Bacalhau is Portugal’s national dish, and the Portuguese eat around a million kilos of it every year. It’s eaten at special events and at important annual meals – particularly at Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – and many people eat it a couple of times per week as well.
It can be baked, fried, grilled, you name it. According to the Portuguese, there are 365 different ways to cook bacalhau which is to say that there’s a lot of different recipes.
Interestingly, bacalhau isn’t native to Portuguese waters: it normally comes from the coast off Norway or Iceland. It’s also not a particularly cheap fish, especially when compared to all of the other dish that can be caught off the coast of Portugal.
There are a number of theories about bacalhau and how the Portuguese started eating it. One is that it was introduced to Portugal by the vikings who came to Portugal to trade, and this was one of the products that they brought with them.
Another is that Portuguese explorers discovered the fish off the coast of Canada, and preserved it for their journey back to Portugal. By the time they arrived back to Portugal, they would often have leftover bacalhau which they would then sell to the local Portuguese. The locals ended up really liking it, and so the bacalhau industry was born.
Whatever the real story is, the Portuguese have fallen in love with salt-dried cod and, if you want to understand really explore Portuguese culture, you’re going to have to spend some time getting to know bacalhau.
Best bacalhau dishes
The best way to explore the Portuguese love of bacalhau: eat it! You’ll find at least one bacalhau dish on every restaurant menu in Portugal, often as one of the daily specials.
There are, as mentioned, more than 365 different recipes for bacalhau, but a few dishes to look out for are:
- Bacalhau à lagareiro
- Bacalhau com natas
- Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá
- Bacalhau com broa
- Arroz de Bacalhau
Go into most Portuguese cafés, and you’ll also find one or two savoury bacalhau snacks in the counter. These are pastéis (or bolinhos) de Bacalhau, and are just a little bacalhau snack that you can have in between meals of bacalhau.
How to buy bacalhau
Eating bacalhau is pretty easy. Even cooking bacalhau isn’t overly challenging. Buying bacalhau, on the other hand, can be a very complex subject.
Yes, you can buy packets of pre-sliced and pre-prepared bacalhau but:
- It doesn’t taste as good.
- You could end up with a lot more tail and fin than you want.
- It’s more expensive per kilo.
- You don’t get to see the fish before it’s chopped up.
The best bacalhau is sold whole, and cut up at the fish counter. You’ll then have a variety of different pieces from different parts of the fish, each of which is used for different bacalhau recipes.
- Lombos: Normally the juiciest and flakiest section of bacalhau, and the cuts that are prized above all others. They can be roasted, baked, or grilled, and are ideal for bacalhau dishes like Bacalhau à Lagareiro, Bacalhau com Broa, and Bacalhau Assado com Batatas.
- Postas médias & finas: This pieces are good for frying and shredding and work well in dishes like Bacalhau de Cebolada and Bacalhau com Natas. They can also be used in soups and stews as well.
- Abas ou badanas: They pieces are suitable for frying, roasting, and shredding. They work well for Bacalhau à Brás or using in Pataniscas de Bacalhau.
- Rabo (tail): The tail mainly used for adding flavour to dishes, and is often added to soups, stews, and rice dishes.
- Migas: These crumble well and are used in dishes like Arroz de Bacalhau, as well as in pies, lasagna, and pasta dishes.
These words are also important to know in case you do decide to buy pre-packaged bacalhau in the supermarket. Rather than get a whole fish, you normally get a certain cut e.g. postas or badanas which, as mentioned, are more suitable for some recipes than others.
Buying bacalhau can be a bit daunting at first, but it shouldn’t be. Follow the advice below to see if you can pick a good piece and, if in doubt, ask the staff behind the fish counter.
Bacalhau is categorised by weight (e.g. Corrente or Especial), and knowing what weight you want is a good first step is narrowing down your options. The heavier pieces like Especial and Graúdo are best if you want big thick postas, and generally the best type of bacalhau to go for.
- Especial: Pieces that weigh 4 kg or heavier
- Graúdo: Pieces that weigh 2-4 kg
- Crescido: Pieces that weigh 1kg – 2 kg
- Corrente: Pieces that weigh O,5 kg to 1 kg
- Miúdo: Pieces that weigh up to 0,5 kg
- Sortido: Odds and ends, broken pieces, or fish with some defects.
Next, examine the shape of the bacalhau. A good piece of bacalhau:
- Should be as thick as you want the postas to be.
- Should be fairly wide.
While you should never judge a book by its cover, you should definitely judge a piece of bacalhau by its appearance.
Here are a few tips for picking a good piece of bacalhau.
- The tail should be almost straight, rather than bent over.
- It should ideally be a yellowish, straw colour. This means it’s nice and dry.
- Avoid pieces of bacalhau that have red or blackish colouring, blood stains, clots, deep marks, or a sticky appearance.
- The piece of bacalhau should few as few blemishes or cracks as possible.
- Avoid bacalhau that has spots on the flesh, particularly along the spine.
Bacalhau is salt-dried cod and, as such, dryness is one of the main criteria when picking out a good piece. As well as checking the appearance of the fish, you also want to check to see how dry it is.
A good piece of bacalhau:
- Should be noticeably dry.
- Shouldn’t bend too easily (a big sign that it’s too moist).
- Shouldn’t have any noticeable damp patches.
- Shouldn’t have too much salt on the outside.
- Will have skin that peels off easily.
How to prepare bacalhau
Before you can cook bacalhau, it has to be desalinated. This not only removes the salt, but it moisturises the fish as well (bacalhau gains around 35% more weight when soaked).
The desalination process can take anything from 12-72 hours, depending on the thickness of the piece of bacalhau but it’s always better to err on the side of caution. There’s nothing worse than realising you didn’t soak the bacalhau for long enough.
The following are a few rules for making sure you properly prepare your bacalhau.
- Run the bacalhau under a tap to remove any excess salt, before putting it in a bowl of water.
- Only use cold water. If you really want to be picky use unchlorinated water but, failing that, tap water is fine too.
- The bacalhau should sit in the bowl with the skin facing up.
- Make sure the bacalhau is completely covered in water: a good ration to follow is 2/3 water to 1/3 bacalhau.
- Change the water at least 2-3 times per day.
- Ideally, the last water change should take place around 2 hours before cooking it.
How to cook bacalhau
How you should cook bacalhau depends a lot on the recipe, but the following tips should help you regardless of which bacalhau dish you’re cooking.
- Always try and cook bacalhau on a low heat.
- It’s best to remove the skin before soaking the bacalhau when it’s dry.
- Never boil bacalhau (unless the recipe calls for it).
- Many people recommend soak bacalhau in milk for a few hours before cooking it.
How to store bacalhau
Before desalinating the bacalhau, you should either keep it in the fridge or in a cool, dry place.
You can freeze bacalhau that has been desalinated, and it’ll last in the freezer for around six months. Be sure to pat it dry using kitchen paper before putting it in the freezer as this will prevent the formation of ice crystals.
How to travel with bacalhau
Travelling with bacalhau and not having your clothes smell is pretty much impossible. You can wrap it in plastic bags, put it in Tupperware, put it in both tupperware and plastic bags, you name it – somehow the smell always manages to seep through. Layers are definitely key, and you can never have enough of them.
Fun fact: Did you know the Russians also salt-dry cod. They don’t desalinate it, though. They keep it as is and have it with beer.