Thursday, 2 July 2020

An Introduction to Salt Cod

By Richard Sanger

The fashion for beaver hats in 17th century London and Paris was what first led our settler ancestors to explore Canada and establish trading posts on our lakes and rivers. Or so we’re taught in school. But long before that, before even John Cabot and Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence, there was something else that brought Europeans to our shores: cod. In the early accounts, the fish are so plentiful that they can be pulled out of the sea with baskets and boats can hardly cut through the thick shoals. It’s no surprise that the great historian Harold Innes followed up his classic study of the fur trade with a book on the cod fishery. As late as even 1990, my Scottish nephew, then a fish merchant with a gift for hyperbole (and now TV presenter), was assuring me that if they didn’t catch the cod, we’d be able to walk across the Atlantic on their backs. We all know where that idea led.

Once the fish was caught, however, it had to be preserved. The way to do this was by drying it in the air and packing it in salt. And to dry it properly, you had to come ashore. In fact, if Mark Kurlansky is to be believed (and he’s only written three books on the topic: A Basque History of the World, Salt and Cod), Basque fisherman were coming ashore in Newfoundland to do exactly this long before Columbus sailed—they just kept their fishing grounds a secret. Starting in the 1500s, the bounty they and others caught would become a staple throughout Europe and the Americas, and a key part of various trade routes. One route took salt cod to Catholic southern Europe, where it became a special Christmas dish in Spain and Portugal, wine and olive oil north to Britain, and then British dry goods and hardware out to Newfoundland. Another route took the fish to the West Indies, as cheap source of protein for the plantations, later becoming the national dish of Jamaica, and sent sugar and rum back to Maritimes. By the 1950s, the cod fishery had expanded into the industrial-scale overfishing that culminated in the 1992 Cod moratorium which threw 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work. There now exists a small inshore cod fishery that supplies some of the Canadian market; the rest is imported from Norway and elsewhere.

Nowadays, the bigger secret seems to be how to cook it. Outside of certain communities (Newfoundland, Portuguese, West Indians, Scandinavians), few Canadians know what to do with salt cod. I discovered it when I lived in Spain in the 1980’s. At first, those grayish salt-encrusted fish fillets in wooden boxes seemed much less inviting than the Spanish hams that hung from the rafters of stores or the Manchego cheese on the counter. Then under the tutelage of my Spanish friends, I learnt how to soak and cook bacalao—and saw how those stiff salty planks could be transmuted by a judicious overnight soaking. The revived salt cod wasn’t the same as fresh fish—it seemed to become a miraculous new substance whose translucent strands that made me think of fibre optic cables or edible fibreglass. You could eat it raw, as the Catalans do in esqueixada, and it didn’t smell the way fresh fish does. Or you could cook it in a myriad other ways—the most impressive of all being the Basque dish bacalao al pil-pil, which my friend Salvador would take me out to taste at a special restaurant in Seville. I have cooked salt cod ever since, often at large family gatherings.

Bacalao al pil-pil is difficult to cook—it involves cooking a whole fillet of soaked salt cod with the skin still attached over a low heat in an earthenware dish and jiggling it constantly while adding a steady stream of olive oil. The jiggling at a low heat causes the oil to mix with the fishy liquid and skin and create an emulsion, a kind of warm mayonnaise. Since I tend to buy the deboned salt cod (which is also deskinned), it’s not something I often try—though I order it whenever I can.

The last time I visited Spain, we made a trip through the Basque country and just as we got to Santander, I realized I still hadn’t had my pil-pil. At a restaurant near the old port, la Pirula, there was a dish called bacalao three ways (one of which was pil-pil) and, when I demurred, the wonderfully ironic and conspiratorial waiter poured me an unusual Galician red wine and told me “I believe we will be able to rise to the standard you demand." We went outside. When the dish came, two of the cod tapas were delicious but the pil-pil was salty. We ate most of it anyway and just drank more wine. As we were paying, the waiter came out to ask how it was. When I said actually it was a bit too salty, he tasted it the little bit left and said “Oh no, no, no. I can’t possibly charge you for that. I’m so sorry. And you know what? Tomorrow I’m going get hold of the boy who sold me that fish and execute him in the public square. Normally I do it at 8 in the morning but since you’re a tourist, I‘ll do it at 11 so you can come and watch." Like the other culinary cult I belong to—the Seville orange marmalade makers—salt cod has a way of making strangers bond.

Here are four of my favourite recipes. There are, of course, many others: the Portuguese have a recipe for every day of the year, the Brazilians cook it with coconut milk, and the Jamaicans prepare it with ackee and callaloo.

Buying and soaking the salt cod

Portuguese and Italian fish stores and groceries usually stock it, as do the larger supermarkets. For the deboned, skinless fillets I buy, the whiter and softer the fillet, the better. To soak, cut your fillet into pieces 3 or 4 inches long, rinse well and soak overnight, changing the water 3 or 4 times before you start to cook. (Use plenty of water, say, two litres per pound of salt cod). Once soaked, test the saltiness in the thickest part of the fish— you still want some as the flavour will dissipate with cooking, i.e. it should be mildly salty, edible not overwhelming. (If you ever oversoak the fish, it is possible to resalinate the fish.)


Esqueixada (which means “torn apart”) is a kind of Catalan ceviche—the markets in Catalonia sell torn up bits of salt cod especially for this dish. This recipe is adapted from Sam and Sam Clark’s Casa Moro cookbook, the second book of recipes from their great London restaurant.


450g salt cod soaked 24 hours and water changed 3 times.
2 green peppers, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
20 or so cherry tomatoes sliced in half
big handful of Italian parsley, chopped up.
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
12-20 oil-cured black olives, pitted and halved

Vinaigrette dressing:
1-2 garlic cloves, crushed into
2 tablespoons red wine and sherry vinegar
5-6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper.
Some chili pepper flakes (optional)


Shred the salt cod with your fingers into little tufts and put in a missing bowl. Add the sliced pepper, tomatoes, onion and parsley. Marinade in the vinaigrette for at least an hour before serving.


There are lots of recipes for brandade, the Provençal salt cod spread. This is the simplest and the best I have found. It’s wonderful on crackers or as a filling for baked potatoes. The Venetian version is called baccalà mantecato. This recipe is adapted from the Newfoundlander Edward O. Jones’ Salt Cod Cuisine, a loving compendium of salt cod lore and recipes from all over the world.


450g salt cod, soaked
Half a cup (125ml) olive oil
Half a cup (125ml) heavy cream (35%)
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Ground nutmeg
6 oil-cured black olives (for decoration)


Poach the soaked cod: place it in a pot of cold water, bring to a low boil and turn off immediately Let stand for not more than 10 minutes, then remove fish and break up in to small pieces in bowl or blender. Add crushed garlic. Warm oil in one pot and cream in another and add alternately in a steady stream, blending or stirring until you reach a smooth creamy consistency. Season with nutmeg, lemon juice and pepper.

Bacalao a la Graciosa
This is the first salt cod dish I cooked and for many years was the only one. The recipe came originally from the second cookbook I ever owned, Anna Macmiadhachain’s Spanish Regional Cookery, long out of print but beautifully illustrated with line drawings by the author’s husband. My copy of the book disappeared many years ago (along with the girlfriend who gave it to me) but I continued to cook the dish from memory. When I ordered another copy on the internet, I realized that peppercorns were my own addition. The secret of the dish is that there is no water—all the liquid in the broth comes from the vegetables and it's delicious. Graciosa is one of the Canary Islands which Anna and her artist husband visited in the 1970s.


450g salt cod soaked overnight, and then shredded into large strips
2-3 large onions, sliced sideways in rounds
4-6 tomatoes, cored and sliced in rounds
3-4 green peppers, sliced sideways in rounds
4-6 large (russet) potatoes, sliced sideways in thin rounds
20-40 black peppercorns
2-3 bay leaves
Olive oil


In a large heavy-bottomed pot, pour a bit of olive oil and then layer the ingredients by order of wetness: half the tomatoes, half the onions, half the green peppers, half the soaked cod, half the potatoes; then repeat these layers with the remaining ingredients, scattering the peppercorns and bay leaves in amongst the cod strips. Cook covered for 1-2 hours, starting at medium-low heat and being very careful not to burn the bottom layer. Once the vegetables have given off enough liquid that it bubbles up round the sides and starts to cook the top layer of potatoes (which you may want to push down with a plate), turn the heat down to simmer. When the top layer of potatoes is cooked, the dish is ready.

Gratin de morue
This is the dish I make for special occasions. It’s easy to prepare in advance, and an impressive creation to pull out of your oven and land on the table. It is also a fish dish whose key ingredients do not require refrigeration, can be easily transported and stored almost indefinitely. I once threw a party for a group of visiting francophone playwrights and actors who had spent a week in Toronto living on fast food and this was the dish I cooked (Canadian raw materials, French savoir-faire)—even the actress from the fishing port of St. Pierre praised it. Cookbook author Patricia Wells, whose recipe I’ve adapted, calls it one of her favourite fish dishes in the world. These quantities will make one big lasagna dish (25x35cm or 10x14”) and should feed 8 or more people.


700-1000g salt cod soaked overnight
3 cups milk
5-6 sprigs fresh thyme (3 teaspoons chopped)
3-4 bay leaves
2-3kg baking potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (easiest with a mandoline)
2 egg yolks
200cl sour cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3-4 tablespoons butter
1 garlic clove halved


Poach the soaked cod: place it in a pot of cold water at medium heat, bring to a low boil and turn off immediately. Let stand for not more than 10 minutes, drain and then tear up into small pieces. In a large pot, pour the milk, bay leaves and thyme and then add all the sliced potatoes and simmer at medium heat until the potatoes are cooked through. Whisk the egg yolks into the sour cream in a small bowl and then stir this into the potato mixture. Rub the lasagna dish first with the cut sides of the raw garlic and then with 1 tablespoon of butter. Spoon half the potato mixture into the dish, add the poached cod bits and then cover it with the rest of the potato mixture. Dot the remaining two tablespoons of butter and bake at 350F (175C) for 45 minutes until the top is golden.

Richard Sanger's poetry collections include Shadow Cabinet and Calling Home. He lives in Toronto.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I make a couple of recipes with baccala - Baccala Mantecato is popular around Venice, a spreadable puree, sometimes made with mashed potatoes, sometimes not. Often eaten on top of polenta. (Recipe with potato:, one without: And here's a recipe from Mexico: