is meaty in texture and very white when fresh, coming in thick steaks or fillets. Steaks will have a distinctive piece of backbone and are often from smaller fish. It can be prepared simply grilled or even done as a roast. The cheeks are a tender little delicacy from the “face” of the fish that are available locally or online.

halibut fillet

Atlantic halibut can still be found in fish markets, either caught locally or imported from the Canadian Maritimes. It can also be found online. However the vast majority of seen on menus and in markets is Pacific halibut. Greenland turbot is still fished in Europe and Canada, but it is a much smaller fish than the other species. It is sold commercially under this name in the United States, turbot in Canada, and Greenland halibut in Europe.

Roasted Pesto Halibut

If halibut is unavailable or out of your price range, monkfish, red snapper and striped bass share its 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 alternate with swordfish, depending upon what I find at the fish market.

Historic Recipe: Baked Halibut  (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.

Source: From Head to Tale