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Today I am writing a post for my expat friends, who are puzzled by our love of bacalhau.

Codfish, or bacalhau, has been the staple food for us Portuguese and a sensitive matter that sparks heated discussions. If you are living in Portugal, or simply visiting, this post, intended as an ABC guide, can be lifesaving.

If you happen to see a dried codfish wide open in the supermarket you might be remembered of Charlie Chaplin’s eating a shoe sole in The Gold Rush. But trust me, it tastes divine for us Portuguese. If you intend to live in Portugal, liking it is a must. If you are just visiting, tasting bacalhau will help you understand our culture. it is said that we have 1001 recipes for bacalhau.

Let’s start with the origins of codfish. It is a Gadus morhua species fished in the cold waters of Norway, Iceland, England and North America. Some years ago, it was considered high treason to eat codfish fresh, the only possible way being salted and dried. Today, the young generation is starting to accept it fresh, as it is healthy and cheap. However, all our traditional dishes use salted and dried fish.

Next, comes the dilemma of buying the codfish frozen or not. Even we Portuguese have trouble choosing a good bacalhau, let alone rehydrate it. So, my advice is for you to forget the

section of the supermarket where they are sold fully open and beheaded plus the weird smell, and go directly to the freezers. Buy lombos (fillet) of a good brand, that won’t sell you «counterfeit» codfish (for instance, paloco, a fish of less value that is pushed as bacalhau).

The best bacalhau is generally the one you buy at Christmas: best season for fishing is March-April, add 7 or 8 months for processing and bingo.

The fish arrives fresh and salted to the Portuguese factories from the north of Europe, than is salted again from 4/5 months up to 1 year (versus 1 month for most of the fish you buy dried in the supermarket). The next step is drying codfish in tunnels with controlled temperature and humidity. This drying process used to take place in the open air near the Portuguese coasts.


bac cozido.jpg





The next process, rehydrating, is also made in the factory, thus avoiding you the pains of doing this at home. In the old days, codfish was rehydrated in fountains or rivers, wherever there was running water. It is a hard process to do at home, as you must change constantly the water (fillets will require at least 2 days of immersion) and in the end you may get a rotting smell…

In the factory, the fish is rehydrated in the cold waters of tanks that look like pools. Out they come with the best salt levels, so you never have to serve a bacalhau too salty and ruin a dish. The freezing process is very quick and, before packaging the fish is dipped in cold water, gaining a brilliant and protecting coat.

Now that you bought your bacalhau and proudly took it home, it´s time to cook it. Let´s do it with care, because when it comes to boiling we Portuguese have many different opinions and issues.

  • Whenever you have time, thaw the codfish over a griddle, for the water to drip (3 or 4 hours are enough; place in the fridge, if it´s hot). if there is no time, just drop it in the pan with boiling water.
  • After that, don’t ever let the water boil again, even if you have to babysit it. If you let the water boil, the codfish will lose all its collagen, the substance that makes all the difference between a good and a bad bacalhau, and become fibrous. Put the lid on, reduce the temperature to the minimum and let it cook for 10 minutes. Turn it off and, without taking the lid off, let it stand for another 5 minutes (or 10, if you like the fish well done). Boil the sides in another pan.
  • Like for other boiled fishes, drain well and place over a napkin, so all the water comes out.


We eat boiled codfish with boiled potatoes, boiled eggs and chickpeas. And dress it with the best olive oil you can find.


In the next post I will share with you more Portuguese secrets about codfish, and one very special recipe. Than we will get into another complicated matter: olive oil.


Your Portuguese adviser for cuisine affairs

Fátima Moura