There are 1001 ways to prepare Bacalhau (salt cod), but there is only one Bacalhau Recipe the Portuguese keep faithful to. It goes by several names like Bacalhau á Lagareiro, Bacalhau no Forno or Bacalhau Assado com batatas a murro. These are all variations of the same principle of charcoal grilling ( in Summer) or oven roasting (in winter) the cod-fish and serving it with an assortment of vegetables, most notable of which are the “punched” potatoes baked in the oven. Some of you (especially the Portuguese Nationals) might think that I am absolutely crazy in implying that these different Bacalhau recipes are similar. Let me assure you that I am fully aware of how better (to my taste) a charcoal grilled piece of salt cod tastes when compared to oven roasted. The same for the oven punched potatoes vs normal boiled ones. All I am trying to do is to provide a comprehensive Bacalhau recipe guide to all those who were not already eating Bacalhau 3 months after being born.
Bacalhau is Portugal
I always found it astonishing that Portugal, a seafaring nation for 600 years, a country that holds Europe’s largest Exclusive Economic Zone where the largest diversity of fish and seafood in the whole of Europe live, has a salt dry fish caught in the North Atlantic as a national dish. For someone who is just now getting acquainted with the Portuguese reality, this might seem crazy, but this fact is a prime example of how the good the Portuguese Culinary Heritage is at conserving its prime dishes. Religion also played its role, as presently 82% of the Portuguese hold their faith to the Roman Catholic Church. Although these are official census numbers, I can assure you that the real number tops 95%. As good Christians that we all are, the Portuguese are quite adamant about following the holy dietary guidelines; i.e, eating fish on Christmas Eve and Good Friday. Some even do it every Friday!
As I explain in my book, the Portuguese already had the habit of air drying and salting the fish that was caught in its territorial waters. It was only in the 15th century when Portuguese Navigators sailed the North Atlantic, that the Bacalhau was introduced to the Portuguese Cuisine. This happened purely by need and flavour. The Bacalhau’s meat tasted better and lasted much longer than their predecessors. Moreso, that ALL (every single part) of the Bacalhau could be eaten meant that, much like a pig, it was a democratic food. The wealthier could afford the best and most expensive parts – the loins, and the poor could eat the rest – wings, tails, heads and tongues.
So, instead of salted mackerel, the Portuguese would stack up on salt cod, which would then be eaten regularly, but most importantly at these two religious dates. Even the population from the interior of the country could eat Bacalhau as the salted dry meat can last up to 6 months. The result: After almost 600 years, Portugal is the world’s cod consumer, accounting for 25% of global consumption.
Why is Yellow Cured Bacalhau the best Bacalhau?
The Bacalhau de Cura Amarela (Yellow Cured Cod) was generously provided by Liporfir, a family-owned company from the Bacalhau Capital of Portugal – Gafanha da Nazaré. Marta Santos, along with her two brothers vouch to uphold their father’s idea to be recognized as the producers of the best Salt Cod in Portugal. They may not have the volume of other brands, but their boutique operation allows them to almost handcraft every Yellow Cured Bacalhau. Actually, they only make it by special order, with the consumer price exceeding 22 euros per kilo, being dubbed as the “Lamborghini” of Bacalhau.
Although the sun and wind cure days are long gone – dust. bird droppings and excessive heat would damage the fish, the “yellow cure” still requires an almost personalized treatment of the cod. At Liporfir, only the best cods weighing over 6 kilos and, at least, half a year of rest salt are selected for “cura amarela”. More than the last stages of the process it is this first long salt cure, which is going to give the Bacalhau with the best flavour when compared with its counterparts. So, from the start we have already a better quality starting product, wich will then be finely tuned to make the best Bacalhau. Yellow cure bacalhau is less humid and salty than the common cure for what yields more after soaked.
Marta shares Liporfir’s recipe for Bacalhau de Cura Amarela:
- After selection, the cods are washed to remove excess salt and soak in water during 8 hours.
- They are then dried in the chambers for 3 days.
- A second 4-hour soaking is applied
- Then back to the tunnel for another 2 days
- Rest in 7ºC for about a month
At the end of this process of soaking and dehydration of the cod, a fish with more than six kilos is just over 3 kilograms. The end product is of such high quality that the Yellow Cured Bacalhau is also dubbed as the Cured Ham of the Seas (Presunto dos Mares in Portuguese), as it can be eaten straight of the bone with some bread. I tried it, and let me tell you that was at the same time a very big surprise and recollection of an old recipe that my grandfather used to make: Punhetas de bacalhau. It is in Portuguese, but you can see the video of this recipe here.
This Bacalhau recipe as taken from my Portuguese Travel Cookbook, where you will be able to find plenty more traditional Portuguese recipes. The quantities are made for 4 persons, as this dish is best enjoyed among family or a group of friends. Never forget that any Bacalhau recipe should be accompanied by red wine. NO WHITE WINE! There are no buts and no excuses. The fleshiness of this fish, along with the olive oil and garlic cry out for tanginess of the wines from the Portuguese Bairrada or Dão regions. From the first I recommend the Sidonio de Sousa Garrafeira 2009 and from the second Casa de Santar 2012.
How to properly chop and soak the Bacalhau
The best part of eating bacalhau is dipping your fork into a (very) large portion of bacalhau loin. As I received the bacalhau in whole in my home, I was lucky enough to be able to chop it the way I thought best. About 8cm large portions. In case you buy it in a shop, tell the man to be generous with the size of the pieces. They may take longer to soak and to cook than the narrow ones but believe me that the final wholesome texture of the large fish flakes is worth it. Some people do it, but I leave the spinal cord on and never chop it down the middle. This may also be a nuisance, especially when it comes to finding a big enough roasting tin, or even large enough plate. Again, the skin and bones not only help to keep the integrity of the meat, but also give it an extra dose of flavor.
Simply place the piece(s) which you are going to cook in a large pot or vat full of cold water and let it soak in the cold for full 3 days. The water should be changed regularly – four times in the first day. Then about twice a day. In the summer, it must be kept in the fridge. Attention!These are my measurements, for a large piece of Yellow Cured Bacalhau. Other smaller and more salted versions may need different timings. A good way to tell is to taste the water. When it’s no longer salty – then your Cod is ready.
Bacalhau Recipe Ingredients
1 kg of Yellow Cured Bacalhau
2 or 3 big garlic heads – I eat bacalhau with an obscene amount of garlic!
1 mid-sized Savoy cabbage
500 gr of new yellow potatoes
300 gr of dry organic chickpeas – these need to be soaked before cooking
4 or 5 leaves of laurel (bay leave)
1 large bunch of parsley
4 organic eggs
1 bottle of Portuguese Extra Virgen Olive Oil – my preference goes to Azeite de Trás os Montes DOP
Bacalhau Recipe Preparation
Preheat the oven at 180ºC. Start by cooking the previously soaked chickpeas for about 1 1/2 hours. Wash the potatoes. Springle rough sea salt on the wet potatoes and place them in an oven dish lined with baking paper. Insert on the lower part of the oven. They will roast for about 1h.
Place the whole bacalhau piece (skin side down) in roasting tin or dish with the laurel, 2 garlic heads and about 100ml of olive oil – just enough to cover the base. Place it in the oven about 15/20 minutes after the potatoes. My large piece was done after 45min, so you may have to adjust the timings so it does not become dry and chewy.
In the meantime, insert the whole green cabbage leaves in boiling water and leave for 5min. Remove and set aside to be sauteed in olive oil before serving. Cook the eggs to a soft boiling point (about 6min).
The cod is done when the flakes start separating and top meat has a light golden colour. Plate everything and garnish with parsley.
As with everything I cook, EAT IMMEDIATELY.
The Yellow Cured Bacalhau (Cod Fish) used for this Bacalhau Recipe was gently donated by Liporfir. All opinions are my own.