Bacalhau – Salted Codfish Portugal

Besides grilled sardines, salted codfish is Portugal’s signature ingredient. Did you know there are over 1000 Bacalhau recipes? The funniest thing is that codfish does not even exist along the country’s coastline! In this comprehensive guide to everything salted cod, we explain the Portuguese love affair with salted cod, the best codfish recipes, and the importance of codfish dishes in everyday Portuguese life.

“Bacalhau” refers to dry salted cod that is captured in the icy waters of the Northern Atlantic. In fact, it is hard to find fresh codfish in Portugal because they are not native to Portugal’s waters.

Salted codfish in Portugal
Porto Bacalhau shop

The elaborate drying and salting process helped preserve cod during the long fishing trips. Today, it provides a distinctive flavor that is easy to identify. Along with local ingredients and the characteristic spices of traditional dishes, you will unravel a unique gastronomical experience during your next trip to Portugal.

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The History of Bacalhau

To understand why “Bacalhau” is the king of Portuguese cuisine (and why there are even museums dedicated to it!), we have to take a peek at its history.  

The Beginning of a Portuguese Heritage

Although Portuguese gastronomy is known for its “Bacalhau” tradition, the Portuguese fishing fleets were not the first to discover this delicious fish. The Vikings were the pioneers exploring the freezing waters off the coast of Scandinavia in search of codfish.

At that time, the Portuguese enjoyed this delicacy as much as they do now. They would trade sea salt, an extremely valuable asset, for the Viking’s fishery.

Dried and salted codfish (Bacalhau) in Portuguese supermarket

Centuries before, during the occupation of Iberia by the Roman Empire, the Portuguese learned how to preserve food with sea salt. So, when the fishermen realized they could capture cod themselves, they would not need the Norse.

Instead of drying cod in the sun as the Vikings used to, the Portuguese used sea salt to preserve it. Once the fish was caught, it was gutted and salted. This process allowed the fishers to transport codfish on the month-long journey and it would still be good to eat on arrival.

Cod Fishing in the Middle Ages

During Portuguese sea discoveries, in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese fleets left the coastal villages toward Newfoundland to fish cod. While the sailors explored the maritime routes to India and Africa, the fishermen would risk their lives pursuing this precious fish.

Over the centuries, Portugal faced a difficult decision: cod fishing in the North Atlantic or trading in the East. The British Navy took advantage of this dilemma and established its dominance in Atlantic waters.

At the time, Portugal was forced to import cod from the English, transforming this into one of the most expensive Portuguese dishes. Only the Portuguese crown or wealthy business owners could afford it.

Portugal: The Number One Country in Cod Fishing

In the 20th century, when the dictatorship of António Salazar began, the “bacalhau” returned to people’s tables. Since meat was too expensive and it was impossible to provide fresh fish to the countryside, codfish helped the Portuguese avoid hunger. This is why cod earned the nickname “fiel amigo”, which literally translates to “faithful friend”.

‘Gil Eannes’ hospital ship for the Bacalheiros in Newfoundland, now a museum, Viana do Castelo

Salazar established the Codfish Campaigns, where all fishing fleets were nationalized. This way, the government controlled all the fish captured. Considering salt cod lasted for a long time, the government provided it to the country’s rural areas.

Between the 1950s and the 1960s, the “Bacalhoeiros”, sailboats designed for fishing cod, sailed towards Newfoundland. Once they arrived, each fisherman would explore the surroundings in a “dóris” while angling to capture cod. “Dóris” (“Dory” in English), were smaller boats built to transport only one man.

Once the “dóris” got back to the main ship, the fresh cod was gutted and salted. This was the only way for the preserved fish to reach the Portuguese coast.

For many families, a six-month fishing trip to Newfoundland meant they would be apart or, perhaps, never see each other again. Unfortunately, many fishermen died at sea while facing the freezing temperatures, deep-sea waves, and constant fog, hiding colossal icebergs.

The End of an Era

The dangerous work conditions the fishers faced, combined with the dictatorship ending in 1974, marked the decline in the cod fishing industry. Canada also imposed new restrictions on the Portuguese fleet, limiting their access to the arctic waters.

Today, more than half of all salt cod traded in Portugal comes from Norway. Although some Portuguese sailors still navigate the Norwegian coast, they are few. Nevertheless, the Portuguese are responsible for an astonishing 20% of the worldwide cod consumption.

Eating Bacalhau Like a Portuguese

While visiting Portugal, you will notice piles of salted fish at the local supermarkets. At traditional restaurants, you will discover plenty of delicious “bacalhau” recipes. However, do you know what it takes to cook codfish the Portuguese way?

Choosing the Right Dried Cod

The genuine “bacalhau” is the Gadus morhua species from the Northern Atlantic. You will find similar fishes, but their taste is not the same. You can identify the right codfish by its tail, cut in a linear shape, and three dorsal fins.

Fried codfish

The best “bacalhau” is salted, still on the boat, immediately after it is caught. Once it reaches land, the drying process begins with low humidity levels. This process offers a yellowish color to its flesh, which disappears once it is cooked.

While choosing dried codfish, we recommend selecting a preserved fish showing a light-yellow tone. It is also fundamental that the flesh does not present any bloodstains. If it does, then the curation process was unsuccessful.

Special tip: Check for the whole fish dryness. When the curation is perfect, the flesh will be dry, and the fish will be unbendable. We suggest you touch the fish and fold it at a 90º angle. If it bends or is sticky, then you should choose another fish.

The Desalting Process

This step is crucial in cooking salted cod. Before you cook your favorite national dish, we will tell you how to desalt cod.

  1. At the supermarket, request the codfish to be cut into smaller pieces;
  2. Wash off the salt excess with running water;
  3. Soak the codfish slices in cold water, with the skin facing upwards;
  4. Change the water three times a day, for between 24 to 48 hours.

Special tip: At local supermarkets, there are different codfish sizes. As a result, the larger fishes require a longer desalting period. If you are not sure about the ideal soaking time, then we recommend asking when purchasing.

The Best Portuguese Codfish Recipes

Codfish consumption in Portugal is intimately related to Christian celebrations. When the Church forbade eating meat, codfish was the solution.

This recipe is simply boiled codfish served with a side of boiled potatoes, eggs, and cabbage. It all comes together with some olive oil and sliced garlic. On Christmas Day, the Portuguese use their leftovers to make “Roupa Velha”, where all ingredients are sliced and fried with olive oil.

Bacalhau com Broa by Sara Casel

During Christmas Eve, the Portuguese enjoy “Bacalhau com Broa”, “Bacalhau com Natas” or the traditional “Bacalhau com Todos”.

On Good Friday, when Christians are not allowed to have meat, the Portuguese eat boiled codfish, similar to the “Bacalhau com Todos” they have on Christmas. On Easter Sunday, the national dish “Bacalhau à Lagareiro” is everyone’s favorite. In this recipe, the desalted codfish loins, potatoes, and sliced onions are seasoned with olive oil, and sea salt and then baked in the oven. Its intense and aromatic flavor surpasses its simplicity.

Alternatively, the Portuguese have “Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá” during on Easter. Similar to salt cod Lagareiro style, this recipe is also baked in an oven. If you would like to try it, then place codfish splinters, cooked potatoes, black olives, and eggs cut in slices on a tray and season with olive oil, garlic, and parsley. Once it is roasted, it will be ready to serve.

Traditional Dishes for Our Daily Routines

However, the Portuguese also have codfish outside religious celebrations. When people are too busy to cook, recipes such as “Bacalhau à Brás” or “Arroz de Bacalhau” are quick and easy to do.

Pastéis de Bacalhau at Casa Portuguesa do Pastel Bacalhau, Lisbon

As an appetizer, the Portuguese enjoy having “Pastéis de Bacalhau” and “Pataniscas”. To make these delicacies, you will need mashed potatoes or wheat flour and use any leftovers of boiled or fried cod. If you would like to try some, then we recommend eating them between meals or as a main course, sided with tomato and coriander rice.

Special tip: If you would like to cook any of these recipes but feel anxious about the desalting process, then we suggest buying frozen, desalted cod. At the local supermarket, look for Norwegian codfish prepared by Portuguese brands.

The Portuguese are almost as obsessed about sardines as salted codfish – read our guide to eating sardines in Portugal.

Where to Eat Salted Codfish in Portugal

All over Portugal, you will find traditional restaurants with salted codfish on their menus. However, there are a few places that specialize in this special fish.

Our Restaurant Recommendations

  • Solar do Bacalhau (Coimbra)–Besides offering a superb execution of traditional salted codfish recipes, they are all made in wood ovens.
  • Laurentina (O Rei do Bacalhau) (Lisbon)–Also known as “King of Cod”, this restaurant offers delicious salted codfish recipes in the heart of Lisbon and you can watch a Fado performance as well
  • Ti Natércia (Lisbon)–If you are looking for an authentic Portuguese cuisine experience, then this restaurant is the place to go. We recommend trying the “Bacalhau com Natas”. Only seats 12!
  • Abadia do Porto (Porto)–At Porto’s historic center, you will find one of the oldest restaurants in town. Lagareiro style salted codfish is a house specialty.