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November 30, 2011

How to Prepare Salt Cod

With the holidays underway, I’m beginning to think about trying new recipes. While I’ve been cooking salt cod dishes for many years, they tend to be a little more involved than other fish recipes. Newer cooks might shy away from the longer preparation, so I want to share my tips for making salt cod with you in hopes that it will encourage you to try something new this holiday season. It’s a simple process once you’re familiar with it.

Salt cod comes in fascinating variety. What you’ll find in any market usually depends on the ethnic community in the neighborhood. There may be baccala with bones or boneless; whole sides of fish or trimmed fillets; lightly or heavily salted fish; fish that’s totally dry and hanging from the ceiling or moist fish in the refrigerator. But every kind must be soaked, for hours or even days, to purge it of salt. And then it must be cooked to soften it. Keep in mind: the thinner the piece of fish, usually the saltier it is. I prefer the thicker cuts.

Try the following recipes for salt cod:

Baked Salt Cod with Potatoes

Creamy Baked Salt Cod

Salt Cod, Potato, and String Bean Salad

For average-sized recipes—a fraction of what my father used to make—I suggest you buy moist Canadian salt-cod fillets, packed in 1-pound boxes and refrigerated. The boxes often give soaking instructions, but I recommend the following method for all types of boneless baccala:

Put the fish in a large container, such as a plastic food-storage box or a big bowl that will fit in your sink but is big enough to keep the baccala completely submerged. Run cold water into the container in the sink to cover the fish, fill it to the brim, and let it start spilling over (and running into the open drain). Close the tap so there’s only the slightest steady drip of fresh water into the container, which will slowly but continuously wash out the salt. To minimize the dripping noise, drape a clean wet kitchen towel over the faucet, positioned to catch the drips, with one end in the water bath. The towel will silently conduct the fresh water down.

Soak under dripping water overnight—10-12 hours for most kinds of baccala. It’s OK to move the container if you need the sink, of course—if you do, dump the water and cover the fish with fresh. And if you can’t keep the drip going, just dump and change the water completely at least every four hours.

Here’s how I decide when baccala is ready for cooking: I lift the flesh out of the water, press my finger against it at a thick part, then touch my finger to my tongue. If it’s palatably salty, or very close, I can cook it, since more salt will come out during cooking. Don’t soak baccala longer than necessary, as you will start to lose the flavor of the fish.

Drain the baccala well and cook it right away or within a day or so. Store it in the refrigerator, patted dry and well wrapped.

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