The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

The Last Fish: Black Cod

May 22nd, 2009 · 5 Comments · Posted in Recipes, Sustainability

Black cod, aka sablefish, from Alaska

Sustainable black cod, aka sablefish, from Alaska

Friends recently treated us to dinner at Hank’s Oyster Bar here in the District of Columbia, a twofer for me since I had yet to sit down to a meal at this popular little seafood tavern and there on the menu I discovered black cod, otherwise know as sablefish, a fish I had only heard of (never tasted) as being abundant and sustainably fished in Alaska.

We are always on the lookout for sustainable seafood.

Would the taste measure up?

 I should say so–sweet, tender, this fish was a keeper. So I wondered, Why I have never seen it at the fish counter at my local Whole Foods? We see plenty of Alaskan halibut in season, but never black cod. Then, just browsing in our neighborhood Harris Teeter, I found black cod fillets in the freezer with the Marine Stewardship Council’s sustainability label on them. I defrosted them in the fridge and cooked them in a skillet with our favorite Veracruz sauce. These weren’t quite as tender as what I remembered from Hank’s Oyster bar, but I was suddenly eager to try sablefish again.

I wanted to know more about this fish and how to buy it.

Black cod in fact is no relation to the more familiar Atlantic cod. They are a member of the Anoplopomatidae family, a group of fish confined to the North Pacific. They range all along the Alaska basin, past the Aleutian Islands and around the Bering Sea. The Japanese first began fishing sablefish on a commercial scale in the 1880s. Today, most of the fishing is done by the U.S. fleet under strict supervision by federal and state authorities enforcing a quota system. The season runs eight and a half months, from March into November.

Most of the sablefish catch is made using longlines, which, as the name implies, are very long wires suspended off the ocean floor with multiple hooks at depths up to 3,000 feet. The lines can run up to three miles long with 4,000 hooks. Using one of the sablefish’s favorite foods–squid–as bait, fishermen in ocean-going vessels set the hooks, then later reel in the lines, gaffing the fish as they come to the surface.

Sablefish can live as long as 62 years and grow to 40 pounds or more. But most of those caught commercially weigh less than 10 pounds. Once aboard the ship, they are quickly gutted, cleaned and flash-frozen. Thanks to the internet, you can watch the whole process aboard one small, family-operated factory ship in a video at this Alaska fishing site. Check out the photo album while you’re there.

 The sablefish harvest is not as big as it once was, but the fish population is believed to have stablized. The vast majority of those caught–90 percent–are destined for the Asian market, mainly Japan. Much of the fish is smoked. But Alaska fishermen had been seeking the sustainability label of the Marine Stewardship Council in order to market the fish more broadly to the U.S. mainland and help stabilize prices. The MSC pronounced the fishery “sustainable” in 2006.

So why can’t I find sablefish at my local Whole Foods? In fact, sablefish was one of the species that came up at a recent sustainability conclave sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution when a panel of experts was asked to name the seafood products they’d recommend. Yesterday I sent an e-mail to our friends at Whole Foods asking about sablefish availability. I’m waiting for a response.

Meanwhile, there are any number of mail-order businesses that would gladly ship sabelfish to you via FedEx. Just do a Google search of “Alaska black cod.” The price seems to range around $20 a pound–not cheap, but have you checked the price of sustainable fish lately? That’s comparable, even a little less, than what we’re paying for Alaska halibut at Whole Foods. The frozen sablefish I bought at Harris Teeter was cheaper, but I’m wondering if it also was a lesser quality.

I’d be willing to spring for the mail-order sablefish if the taste is anything like what I experienced at Hank’s Oyster Bar. Meanwhile, in case you get your hands on some Alaska black cod, here’s a recipe you might try. And don’t forget to read more great stories about how we are taking back our food system at Fight Back Fridays.

Recipe: Roasted Black Cod with Leeks and Chardonnay

Summary: Sablefish from Alaska is tender, sweet and sustainable


  1. 1 pound Alaska black cod fillets
  2. 3 tablespoons butter
  3.  2 leeks, trimmed, cleaned and thinly sliced
  4. 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
  5. 1/2 cup chardonnay
  6.  salt and freshly ground black pepper
  7. fistful chopped parsley


  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
  2.  In a heavy, oven-proof skillet over moderate heat, melt butter and cook leeks and onion until soft but not brown, about 8 minutes.
  3.  Add wine and continue cooking until liquid is almost evaporated.
  4.  Spread fish fillets over vegetables and season with salt and pepper.
  5.  Place skillet in oven and bake until fish is just cooked through, about 10 minutes.
  6.  Place fillets with leek and onion on warm plates. Drizzle any pan juices over the fish and garnish with chopped parsley.
  7.  Serve immediately.

CulinaryTradition: USA (General)

My rating: 4.0 stars

Sustainable black cod from Alaska

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  • Amelia

    Oh, I absolutely adore fresh sablefish. It’s so sweet and tender. But I’ve only ever had it back home in Washington State, where it’s in all the fish stores. It would be wonderful if there was a source for it out here.

    Ditto on the Hank’s Oyster Bar endorsement. What a fabulous neighborhood restaurant.

  • FoodRenegade

    Great post. I don’t think I’ve ever tried Alaskan black cod. Now I’m looking forward to it.

    Thanks for sharing this in today’s Fight Back Fridays carnival. I stumbled it!

    (AKA Food Renegade)

  • catherine310

    I’ve become a huge fan of black cod over the last decade. (The supermarkets NEVER have it, but our local fishmonger has it at certain times of year, although it’s not as cheap now as it once was.)

    My favorite – extremely easy – dish is to create a paste of miso (fermented soybean paste), sake (or mirin and/or rice vinegar), and ginger. Slather it over the fish and let it sit in the fridge for up to four hours (or 30 minutes at room temp). Broil it. Sprinkle green onions on and serve. Yum! Quick and easy.

    Because black cod/sablefish is a delicate fish it doesn’t take well to grilling, but roasting or broiling works well.

  • Ed Bruske

    Amelia, the folks in Washington State are lucky to be so close to so many sustainable fisheries. Wish we had more on this side of the country.

    Kristen, definitely give this fish a try if you can find it.

    Catherine, I like the sound of that broiled glaze. Will try it next time.

  • Liv

    Thanks for this post. I love sablefish (or butterfish as it’s called in Hawaii). My mom used to make this every Sunday for dinner. It’s wonderful and has more omega 3s than wild salmon! I haven’t found it in my area in NC, but I’m going to keep the hunt going.