Salt Fish in Caribbean Cuisine

Bacalao, bacalhau, and baccalà, the cured and dried fish

Fresh, wet salted cod produced traditionally

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In the Caribbean, salt fish, also called bacalao, bacalhau, baccalà or dried fish, is fresh, meaty white fish (typically cod) that has been preserved for longer storage by salt-curing and drying until all the moisture has been extracted.

In order to prepare salt fish for cooking, it needs to be rehydrated and most of the salt removed through a process of overnight soaking in hot water and subsequent boiling. The aim is never to remove all of the salt—enough salt should remain to provide taste, otherwise, you can end up with a bland piece of fish.

In addition to the ever-popular codfish, other common fish that are salt-cured and dried include pollack, snapper, and shark. The name "salt cod," however, has become somewhat of a generic term and will be used to describe the dried fish even if it is not codfish.

How Salt Fish Is Indispensable 

Salt fish has been a part of Caribbean cuisine dating back to the days of European colonial rule. Salt fish was first introduced to the Caribbean in the 16th century. Vessels from North America—mainly Canada—would come bringing lumber and pickled and salted cod. They would then return to their homeland with Caribbean molasses, rum, sugar, and salt.

Today, most of the salt fish consumed in the Caribbean is still imported, though countries like Guyana now make their own salt fish. 

How Salt Fish Is Cooked

The most popular way of preparing salt fish in the Caribbean is by sautéeing it with thyme, lots of onions, tomatoes and hot pepper. When cooked this way, the salt fish can be eaten with rice, roti (a flatbread), and ground provisions (tuber root vegetables). It is most popularly eaten with bakes (a fried dough).

Salt cod is also made into fritters—called stamp and go in Jamaica, bacalaitos in Puerto Rico and acras de morue in Guadeloupe and Martinique. The fish is dredged in a spicy batter and then deep fried until crispy. 

How Salt Fish Is Sold

Salt fish comes in two varieties—bone-in with the skin intact and boneless with the skin removed. The bone-in variety costs less than the boneless, skinless salt fish but both types taste the same. The difference in cost lies in the amount of work that goes into the preparation—removing the bones and the skin takes time and effort. If you do not want to pay the extra price, no worries—once the bone-in salt fish is given a good overnight soak in boiling hot water, removing the bones and skin is very easy work.

Salt fish for household use is mostly sold in half-pound and one-pound packages.