31 August 2012

The High Price of Good Bacalhau

Lily the kitty loves bacalhau, too. (Or is that fear in her eyes?)

It may seem strange for a blog called The Bacalhau Chronicles not to feature bacalhau in every post. After all, if my goal is to cook 365 different bacalhau recipes, why do I only cook it once or twice a month?

Erm... good question. There are two solid answers to this one.

1. I am growing to like bacalhau more and more. It is a learning project for my tastebuds which I am embracing and appreciating. But I am not ready to eat bacalhau every day, not even in the name of blog science.

2. It is very expensive stuff.

Bacalhau soaking in the kitchen for 24-48 hours. Towel required to protect it from cats.
Much of Portuguese cooking is based around simple, cheap ingredients like onions, garlic, potatoes, gizzards, pig trotters, liver, tripe, octopus, eel, stale bread, and beans. It is a frugal country that knows how to make the most out of the odds and ends of land, sea, and garden. And then there is bacalhau-- a fish prized for centuries and which to this day holds pride of place at the Christmas dinner table. It is in high demand here, even as cod supplies the world over are dwindling. And from what little I understand about economics, this supply and demand dynamic does not bode well for consumer wallets.

How big of a splurge is it? Well, looking at my most recent grocery bills, I can tell you the costs of feeding two adults with the following proteins are:

Chickpeas: €0.99
Ground beef: €2.50
Pork chops: €2.99
Whole chicken: €3.35
Pork tenderloin: €3.45
Boneless, skinless chicken breast: €6.00
Salmon: €6.68
Beef steaks: €7.00
Bacalhau: €13.89

Post-soaked bacalhau, with a nice mix of ends and steaks and a healthy white color.
Oh sure... you can find cheap bacalhau. That is what I tried when I first got here. I thought the little old ladies were suckers for buying from the fish counter when I could get a whole pre-packaged bunch of little shreds for just €2.50! Then I soaked the little shreds and learned that the phrase "nothing but skin and bones" can refer to more than just supermodels.

You have to pay attention if you want to get the good stuff. Good bacalhau is white, fresh-looking fish with plenty of meat on it. Cuts closer to the tail or fins are incredibly difficult to pick clean for shredding, and absolutely useless for roasting or boiling as steaks. So the bacalhau shopper's main goal is to find the most meat per kilo that they can.

At first I relied on the flash frozen and pre-soaked bacalhau sold by brands like Riberalves and Pescanova. There is pre-shredded bacalhau, which makes a dish like Bacalhau à Bras a breeze. Then there are the frozen loins of bacalhau, where you can just look to see how thick the filet is. The frozen stuff, however, is significantly more expensive than dried, and so these days I head to the fish counter to buy my bacalhau.

At any grocery store, the bacalhau is laid out in stiff salty planks. There, you can touch and smell and choose the exact fish you want. The nice ladies behind the counter will cut it up into pieces for you using a big band saw. If you choose well, one large bacalhau may give you 3-5 nice steaks, and plenty of meaty corners and ends from which to pick out shreds.

My mom checks out the bacalhau selection at my local supermarket.
Within the world of whole dried bacalhau, there are a few terms that are helpful to know when picking out the perfect fish for each dish.

Bacalhau Miúdo: This is the smallest size of bacalhau, and will usually produce thinner steaks and fewer of them. As a result, it is less expensive. If you choose wisely, this may save you a few Euros on bacalhau for a shredded dish like Bras or Gomes de Sa.

Bacalhau Graúdo: This is a bigger fish, so it will yield more thick steaks and is more expensive per kilo. This type is what you should choose if you want to try bacalhau assado or any dish where you will be serving a big piece of bacalhau to each person.

Bacalhau Especial: Even BIGGER than graúdo, and more expensive per kilo. This is the good stuff, for when you want to make an extra nice meal or are entertaining family and friends.

Bacalhau Asa Branca: This is a top type of bacalhau, but I can't find a definitive answer as to why. Some say it is the way the cod is cut before drying. Some say it is a particular type of cod itself. Maybe if I ever get to Norway to tour the factories someone will have an answer for me. But for now, I just know it is a prized type of cod which allegedly has the best flavor and the whitest meat.

Bacalhau Noruega: This just means Norwegian Bacalhau, and it is considered the highest quality here. It comes in any of the types listed above, and affects the price accordingly.

Buyer Beware: Bacalhau desfiado means "shredded bacalhau" and will sometimes come in salty styrofoam packages, already pre-measured and attractively priced. Be careful, though: this type of convenience bacalhau often yields more waste than useable meat. Also, check out the tail of your fish before buying. Apparently, some disreputable shopkeepers try to pass off lesser fish as bacalhau. Shameful! To be sure yours is real, look for a more or less flat tail, not a deep V-shape.

I generally go for about 36 hours of soaking.
I hope you enjoyed your virtual trip to the grocery store with me. And I hope it helps you in your own bacalhau buying adventures... or at least lets you understand why this blogger cannot live on bacalhau alone. 

(Although, frankly, I think Bacalhau Boy might try to if he could...)


  1. My boyfriend's parents live in Silves, and they brought us a huge package of bacalhau for Christmas. I have absolutely no idea what do to with the stuff, so I wanted to thank you for writing a blog about it! :D Now to start reading through your recipes... mmm!

    1. What a gift! So glad to help out another bacalhau novice-- it feels like I am paying it forward. :) Let me know how you like the bacalhau, and how you like experimenting with it.