Bacalao (pronounced [bah-kah-LAH-oh]) is the Spanish term for dried and salted codfish. After the fish has been cleaned and eviscerated, it is salted and dried. It's then sold whole or in fillets, with or without the bone. Before consuming it, the fish needs to be rehydrated and the excessive amount of sodium reduced by soaking and changing the water several times over many hours. Good in fried fillets, it is also often used in stews, soups, and baked dishes.
What Is Bacalao?
Bacalao is a dried and salted cod, mostly known for its use in the cuisines of the Iberian Peninsula, but also widely used in other regions, like Norway, Iceland, and the Caribbean. Produced for hundreds of years in Europe, it became a product of trade between the Americas and the Old World, which is the reason it's a traditional ingredient in many cuisines. By salting it, the fish retains its nutrients and becomes more flavorful. Traditionally, bacalao would be dried in the sun, but commercial production dries it indoors.
How to Cook 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 submerge it in cold water and place it in the refrigerator for up to three days, changing the water at least three times a day. Different brands and varieties of this salted fish differ in degrees of saltiness: Less salty varieties need less soaking time—sometimes just one day. Taste a small piece for saltiness after 24 hours of soaking. Alternatively, soak the fish for 30 minutes, change the water and then simmer it while changing the water again three to five times, until the saltiness is just right. You want the bacalao to be slightly salty but not overpowering.
Once it's desalted, you need to cook it immediately, but be mindful that because it has been salted, the flesh is already "cooked." Lesser cooking times are crucial for great results; otherwise, you might overcook the flesh and serve dry fish. Use it in stews, poach it, bake it with tomatoes and olives, flake it for salads, or serve over rice, potatoes, or starchy yuca. Make fried balls of bacalao, battered fish, the famous and garlicky pil pil dish, or cook it with peppers and onions.
What Does Bacalao Taste Like?
Bacalao isn't like anything you've ever tried. Its flavor isn't salty as you would expect, but in fact mild, yet still fishy, with a hint of sweetness to it. After hydrating it, its texture is plump and the fillets are firm. Once it is rehydrated, bacalao becomes delicate and tender. The salting, drying, and hydrating process also changes the texture of the flesh, making it less tender than raw cod or similar white fishes.
Bacalao vs. Cod
Bacalao is cod that has been salted and dried. Bacalao fresco is raw cod, and that's the name under which you'd find it in Spain if you want to buy fresh cod. Because of overfishing, finding real bacalao is a treat, and if you're not familiar with it, buy it from a reputable source, as many other white fishes are advertised as true bacalao.
Be mindful of the origin of the fresh cod you might find as not all areas are making an effort to catch the species responsibly. Cod from the Celtic Sea, Gulf of Maine, and Georges Bank should be avoided, whereas fish from the Barents Sea and Iceland is preferred.
Many famous stew-like dishes use this tasty fish, like bacalao a la vizcaina, a traditional Spanish dish made with layers of fish, potatoes, vegetables, and hard-boiled eggs. Use sweet tomatoes, onions, peppers, potatoes, and olives to simmer your fish. Poach in vegetable broth and aromatic herbs and use the flakes to make a salad with fresh greens and a citrus vinaigrette. Bread and fry strips of bacalao and serve with fried potatoes, or mix with cubed avocados, lime, cilantro, pepper, and olive oil, to serve over fried plantains or hard-shell tortillas.
Where to Buy Bacalao
Many other white, salted, and dried fishes (like pollack, haddock, and blue whiting) are also sold as bacalao, but only cod would be the real deal, so when buying it you want to find a trustworthy fishmonger or supermarket that can certify that the fish you're buying is indeed cod. Many online retailers ship it, as it is dry and there's no risk of spoilage. Because the fish is dry and doesn't need refrigeration, salted fish can be found all year round, but real bacalao might be hard to come by. Look for Spanish or Portuguese markets in your area.
Bacalao is offered in a few different cuts, with the thick-cut, square pieces of the loin (morro or lomo) the most popular.
Before soaking the bacalao, it can be in your refrigerator almost indefinitely, but wrap it well with many layers of plastic wrap and inside of a zip-top bag, as it can be smelly and overpower your kitchen. Once you soak it, you need to cook and consume it immediately, keeping your leftovers for up to two days in the refrigerator. If choosing to keep it at room temperature, follow the same wrapping procedure, but check on the fish and use your nose to notice pungent smells, and your eyes to check for mold or moisture. If that's the case, the fish wasn't dried properly, and you need to discard it.