Portuguese Salt Cod Stew (Bacalhoada)

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The first time my friend and fellow food blogger Fernanda mentioned wanting to make a Portuguese salt cod stew, I was skeptical. (Though given how well Fernanda’s salmon fish stew had turned out what was I thinking?)

Salt cod isn’t one of those easily-found-in-the-supermarket items. For hundreds of years codfish preserved in salt may have been a food staple in North America and Europe, but with the advances of modern refrigeration in the last century, it’s been sort of hard to come by actually, for decades.

Too bad it’s so hard to fine, as the drying process that preserves salt cod greatly concentrates its flavor.

I apologize in advance, as I know this recipe is a little far out, not exactly a simple midweek meal (actually it’s very easy to make, assuming you can get your hands on the salt cod). But the minute I first tasted Fernanda’s bacalhoada, as it is called in Portuguese, I knew I had to make it.

We found the fish at Corti Brothers, a local Italian specialty food market. Fernanda’s instructions came with ingredients and method but not quantities, so for the most part I’m guessing here, based on my memory of the dish and on other bacalhoada recipes I’ve found online.

Portuguese Salt Cod Stew

Most recipes I found have salt cod, potatoes, and onions as a base. Many of the recipes also layered in sliced fresh tomatoes, which would be perfect in the summertime. I’ve double-layered this dish in a Dutch oven and cooked it on the stove-top; most recipes I found used a broad casserole dish, only had one layer of fish, and baked it in the oven. The hard boiled eggs, surprisingly, really work with the flavors of this dish.

The first trick is properly adjusting for the salt content. If you’ve changed the soaking water several times, you may end up rinsing away all of the fish’s salt, in which case you’ll have to add some back in.

Make sure you taste the fish before you layer it in the casserole so you’ll know if and how much salt to add. The second trick is to be very liberal with the olive oil. If you get the stew on your plate and it tastes a little dry, add more olive oil. The oil is what binds all of the flavors together.

Portuguese Salt Cod Stew (Bacalhoada) Recipe

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  • Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

  • 1 lb salt cod fillets, preferably skinless and boneless
  • 3/4 to 1 cup of good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • Milk (optional)
  • 2 large yellow or sweet Vidalia onions, sliced
  • 2 lbs waxy potatoes (Yukon gold work great), peeled
  • 4 eggs, hard boiled and sliced
  • About 40 pitted black olives (I used Kalamata olives, can also use green olives)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

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1 Salt cod typically comes either in dry fillets, already boned and skinned, or it comes whole. The fillets need to be rinsed, then soaked in water, and kept chilled, for 24 hours, with one or two changings of the water. If you are using a whole fish, not prepared fillets, it needs to be soaked in water for up to 48 hours, also with several changings of water, and the bones and the skin removed and discarded after soaking.

2 Put salt cod in a saucepan. Add enough milk, water, or a mixture of milk and water to just cover. Bring mixture to a simmer. Let simmer for a couple minutes. Remove the fish and set aside.

3 Parboil the potatoes for 20 minutes (you can cook them in the water you used to cook the fish if you want). Slice potatoes into 1/4-inch thick rounds.

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4 In a large pyrex casserole or Dutch oven (use Dutch oven if making on stove-top), generously coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil. Place a layer of onion rings over the bottom of the pan. Place a layer of sliced potatoes over the onions. Breaking up the salt cod with your fingers, place pieces of salt cod in a layer over the potatoes. Taste the fish for saltiness. After a day of soaking and further cooking, there should be just a hint of saltiness in the fish. If most of the salt was soaked out of the fish, and the fish doesn't taste at all salty, you may need to sprinkle some salt back on to the fish as you place the layers down.

Generously pour some olive oil over the fish. Sprinkle with freshly grated black pepper.

Repeat with another layer of onions, potatoes, fish, olive oil, pepper (and more salt if needed). Then finish with layers of onions, potatoes, more olive oil, sliced hard boiled eggs, and olives.

5 Place on stove top on medium heat, and cook, covered, for 30 minutes. Or heat an oven to 350°F and cook, covered, for 30-40 minutes, or until everything is completely through.

Serve with sides of rice and salad.

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Links:

About baccalà (salt cod) - and a list of salt cod recipes from About.com

Wikipedia on Bacalhau

Salt cod for sale

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Showing 4 of 35 Comments

  • Steve

    I’m from fall riVer mass and grew up eating this absolutely love balcahau this was a pretty good recipe

  • TSH

    Great recipe! Instead of plain black olives, I substituted quality garlic stuffed green olives along with 5 tablespoons of a coarse chopped green and black olive tapenade made with olive oil and red crushed peppers. I soaked the salted cod until salt taste was gone…the tapenade replaced the needed salt. Keep posting great recipes! Do you have any recipes for spoon bread?

    Not yet but that’s a great idea, thank you! Thanks for the feedback on the recipe too. ~Elise

  • Micas

    There are 365 ways to serve bacalhau.
    This bacalhoada is one of my favorites.
    But don’t add rice, you aleady have the potatoes.
    You can add some shreaded cabbage or broad leafy kale.
    “Bacalhau com todos” is the traditional Christmas eve dish in Portugal.

  • Betsy

    I was given a very similar recipe recently, and, unable to find salt cod, I made it with fresh. I boiled the fresh cod in salted water for just a few minutes and used the fish water for the potatoes. It was wonderfully delicious.

  • Anna

    I made this last night and it turned out quite well. I was expecting my family to turn up their noses, but I was pleasantly surprised when they ate it without question and had seconds.

    My husband (who grew up in England, but also has Norwegian roots) really liked the combination and thought it was one of the best uses for salt cod he’d experienced. I finally had to remove the casserole from the table because he kept taking another morsel every so often.

    I bought Bos’n brand boned salt cod in the little pine box, 1 lb encrusted with salt and wrapped in a piece of paper in the box, about $8-9. After viewing a YouTube video of a Brazilian making this dish, I didn’t spare the olive oil, either. I used at least a cup, probably more.

    My 11 yo old son, who seems to be going back into a slightly picky stage, was unexpectedly ok with it, as the dreaded onions were easy to set aside, and he likes both fish and hard boiled eggs.

    Now for my major change – I didn’t use potatoes. I know it would have received even more favor if I had, but I can’t eat potatoes because more than a very small amount sends my blood glucose through the roof, then crashing later. And I love potatoes and find a small portion just too frustrating. So I used turnip slices. I didn’t have any of the nice fresh turnips from my CSA produce box (a farm subscription program) so I had to buy them at the Vons supermarket and I suspect they were a bit long in the tooth. I also probably parboiled them a bit too long, but they were ok.

    I think next time I make this, instead of using turnips, I’ll use fairly large cauliflower florets and I won’t parboil them first. I think that will work. Or maybe I’ll divide it into two smaller casseroles and use parboiled cauliflower in one and raw cauliflower in the other and see which one is better after baking.

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