Why Is My Halibut So Dry?
Let me show you some brilliant ways 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 fish package properly and roasted it in the oven the same as if we had 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 correctly sealed in Alaska and frozen in both Tommy's and our freezers. But I couldn't figure out why it was so dry and tough.
My first thought was I just overcooked it; in the end, that was precisely the problem. But I cooked it like a big piece of sea bass or other firm white meat fish. How could I have gone so wrong? I needed to find out more, so I searched 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 and mild, and the meat flakes into succulent large, tender but firm pieces. It should not be tough, stringy, or lacking flavor. Instead, 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.
Halibut is a lean and delicate fish, which means it can easily become dry and overcooked if not handled properly. However, with the right techniques, you can cook halibut so that it is tender, moist, and flavorful.
Halibut is challenging to cook without drying out 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. First, you must go by internal temperature, which requires an excellent instant thermometer.
Rather than cooking using time and temperature, you're looking for an internal temperature of 130° - 135° F. for the 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, which 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 affect 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, flipping and cooking the other side for another minute to a minute and a 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 using an instant thermometer until you get the feel.
Try Other Cooking Techniques To Prevent Overcooking Halibut
Sous Vide Halibut
If you follow the Reluctant Gourmet, you'll know I'm a massive fan of sous-vide. For example, I've figured out sous viding swordfish is my best chance not to overcook or undercook this problematic fish to cook. I've pan-fried, grilled, and roasted swordfish for years, and it isn't easy to get it right.
So, of course, I thought, why not sous vide halibut? It's a great cooking technique for swordfish, lobster and tilapia, and I found out it's excellent for halibut too.
Halibut is a firm flesh fish that should be flaky when appropriately cooked. 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, if you want them moister, 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. But, again, be quick and don't cook it too long, or you can dry it out.
Some Other Cooking Halibut Tips
One of the keys to cooking halibut so that it isn't dry is to use a cooking method that doesn't require a long cooking time. Because halibut is a dense and firm fish, which means it can take a while to cook through. If you cook it for too long, the heat can break down the fish's delicate structure, causing it to become dry and chalky.
To avoid this, choose a cooking method that doesn't require a long cooking time, such as grilling, broiling, or pan-searing. These methods allow you to quickly sear the outside of the fish, locking in the moisture and flavors, while the inside remains tender and moist.
Another important factor in cooking halibut so that it isn't dry is to not overcook it. Because halibut is a dense and firm fish, it can be difficult to determine when it is fully cooked. A good rule of thumb is to cook the halibut until it is opaque and flakes easily with a fork, but not so long that it becomes tough and dry.
One way to avoid overcooking the halibut is to use a cooking thermometer. A halibut steak is fully cooked when it reaches an internal temperature of 135-140 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature will ensure that the fish is cooked through, but not overcooked.
In addition to choosing the right cooking method and avoiding overcooking, there are a few other techniques you can use to ensure that your halibut is tender and moist. One is to brine the fish before cooking. Brining involves soaking the fish in a mixture of water, salt, and sugar, which helps to retain moisture and add flavor.
Another technique is to baste the halibut while it cooks. This involves spooning a flavorful liquid, such as melted butter or a marinade, over the fish while it cooks. The liquid will help to keep the halibut moist, and it will also add flavor and a nice glaze to the finished dish.
Finally, it's important to let the halibut rest after cooking. This will allow the fish to reabsorb any moisture that may have been lost during the cooking process, ensuring that it is tender and moist when served.
In conclusion, there are several key techniques you can use to cook halibut so that it isn't dry. Choose a cooking method that doesn't require a long cooking time, avoid overcooking the fish, and consider brining and basting to add moisture and flavor. With these tips, you can enjoy perfectly cooked halibut every time.
Some of My Favorite Seafood Recipes
- Roasted Cod with Potatoes and Fennel Recipe
- Classic Tuna Casserole with Dill Recipe
- Shrimp Sauce Recipe
- Shrimp and Sweet Potato Curry Recipe
- Bacon Wrapped Scallops Over Coconut Curry Lentils Recipe
- Spanish Shrimp and Rice Recipe
- How to Purchase and Perfectly Pan Fry Branzino
- Grilled or Roasted Fish Tacos Recipe
I just discovered your fun web site when I was checking to see if you had Les Cheneaux Culinary School on it (it's a great school and restaurant but there is a typo - it's in Hessel not Hassel). I lived in the Seattle area for many years, so halibut was a favorite. I learned of the following recipe from a highly regarded commercial fisherman and cook. I put it in my book, Hollyhocks & Radishes, for preparing large, firm Great Lakes fish. It's a no-fail, and absolutely the only way to prepare halibut. To serve 6: one 2-3 lb. filet, juice of 2 limes, salt & freshly ground pepper to taste, low-fat mayonnaise, 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place fish in shallow glass dish to marinate in lime juice up to 30 minutes. Lay filet on cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Spread about 1/8-inch of mayo over fish. Top with cheese. Place fish in preheated oven, immediately turning it off. Bake 30 minutes before opening door. Fish will be perfect...actually you can leave it in even longer than that, if the need be.
G. Stephen Jones
Thanks Bonnie for sharing you recipe. I'll have to check out your cookbook. And thanks for noticing the typo. Best.
It's really a nice recipe and mouth watering.