Slabs of stiff, dried salted cod displayed in markets around South Florida have always intrigued me, but it wasn’t until recently that I decided to try my hand at cooking this delicacy.
There are hundreds of bacalao,([bah-kah-LAH-oh) recipes that span the globe from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and France, to Newfoundland, Latin America and Brazil (where it’s called bacalhau). Centuries ago Basque fishermen discovered they could salt and dry their fish to preserve it for the long journey home. Now, it’s a taste sought after by food lovers.
Cooking bacalao can’t be spontaneous because first the dried cod needs to be rinsed and soaked in water for at least 24 hours under refrigeration. The water needs to be changed every six hours or so. Brands of salt cod can vary in their degree of saltiness so while 24 hours may be adequate for some, a 36-hour soak will be necessary for others.
To test the cod, simply taste a small piece after one day — it should be pleasingly salty but not overwhelming. If it is still too salty, place it back in the bath. After soaking, the fish swells up to the size it was when it was fresh and has a delicate taste, firm texture and fresh aroma. Poaching the bacalao in water or milk is usually the next step.
Bacalao is sold packaged by the pound, frequently in a box, or as a piece cut from a whole fish. The packaged fish is usually boneless while pieces from the whole fish may be quite bony. In Spain, bacalao is commonly baked with potatoes; in Portugal and Brazil it’s pureed and made into a popular fritter; Italians simmer it in milk; and in French and Basque cuisines it’s whipped with potatoes into a dish called brandade.