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
4.74 from 23 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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51 Comments

  1. The smoked sablefish recipe is spot on. If you like what you get at Zabar’s, but don’t live on the upper east side this will make you very happy. I live in Boulder County, CO and there’s not a decent deli for miles. When I found out Whole Foods often carried sablefish (albeit frozen) I went on a mission that ended with this recipe. Thanks so much! My husband, a nice Jewish guy from New York, send compliments as well.
    PS I use a Traeger smoker. If you like heat- using hot paprika adds a nice touch

  2. Looking forward to making this- but I’m curious- is the fish salted and pressed for only a few hours? (You instruct to do so for as many hours as the fish weighs in pounds). That seems brief? Not overnight? (I’m
    Used to making gravlax – with a longer dry brine and press)
    Thanks

  3. Hello! Very nice recipe, thanks for the share! love the taste and texture. once smoked and chilled, how long will it keep packaged sous vide (fridge and freezer)? best to keep it in the fridge or can be frozen without change to texture once thawed?

    thanks! ?

  4. Hi Hank!
    I live in a city and I didn’t want to mess with my WSM—besides, I’m dubious if I could get my smoker that low, so I cold smoked this fish using a perforated tube and pellets in my (turned off) grill, then finished it off in the sous vide with a dollop of honey. Haven’t tried it yet, but wish me luck!

  5. I love smoked Black Cod ever since I had it for dinner at Ray’s Boathouse restaurant in Seattle area 50 years ago.
    I live in Bellingham, wa. and three summers ago I’ve gotten a source of Black Cod from the coast.

    I love your recipe. I smoke and use through out the winter. Would you please comment on the following thoughts.
    I’ve come to smoke it close to 4 hours liking that texture better for freezing.

    HOW MUCH TIME IN DRY SALT RUB.???
    YOU say what fish weighs. Well, I did 4 fish about 11 pounds. I don’t want it too salty. IDEAS???

    Oiling the grates helped get the fish off cleanly

    Thanks a Bunch.

    David Wisner

    1. David: The salt cure lasts 1 hour per pound of the piece of fish. So if you coat a 1/2 pound piece of sablefish, it cures only 30 minutes. You can let it go longer, but you then run the risk of it being too salty. So in your case, you have 11 pounds, but it’s not an 11 pound piece. So weigh the pieces and go from there.

      1. I’m leaving the rub on too long then since they are in individual pieces with the heaviest of the many pieces is about 1/2 pound. So are you saying about 30 minutes total for 11 pounds of fish cut into serving pieces spread on 3-4 racks.

        Thanks

        Great Recipe

        David Wisner

  6. I’m curious… the only reference I can find to how to make actual Jewish deli style sable states that it is made with a cure + cold smoke, not a hot smoke. Any sense of which is more accurate? I guess I can try both ways. Also, the sable that I can get near me on the E Coast is certified black cod but is not the thick cuts that I see in pictures or remember from my youth.

    1. Eric: I am not sure. I can tell you it is amazing done this way. But I bet it’s equally good cured and cold smoked.

  7. I have been following this recipe for several Smoked Sable cooks and it is delicious every time. I have developed a few pro-tips through my own experience which I would like to share:
    1) If you’re on the east coast like me and cannot get your Black Cod fresh then ask your fish market to order the whole frozen fish (not just the fillets) and fillet it after it’s been defrosted in the refrigerator. You will most likely have to purchase the entire fish. Worth it. Make sure you tell your fish monger to defrost in the refrigerator.
    2) If your fillets were frozen after they were cut from the body it will be a drier texture so the additional uncovered drying time might not be necessary.
    3) Don’t brush the fillet after you sprinkle the paprika. It will clump and look terrible. Yeah, I did that once.
    4) This is the best way to do the paprika….. Put 2 tbsp honey and 1 tsp Paprika in a Pyrex bowl or cup and set it in boiling water to make a double-boiler (turn the heat off the water, duh). The honey will get warm and loosen up and the paprika will infuse the honey. Keep the honey heated for at least an hour. I will remove the pyrex from the water, reboil, and put it back in at least 2-3 times. Use this honey/paprika to brush the fillet about 30 min before removing it from the smoker. You will need a liberal amount and will notice it does not stick to the fillet too well at first. You will have brush striations at first but that will smooth out in the next 30 minutes before you remove the fillet.

    Hope this helps to improves everyone’s experience!

  8. “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.)”

    Yes, it does matter to me as it should to everyone who want to continue eating seafood!

    Good recipe.

  9. Hi Hank… i just pulled 4 sided of black cod out of my smoker. I buy the sided trimmed and boned so I don’t have to deal with filleting the round. Your recipe and smoking time is pretty much the same as mine and you’re right, the finished product can only be described as decadent. Not sure where you buy your fish but here on the south coast of British Columbia, Sable fish is about double the price of Sockeye Salmon and i’m getting it wholesale from a fish processor.

  10. Very good recipe but a bit confused about the skin. I kept the skin on but when I ate, I realized the sable I had always eaten from Russ & Daughters must have been skinless – which seems the same with the photographs you included. Any advice about the skin?

    1. Jeremy: Yes, peel it off before you eat. I have found it keeps the fish together better during the smoking process.

      1. I tried smoking some Cod today. THEN, as has become my “custom”, AFTER I finished smoking it, and tasting it I began looking up “how to smoke Cod”.

        I rinsed the Cod off, patted it dry, covered it with ice cream/rock salt for 30 minutes, rinsed it off again, let it sit in the refrigerator for almost 2 hours. Smoked it with alder pellets in my “bought on sale” smoker at 225 degrees for one hour. It was done, not over done, but it was nothing special.

        I CAN NOT use sugar or honey in my rub or cure because I am Diabetic. My little wife refuses to try dill on Cod. Does anyone have any suggestions for smoking Cod for a Diabetic that will make it tasty and worth smoking on a recurring basis? I will very much appreciate any suggestions.

      2. Hank, do you recommend bringing the smoker temp up gradually once the fish is in, as in your smoked salmon recipe, or can/should the sablefish be put in the smoker directly at 160 degrees? Love your recipes! Thanks. Jamie

      3. Jamie: Yes, I always let the smoker get normalized, i.e., through its initial stage where it’s spewing black smoke, then put the fish in there. Sometimes this takes long enough where the temp is already at its setting, so in that case I put the fish in with the lid open, dropping the temperature. That way the fish will come up to temp more slowly. Quick temperature jumps are never a good thing when smoking fish.

  11. I made sable for the first time using this recipe on my RecTeq RT700 and I must say…. It was as good as any deli I have bought Sable from on the past. Do you have a recipe for Peppered Sable?

  12. I just made this recipe today. It’s fantastic! I love smoked sablefish, but I’ve never made it myself. I used my Brinkman smoker with charcoal and apple wood chips. I used a very accurate smoker thermometer. It was challenging to keep it at 160F. It fluctuated between 140F and 190F, but it didn’t seem to matter. I basted it with honey twice and cooked it until it was done, which was a little less than 2 hrs. I’m delighted with this recipe. Thank you Hank!!