Bacalhau FAQs

What is bacalhau?

Bacalhau is codfish which has been preserved by drying and salting it.  It was invented (discovered?) over 1000 years ago, and made it possible for Portuguese explorers to sail around the world with a portable source of protein which could keep for many months.

These days, bacalhau is part of the cultural culinary fabric of Portugal.  It is beloved for its distinctive taste, but it seems to me it is beloved even more because it is an iconic food-- a proud part of being Portuguese.

Want to have your mind blown about just how important bacalhau has been to the development of Western civilization? Pick up Mark Kurlansky's book Cod. It is more exciting than any biography of dried salted fish has a right to be.

Can I substitute fresh cod for bacalhau?

The answer is yes, of course you can-- you could substitute any fish in many of these recipes and have a delicious result.  The thing is, fresh cod has such a light, mild taste, when you substitute it you will not get the powerful dose of FISH that you get from its dried, salted counterpart.

So, if you find it easier to use fresh fish, go ahead, do it!  (Be sure to adjust cooking times accordingly, since fresh cod can disintegrate more quickly than bacalhau.)

But if you are feeling adventurous and would like to get the real flavor of Portugal on your dish, you should seek a bit of real bacalhau.

I don't live in Portugal. Where can I find bacalhau?

If you are located in the US or the UK, it can be hard to find bacalhau in the grocery store.  These online food purveyors should help you source the bacalhau you crave, as well as other Portuguese specialties you see used in some of the recipes here.

How do I prepare the bacalhau before I start cooking?

First, you should soak the fish.  Leave it in a bowl filled with water in the refrigerator, covered with a plate or something (to keep the smell from permeating the whole fridge.)  Change the water about three times over 24-48 hours.  

As with any food, the taste is in the mouth of the beholder.  Errr... what I mean is, bacalhau is not meant to taste completely free of salt, like fresh cod.  It has a tang and a deep saltiness, and how long you soak it depends on how much you want to mellow out that tang.  In my experience, it is no less than 24 hours before a saltcod filet is desalted, and no more than 48 before the fish starts to flake and get mushy.  The thicker the filet, the longer it will take.

Many recipes also require a second preparation step: boiling the cod before shredding it.  If you are going to have a shredded bacalhau dish (like bacalhau à brasbacalhau com capa de broa, etc.) you will need to set aside 10 minutes to boil the fish, at least 15 to cool the fish, and another 10 minutes to shred it into pieces, carefully picking out all the bones. (If you buy pre-shredded frozen cod in Portugal, you can skip this step.)