Smoked Sablefish

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smoked sablefish recipe
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Smoked sablefish, a stalwart of the smoked fish case in Jewish delis all over New York City. It usually sits next to the smoked sturgeon and in front of the smoked whitefish. For decades I had no idea what sablefish was. None. I thought it was a market name for something European. All I knew is that there sure weren’t any sablefish around where I lived.

I was right. Anoplopoma fimbria, the sablefish, a/k/a black cod (they’re not related to cod, though) or butterfish (nothing like the butterfish we ate back in New York), only lives in the the North Pacific, and for that matter pretty much only on our side of the ocean, too.

So all the sablefish you will ever eat comes from the depths of the Bering Sea, British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest, and from California. And when I say depths I mean it. They’re rarely found shallower than 650 feet.

My friend Paul, who lives in Portland, will sometimes catch them while fishing for halibut in 900 feet of water, and I’ve heard of a few other guys catching sable when they’ve got gear down that far. But for the most part, black cod is a commercial fishery only. (It’s certified as sustainable by various watchdog groups, in case this matters to you.)

That’s why, when I was up in Alaska last year as a guest of Alaska Seafood, my ears pricked up when the guys started talking about setting a long line for sable. Apparently only Alaska residents are allowed to set the lines, so I had to be a spectator only. Bummer.

Keegan McCarthy, captain of the M/V Sikumi (the boat we were traveling on) and my friend Tyson Fick are Alaskans, however, so they said they’d set a recreational (technically “subsistence”) long line to show us how it’s done.

If you’ve ever seen The Perfect Storm, you’ve seen a long line. It’s basically a main line that’s anchored to the bottom, with lots of little leaders with baited hooks clipped onto it. Commercial long lines can be longer than a mile. Ours was a couple hundred yards.

Remember that part about sablefish only living in deep water? Well, one of the freaky things about Alaska is that in some places, you can swim several hundred yards offshore and be in 1000 feet of water. Crazy, eh?

So within yards of a heavily forest shoreline, Keegan and Tyson set their line from the back of the Sikumi. It’s no picnic. You have an anchor hurtling down to the bottom of the sea, the main line screaming out of its barrel. Keegan clipped bait hooks on it as fast as he could, while Tyson held onto the main line for dear life.

It became clear why they didn’t want newbies doing this. I’ve had hooks embed themselves in me before, but an accident here would be catastrophic: In an instant you’d get thrown overboard and be heading 1000 feet down. No bueno.

Photos by Hank Shaw
Photos by Hank Shaw

By the time they’d set their line, Tyson’s gloves were shredded.

Photo by Hank Shaw
Photo by Hank Shaw

Now we waited. Unlike commercial fishermen, we sat around and told fishing stories while we let the gear soak.

Sablefish, if you’ve never eaten it, is incredibly rich. It’s as fatty as good salmon but with a more neutral, white fish flavor. It has a very fine flake, edible skin and pin bones that are brutal to remove when the fish is uncooked.

My favorite way to cook it is with the skin on, seared heavily on that skin side and just basted with butter on the meat side — you need the skin on or the flakes will separate. Sable is that delicate.

Photo by Hank Shaw
Photo by Hank Shaw

Smoked sablefish is like eating silk. It makes you feel wealthy, like you’re eating something only royalty has the right to consume. Fortunately it’s not that spendy — way cheaper than good wild Pacific salmon, and arguably better. I suppose you could eat smoked sable with something fancy, but I like it on crackers while watching TV.

Finally it came time to haul the line. We all gathered at the rail to watch as Tyson and Keegan got into the skiff and got the winch ready.

You have no soul if you don’t get excited watching the pots come up when you watch Deadliest Catch. It’s the same when you haul any gear. Will it be full? A bonanza? Disaster? The winch began to whine. Up came a hook. Empty. Another. Empty. Our hearts sank. No sable for us.

Then we saw a coal-black fish come over the rail. A sable! Woo hoo! We all cheered. Then another came up. And another. All told we had seven nice sized black cod. Tyson and Keegan sent us home with one each. They kept the rest; they’re no dummies.

smoked sablefish recipe
4.75 from 24 votes

Smoked Sablefish or Black Cod

This is as close as I've gotten to that classic Jewish deli style "smoked sable" recipe. Basically it's a dry cure and a light smoke, with the addition of some honey for sweetness and then that paprika that's so distinctive. Fresh or frozen sablefish (black cod) fillets are becoming more and more available. My local Whole Foods carries them frozen, and I've even seen whole black cod sold fresh. If you can't get sablefish, other fish you might try this recipe on would be bluefish and mackerel, especially Spanish mackerel. The meat will be quite different, but this method responds well to oily fish like these.
Course: Cured Meat
Cuisine: American
Servings: 12
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours
Total Time: 3 hours 15 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 2 to 3 pounds sablefish fillets, skin on
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • Honey for glazing the fish
  • Sweet paprika for dusting the fish afterwards

Instructions 

  • Mix the salt, sugar and garlic powder in a bowl. Pour on a healthy layer of the mix into a lidded plastic tub that will hold the fish. I cut the fillets into pieces I imagine I will want to serve, so about 2 to 3 per side of a large sablefish, probably just two pieces per side with a typically sized black cod. Set the fish skin side down on the salt. Now use the remaining salt mix to massage into the meat of the fish. You want it covered with as much salt as the fish can hold. Cover the container and set in the fridge for however many hours as the fish weighs.
  • Remove the sablefish and rinse it briefly under cool water. Pat it dry. Set it back in the fridge, this time uncovered, overnight.
  • The next day, get your smoker ready. I prefer alder wood for fish, but any mild wood will do. Oak is nice, as is beech or maple or a fruit wood. Smoke the sablefish at about 160ºF for 2 to 3 hours. You want the fish cooked through, but just barely.
  • After the first hour of smoking, paint the fish with honey. Repeat this every hour.
  • When the sablefish is ready, move it to a cooling rack and paint it with the honey one last time. Let it cool at room temperature for about an hour. When it has cooled, use tweezers to pull out all the pin bones running down the center of the fish. They should slide out easily. Now dust the top of the sablefish with the paprika. Let this sink in for about 30 minutes, then put the fish in the fridge. You can serve it now, or when chilled. If you want to package it up to store it long-term, wait a day before vacuum sealing it -- this will let the paprika set on the fish.

Notes

Note that prep time does not include curing time. Once made, your smoked fish will keep a week or so in the fridge, and up to 6 months vacuum sealed in the freezer.
This recipe makes about 3 pounds. 

Nutrition

Calories: 156kcal | Protein: 35g | Fat: 1g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 107mg | Sodium: 687mg | Potassium: 533mg | Vitamin A: 14IU | Calcium: 18mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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57 Comments

  1. I scored some black cod from a local fisherman at my farmers market in Corvallis, Oregon and tried this. I had about 2 lb. of fish so I left it in the cure for two hours, removed and rinsed the filets, left them to dry for about 3 hours outside on a cool, breezy day, and smoked over alder at 175 F (the lowest set point on my smoker) for about 2 hours, basting with honey halfway through. The pin bones came out easily after the fish sat for about 1 hour. At first it tasted too salty but after a day in the fridge it had mellowed beautifully and was utterly sensational!

  2. More accurate to use brine. 4 oz non-iodized salt in 32 oz water for 30 minutes (small fillet). Brush with paste of paprika and water. Overnight in fridge. Smoke to internal temp. of 138 degrees. Needs to be in smoker for approx. 4 hours. Compliments from Bentley’s Smokehouse and Deli, Chapel Hill,North Carolina (no longer in business but produced magnificent sable!)

  3. This was my first attempt at smoking black cod. I liked the dry brine approach as that is what I do for all my sockeye salmon and it is super easy and delicious that way. This recipe was way too salty for my taste.
    I had 6 pounds of black cod filets. The recipe, as stated, more than covered my fish and I had salt/sugar left over. I did start to get nervous after one hour when the liquid was exuded, like I expected, and the cod felt firmer. I rinsed it thoroughly at that point. So, I left twice the fish in the salt much less time than directed and rinsed it thoroughly and it was still too salty. The brushing with honey I found cumbersome as well.
    It was a good first attempt, though I think I will try my sockeye salmon proportion dry brine/method in the future and see how that works. But thanks for the heads up on the chips you use and your smoking time in the recipe.

  4. Fortunately it’s not that spendy — way cheaper than good wild Pacific salmon, and arguably better. ? … Nova lox is twenty a pound around here in Philly and Sable is a hefty $35/lb.

  5. Yes, it was a lot mushier than normal. I know it’s a soft fish, but this was truly mush. I did something wrong. I thought it would be soft, but have a firmness similar to what you find in a deli. HELP!

    1. That can happen with black cod. I can tell you from working in restaurants, we got the freshest stuff possible. We roasted it, and occasionally, mush! Pre-cooked you can’t tell. I know that doesn’t help but black cod can be fickle!

  6. Hi, I followed your recipe exactly as noted. I use a Traeger smoker so keeping the temperture at 160 was not a problem. I brushed honey onto the fish ever hour as noted. After 2 hours, the fish looked perfect, and I cooled it on the racks, dusted it with paprika and 30 minutes later placed the fish in the refrigerator. I tried eating the fish the next day, and it tasted very mushy. Could you please tell me what I did wrong so I don’t repeat this disaster?
    Thanks,
    Bob T.

  7. Just got back home from Alaska. Brought back a tom of Black Cod (AKA SABLE). Tried this recipe and it when great. Thank you for your help.

  8. I tried this recipe with Atlantic Sharpnose sharks. They are a small, 2to3 foot shark that are commonly caught while bottom fishing here in Florida. Excellant!!!

  9. I misunderstood the salting time, so I overdid it… no matter, the fish is absolutely delicious, not at all salty and very easy except for removing the pin bones. For sure this will be prominent on my smoking list. Thank you

  10. Hello: Sorry to sound dense, but please help me understand how long to cure for. If I have 2 sides of the fish weighs 4 pounds (2 pounds each) and I cut them into 8 pieces weighing 1/2 pound each, how long do I cure?

    1. Joey: It is 1 hour per pound of the piece of fish. So if you have each of the 1/2 pound pieces completely buried in the salt, it’s 30 minutes.

  11. So Mr.hank shaw my name is David Schellong I’m a commercial fisherman I’ve been fishing all my life California,oregon, Washington, I’m now in port Orford oregon where I Dungey crab an long line for black cod I’ve drag fished for many moons thinking Sable fish is the worst of worst,(until my accident I’m a survivor of the f/v Sarah jo off the Charleston bar)which in turn brought me to port orford where I took the advice of a seafood buyer to try smoking Sable fish and O.M.G.that’s all I can say about that..Thank you. David

  12. I started some sable today. I kept the thinnest (<1 inch thick) in cure for three hours. The fatties cured for 7 hours. I cured it till I got what I was looking for — some give in the flesh. Not solid, not flabby. Tomorrow I smoke. Thanks for the great info. Oh, and I trimmed the belly and grilled it for some of the cooks where I work who hadn't had sable. Many fans were made.
    Cheers!
    Nancy
    "Jersey Girl in Portland"

  13. I have a question about the length of time / weight of the fish. I have 3 one pound pieces of sable. Do I cure it for 3 hours or 1 hour?

  14. Just a question about the cure time, what does ” Cover the container and set in the fridge for however many hours as the fish weighs.” mean? like is there an hour to pound ratio? any help would be great thanks!!

    1. Dustin: It means if you have a piece of fish weighing 1 pound, you bury it in the cure for 1 hour. If the piece of fish weighs 2 pounds, you bury it for 2 hours, etc.

  15. You can get smoked Sablefish (black cod) at akblackcod.com also a new product they have is a organic marinated gluten wheat free teriyaki sauce they soak black cod portions in all you have to do is thaw, grill, broil or bake, they also have Copper River Salmon smoked and fresh frozen. This is a new smoke house in Anchorage Alaska with free shipping on all products…

  16. Black Cod is also AMAZING when done in the Japanese Kasuzuke style. You can find it, and also Kasuzuke salmon, around Seattle’s restaurants, and always at Uwajimaya grocery store. Here’s the recipe from Uwajimaya: https://www.uwajimaya.com/recipes/detail/black-cod-or-salmon-kasuzuke When I’ve caught too much salmon to eat right away I’ll prepackage fillets sized for two in the kasu marinade with my vacuum sealer and pop them in the freezer. Pulled out some Spring Chinook I caught in January up in BC last night. Thaw, pop under the broiler, instant awesome.