Bacalao (pronounced [bah-kah-LAH-oh]) is the Spanish term for dried and salted codfish. Dried and salted cod--and the dishes that include it--are known by several different names, many of which come from the root "bacal." The Portuguese word for salt cod is bacalhau while in Italian it is baccalà, and in Croatia it is bakalar. This fish is not just part of Mediterranean cuisine; in Norway, it is known as klippfisk and it goes by saltfiskur in Iceland and moure in France. It is also known simply as saltfish, particularly in the Caribbean.
Bacalao has become a main ingredient in the cuisines surrounding the Atlantic and Mediterranean as it began as a chief export from the Northern Atlantic region. Over 500 years ago, explorer Jaques Cartier discovered nearly a thousand Basque fishing boats in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in what is now Canada. For hundreds of years, fishing villages in Norway produced salted and dried cod. Salted codfish became an important food of commerce between the New World and Old World, and thus spread throughout regions near and extending beyond the Atlantic, becoming a traditional ingredient in many cuisines.
The salting and drying of fish came out of necessity--before refrigeration, fish had to be eaten immediately. The salting and drying preserved the fish and greatly extended its shelf life. It was an inexpensive process, and one fisherman could do easily. It also allowed for simple transport to nearby markets. The process also helps the fish retain its nutrients, and makes the fish tastier.
Before beginning the salting and drying process, the fish's head and guts are removed on board the ship. Then the fish is covered in salt and left to dry. Traditionally, it was dried on shore, placed on nearby rocks or hung on wooden racks to dry in the sun. Nowadays, the codfish is dried inside using electric heaters.
Historically, and before overfishing occurred, bacalao was solely Atlantic cod. But more recently it includes varieties of whitefish such as pollack, haddock and blue whiting. It is purchased dried and then needs to be rehydrated and the salt removed before it is added to a dish. This is done by soaking the fish in water for one to three days, changing the water two to three times a day.
Once it is rehydrated, bacalao becomes delicate and tender. Although previously only eaten by the poor, it is now considered a delicacy. Bacalao is offered in a few different cuts, the thick-cut, square pieces of the loin morro or lomo being the most sought-after.
As part of observing Lent, Spanish Catholics made bacalao a staple at their Friday night dinner table. There are many delicious preparations for salted codfish, but a given is that it is served with a sauce, such as tomato, paprika, or vegetables in wine.
How to Prepare Bacalao
There are many Caribbean recipes calling for bacalao. To prepare bacalao for a recipe you will have to soak the fish in fresh water to remove the excess salt used to preserve the flesh.
The best method for soaking bacalao is to cover the fish with approximately 2 inches of cold water in a large bowl. Put the bowl in the refrigerator and soak for up to 3 days, changing the water at least 3 times a day.
Different brands and varieties of salt fish differ in degrees of saltiness. Less salty varieties need less soaking time, sometimes just one day. You can test it by tasting a small piece for saltiness after 24 hours of soaking. You want the bacalao to be slightly salty, not overpowering.