Bacalhau anyone?

Bacalhau looks about as appetizing as the prospect of munching on chipboard
Bacalhau looks about as appetizing as the prospect of munching on chipboard

Try as I may, I just can’t understand the Portuguese passion for Bacalhau. Why is it so popular when there’s such a wonderful selection of fresh fish readily available and far cheaper?

It’s as stiff as a board, smells disgusting and looks about as appetizing as the prospect of munching on chipboard. In fact, it’s so hard it has to be cut into pieces using a band saw when you buy it! Bacalhau, also has to be soaked for about 3-4 days, (changing the water twice a day) to remove the salt, before it can be cooked. So much effort so what is the reward? Piglet is on a mission to discover the answer…

For the uninitiated, Bacalhau is the Portuguese word for dried and salted codfish (Bacalhau fresco is unsalted cod)

Bacalhau is as ingrained in the Portuguese food culture as Fish and Chips is to the English, Frogs Legs to the French, Curry to the Indians and Haggis to the Scots. It’s so popular I even found a recipe book “1000 Bacalhau Recipes” displayed in the supermarket.

A THOUSAND RECIPES the mind boggles!

Bacalhau a
Bacalau a “thousand recipes” the mind BOGGLES!

I have previously tried to cook it myself, but to be honest it was so salty that we had to consume vast quantities of water for the next 48hrs to “rehydrate”! I think in all honesty I did not soak it long enough so maybe I ought to at least give it another shot.

Historically, the Portuguese started fishing for cod in the waters of Newfoundland shortly after Columbus discovered America. The cod-fish were processed and salted on the boats to preserve them until they returned to Portugal. Only then, were the fish dried in the sun and sold, either to the locals or passing ships for use on their long voyages. The nickname of bacalhau is ‘fiel amigo’ (faithful friend).

So why is Bacalhau so popular?

One of the reasons why Bacalhau became so popular, over the centuries to become a staple of the Portuguese diet, was due to the fact that Portugal, as a Catholic country, were influenced by the church who forbade the eating of meat on religious days. Bacalhau was readily available and therefore eaten instead.

I have also discovered that if the prospect of soaking fish for days on end does not appeal to me (which it does not) I can buy pre-soaked Bachalau which is called “Riberalves” . In fairness, before I dismiss Bacalhau from our diet altogether I should at least experiment further and try a couple of recipes.

A few tips on buying Bacalhau from a Portuguese friend.

Especial and Graúdo refer to category/size of the fish, not the pieces
– Especial is high quality, big and expensive
– Graúdo is big. Miúdo refers to the small ones.

Asa branca – usually also expensive – is whiter and, according to a relative, better, but a colleague whose parents sold bacalhau said that was a myth and that it is whiter simply because the skin has been taken off.
Noruega – Bacalhau from off the coast of Norway and is generally considered the best.
Lombo/meio – the best cuts of the fish
Barbatanas – the fins (quite thin)

Tip: the tail of real bacalhau is V-shaped. Don’t be fooled.

My next quest is to find some delicious recipes – any suggestions please?

Bacalhau recipes I have tried:


28 thoughts on “Bacalhau anyone?

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  1. Bacalhau is quite controversial in our family. Every Christmas Eve my Mom makes boiled bacalhau with boiled potatoes, cabbage, eggs, carrot, and onion (all boiled). This is the way my Dad and brother like it. But the rest of us (the majority) prefer Bacalhau a Gomes de Sá which is more exciting and tasty (not boiled). So we have this debate each December about this fish and the best way to eat it. Personally, I am not fond of bacalhau, preferring instead baked gammon at Christmas But I’ll eat a forkful of 2, for the sake of tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bacalhau has grown on me. I usually buy the frozen presoaked option if I want to use it in a fish pie. You are very thoughtful in sticking with tradition for your family.

      I’ve never heard of Bacalhau a Gomes de Sá, I must google it!


  2. Perhaps us Portuguese are genetically programmed to love bacalhau. I’ve never set foot in Portugal, but am half Portuguese and absolutely love bacalhau. I could eat it everyday without getting tired of it if it weren’t so expensive here in the States. Every Christmas Eve I make bacalhau da consoada, though I’ve switched to fresh bacalhau since my mother eats with us and is very sensitive to salt. No matter how long I soak it or how many times I change the water, she insists it’s too salty.


  3. Well the history of Bacalhau in Portugal is older than the so called discovery of America, it goes back to the trade with the Vikings that reached the peninsula before the foundation of Portugal as a nation. There are documents that show that in 1303 fishermen signed a corporate agreement to allow them to catch cod in the waters of the kingdom of England. In 1433, there are news that Aveiro’s customs levy customs on imported cod. Between old maritime charts there’s one from Zuane Pizzigano (Italian cartographer at the service of Portugal) dating 1424, filed in a London museum’s, which accurately reproduce in the Atlantic northwest of the Azores a group that clearly coincide with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Avalon and, presumably, the Prince Edward Island. This nautical chart marks the arrival of the portuguese to America before Columbus, who knows in order to fish for Bacalhau…


  4. Piglet,
    We LOVE bacalhau, Maybe give this one a try with your riberalves or other easy(ier) to prepare salt cod:
    I have a tutorial on my blog for the de-salting process, changing the water *often* seems to be enough whenever I’ve done it and I only soak it for 24 hours.
    However, I DO fill up all my large pots and do a heap of cod at once if I can, (on the principle that I x big mess takes about as long to clean up as 1x smaller mess) and then the extra de-salted and flaked fish goes into the freezer as my “quick and easy” stash for a few extra bacalhau recipes.
    I think that when you find THE bacalhau recipe that makes you fall in love with the stuff, you will be hooked LOL.
    With over a 1000 recipe out there there HAS to be on with your name on it somewhere 🙂


  5. Hello love reading your blog we lived in Portugal (My husband is Portuguese) at present we are in Australia for a year. I just love Bacalhau I was of the impression that Bacalhua was very cheap for the Portuguese at least I can remember the 70’s it certainly was and therefore became a staple in their diet not so cheap these days but you should try many of the difficult ways of cooking it just yummy/


    1. Hi CcoR

      Ah…yes…I have tried these beans and nearly choked LoL 🙂 I was told you have to squeeze the skin and the bean shoots into your mouth…yes it did and straight down my throat! Now I know what the imperial is for… 🙂


  6. Hi Baião,
    That’s great thank you! I will buy the “Riberalves” and see how it goes.
    I am afraid I could not bring myself to eat snails even if you paid me 🙂

    I love Portuguese food when it is cooked well, especially Pork with clams, Catapalana and a dessert with bicuits and cream the name of which escapes me at the moment… In fact I am going to attempt to cook Pork with clams this weekend.
    Not come across “tremoços” are they a type of snail?


  7. Hi there,

    Bacalhau à Lagareiro:

    1.Wash baby potatoes and place them on a board sprinkled with coarse salt and bring them to bake in the oven, 25 to 30 minutes at 200 º C. Roast the onions in shell, in another vessel.
    2.Roast the cod directly on the coals, or use a grill.
    3.warm up olive oil and fry sliced garlic.
    4.give the hot potatoes a small punch, making them to open.
    5. On a platter place the cod in the center, potatoes and onions around, scatter over salt and fine pepper, and Drizzle with the hot olive oil with the fried sliced garlic, serve hot.

    by the way, snails are very good.

    Have you tried “tremoços”? They are fantastic with a imperial.


  8. Looks salty. Chinese food has dried fish also. All types of variations. My mother used to steam sliced pork..with small amount of salted fish. It’s a condiment at that stage. I had it and would still have it now.

    It’s like have abit of soy sauce on your meat. I agree Portuguese cooking better wake up to fresh fish. Perhaps you should do a blog post on skate…I had it at a Portuguese restaurant in Ontario. Good , actually.


  9. As an “estrangeira” my first taste of bacalhau was the “bacalhau com natas” recipe, which is delicious, and still my favourite way of eating it. Plus its much easier to make, since you use the small shredded pieces that come from the supermarket nicely packaged so all you have to do is soak for a day and cook.


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