How to Cook Halibut So It Isn't Dry
This summer, my youngest daughter and I went up to McCall, Idaho to visit one of my best childhood friends for the weekend. My buddy Tommy is a terrific outdoors person who hunts and fishes for much of what he eats throughout the year including deer, elk, duck and all kinds of fish.
It just so happened Tommy was up in Alaska a few weeks before our visit and caught a 150 - 200 pound halibut and some big salmons. He had a freezer full of tasty halibut and sent us home with a couple of vacuum sealed packages of thick cuts of halibut and salmon.
A couple of nights ago we decided to try some of Tommy's halibut I knew he worked hard for. Imagine pulling in a 200 pound doormat from deep down in the sea. Although we defrosted the vacuum sealed package of fish properly and roasted it in the oven the same if we purchased it fresh from a seafood market, the outcome was not as we expected.
The halibut was dry and tough. So dry, I added a few squirts of reduced balsamic vinegar as a sauce but even that didn't help. I knew this was a good piece of fish that was sealed properly in Alaska and properly kept frozen in in both Tommy's and our freezers. I just couldn't figure out why it was so dry and tough.
My first thought was I just overcooked it and in the end, that was exactly the problem. But I cooked it just like I would a big piece of sea bass or other firm white meat fish. How could I have gone so wrong? I needed so find out more so I did a search on the Internet and here's what I found out.
What Does Properly Cooked Halibut Suppose to Taste and Feel Like?
Let's start by describing how properly cooked halibut should taste and feel. When done right, halibut is sweet, mild and the meat flakes into succulent large, tender but firm pieces. It should not be tough, stringy or lacking flavor. The texture should be tender and you shouldn't need a knife to cut through it.
Why Does Halibut Dry Out and Become Tough So Easily?
Did you know the Atlantic halibut is the world's largest flatfish. Think of it as a giant flounder. The reason halibut is difficult to cook without drying out is because of its ultra low fat content. Compared to other fish like anchovies, salmon, tuna, swordfish and mackerel, halibut is much less oily thus making it very easy to dry out if overcooked.
How to Prevent Your Expensive Halibut From Drying Out When Cooking?
We like to roast most of the fish we eat. Although it depends on the type of fish we are roasting, we usually roast at (450° F for 15 to 20 minutes.) But with halibut, you have to approach it a little differently. You have to go by internal temperature and this requires using a good instant thermometer.
Rather than cooking using time and temperature, you're looking for and internal temperature of 130° - 135° F. for firm, flaky and opaque results. If you prefer your fish more medium-rare, shoot for 120° - 125°F internal temperature. Remember, the cooking will continue after you take it out of the oven so you may have to adjust for that.
If you let it cook too long, over 135°F, you are flirting with overcooked fish and that would be a shame. I know. I've overcooked plenty of fish.
Remember, the thickness of the piece of halibut you're cooking will also effect how long it will take to cook. I have read some people cut their halibut into half inch thick steaks and sear one side on a hot skillet for 30 seconds, flip and cooking the other side for another minute to minute and half and they are done and still moist.
Like any cooking technique, you'll have to play around with cooking times and pan temperatures to get it perfect but start by using an instant thermometer until you get the feel.
Try Other Cooking Techniques To Prevent Overcooking Halibut
If you follow the Reluctant Gourmet, you'll know I'm a huge fan of sous-vide. For example, I've figured out sous viding swordfish is my best chance not to overcook or undercook this difficult fish to cook. I've panfried, grilled and roasted swordfish for years and it's difficult to get it just right.
Halibut is a firm flesh fish but when cooked properly, it should be flaky. The firm flesh is separated by connective tissue so you need to cook it long enough to break down this connective tissue. Cook it just a little too long and you have dried out fish.
I like my halibut moist and flaky so I sous vide a 2-inch halibut filet for 45 - 60 minutes at 140°F. If I have 1-inch fillets, I sous vide them for 30 45 minutes at the same 140°F.
Now it you want them more moist, cut down the cooking time to 30 minutes.
After cooking the halibut sous vide, I like to remove it from its vacuum sealed bag and sear it in a cast iron pan or on the grill for color. Be quick and don't cook it too long or you can dry it out.