My mother was very traditional when it came to the meals she cooked at home, so she never sent me to school with sandwiches for lunch. Whatever was for dinner the previous night became tomorrow’s lunch for us kids. The day I broke the seal on my Tupperware container, and the aromatic smell of cod fish, onions, and tomatoes wafted through the air, I became the talk of the lunchroom. Not good talk, either.
They labeled me a “jibara” (a hick or country girl). The fact that I’d never even visited Puerto Rico at that point was irrelevant to my classmates. I was mortified. I swore I’d only bring PB&Js to lunch in the future. But as an adult, this dish has become important to me, because it serves as the link to my Puerto Rican culture.
What Is Bacalao Guisado?
Bacalao Guisado, or salted cod stew, is a rich, tomato-based stew flavored with onions, peppers, and garlic, then bulked up with potatoes. The only salt in this dish comes from rehydrated, flaked codfish. The whole lot is spooned over rice and served on its own, or with a side of sliced avocado.
Salted Cod Stew is one of Puerto Rico’s most popular foods and often served during Lent.
What Is Salted Cod?
Cod is a round fish with firm, white flesh that flakes easily. To make salted cod, the fillets are coated in salt and left to dry, thus preserving the meat for storage and later use.
Salted cod was most likely brought to the Puerto Rico by European sailors who docked at the island’s port during the early 15th or 16th century.
Though this island nation is dependent on the sea’s bounty, cod is a cold water fish, which means all of it is imported. The mix of cultures that traded and intermingled with the native Tainos brought their own flavors to the island, and this dish is one of the delicious representations of that marriage.
Where Can You Find Salted Cod?
Salted cod seems to be common in most of the larger grocers these days. Look for it in the refrigerated section of your supermarket’s fish section. Because it’s not a fresh fish, it’s usually found in bags or boxes near the canned crab meat.
If you live in a city with a high immigrant population, you may be able to find sides of heavily salted, darn-near-desiccated cod laying on shelves or hanging in the marketplace. This type of cod will require a longer amount of soaking to remove that high amount of salt from it to prepare it for cooking.
How to Prepare Salted Cod
Salted cod must be soaked and rehydrated to remove most of the salt in which it’s been preserved prior to using in your recipes. When cooked as is, its sodium content will make your dishes inedible.
- Traditional Soak Method: Soak cod in cold water for at least 8 hours and change the water after 4 hours.
- Fast Soak Method: Rinse the exterior layer of salt off before soaking the salted cod in cold water for 45 minutes. Once it’s softened a bit, feel through the meat and remove any remaining bones. Place the cod in a pan, cover with more cold water, and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Drain the saltwater and rinse the fillets a final time. Now the cod can be flaked and used in recipes.
I prefer the fast soak method—one hour versus eight hours.
If you’re on a low-sodium diet, the flaked fish can be simmered once again and drained a second time to remove virtually all of the salt.
Can You Make Bacalao Guisado With Fresh or Unsalted Cod?
Bacalao Guisado is traditionally made with salted cod, but fresh cod can be used. It’s the salted cod itself that seasons the stew. To replicate that salinity, you only need to add a teaspoon of kosher salt to the recipe along with the oregano and black pepper.
What Is Recao?
One of the most popular ways to season Puerto Rican dishes is with a sofrito that begins with an herb paste called recao. Recao, sometimes called Mexican coriander, is both the name of the herb and the paste. The paste is made by blending recao leaves, which taste verdant and almost garlicky, with onions, garlic, and sweet peppers. You can make it yourself or buy it at the store.
If you can’t find recao paste your local grocery store, and you can’t find the actual herb to make the paste yourself, it’s best just to make a basic sofrito by combining the onions, garlic, and sweet peppers and skipping the racao.
Ways to Adapt This Recipe
Most white fish can be used in this recipe. Haddock, pollack, hake, mahi mahi, catfish, and (my personal favorite) orange roughy are good substitutes for the cod used in this recipe. If using any of these other types of fish, add a teaspoon of salt to the dish to compensate for the salted cod.
You can also switch up the ingredients. If you're looking for another version of Salt Cod Stew you might want to check out this Portuguese version made with eggs, olives and loads of olive oil.
What to Serve With Bacalao Guisado
Rice is the most common accompaniment to this dish. In some rural parts of Puerto Rico, and among my older family members, a cornmeal mush called funche often accompanies Bacalao Guisado. Funche is just really thick cornmeal polenta. A few slices of avocado or a green salad would also go well with this dish.
Can You Make Bacalao Ahead of Time?
The beauty of this dish is that it grows more flavorful as it sits. You can prepare the Bacalao Guisado the evening before you plan to serve it. Reheat it in a covered dish on the stovetop over medium heat until it's warmed through. This comes in handy if you’re planning to use the old school, longer soaking time.
Can You Freeze Bacalao?
If you’re a freezer meal lover like I am, you’ll be happy to know that Bacalao Guisado is freezer-friendly. Add the stew to freezer-safe containers and cover the fish in the liquid to protect it from freezer burn.
More Incredible Puerto Rican Recipes
- Salmorejo (Stewed Crab and Tomatoes with Rice)
- Air Fryer Tostones
- Arroz con Tocino (Rice with Salt Pork)
- Pastelón (Plantain Lasagna)
- Asopao de Camarones y Gandules (Rice stew with Shrimp and Pigeon Peas)
Bacalao Guisado (Salt Cod Stew)
- 1 pound salted codfish (salt cod)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 1/4 cup (1/2 large) yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 3/4 cup (1 small) green bell pepper, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons recao herb base (homemade or store-bought)
- 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
- 1 large bay leaf
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 cups (about 3 small) Yukon gold potatoes, quartered then cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
- To serve:
- 4 cups cooked white rice
- 1 avocado
Soak the cod fish:
SHORT SOAK METHOD: Rinse the salt cod, then soak it for 45 minutes in cold water on the countertop. Rinse the fillets again, and add them to a pan.
Cover with 3-4 inches of fresh cold water and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once small bubbles begin to kiss the surface of the hot water, start a timer.
Simmer the fillets for 15 minutes to remove the excess salt. If the water boils, turn the heat down so as not to overcook the fish. The extracted salt will form clumps on the surface of the water. This is an indication to you that the salt is being removed. Once the 15 minutes is up, drain away this saltwater.
Give the fillets another rinse in cold water to remove any remaining salt and stop the soaking process. Remove any pin bones that may remain while flaking the meat with forks or your hands. The fish is now ready to use.
LONG SOAK METHOD: Rinse the cod fish fillets of their outer layer of salt and place them in a bowl. Cover the fish with 4 inches of cold water and leave it in the refrigerator to soak for 6-8 hours.
Change the water after about 4 hours of soaking. Pick through the fillets for any remaining bones before flaking with a fork or your hands. The fish is now ready to use.
Make the base:
In a 4-quart Dutch oven or deep frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil begins to ripple along the side of the pan, add the onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Sauté the veggies for 3 minutes, or until the garlic turns a golden brown and the onions look glossy.
Stir the recao, tomato sauce, and 1 cup water into pan and reduce the heat to medium. Add the bay leaf, oregano, and black pepper to the sofrito, and let the sauce come to a simmer. Cook the sauce for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Finish the base:
Add the potatoes to the base and reduce the heat to medium-low. The mixture should hardly bubble, but still steam. Cover the pot and allow the potatoes to cook for 10-15 minutes, or until a fork inserted into a potato meets a smidgen of resistance. You don’t want the potatoes to become too tender or they’ll turn to mush as the dish sits.
Stir in the flaked salt cod:
Once the potatoes are almost tender, and the sauce has thickened to the consistency of gravy, gently fold in the flaked bacalao.
Cover the pot after folding in the bacalao and allow it to heat through for 5 minutes. Because the fish is already cooked, you only need to warm it through. In this step, the bacalao (salt cod) is also seasoning the guisado (stew) with salt.
Serve over white rice:
Spoon the finished Bacalao Guisado over warm rice and serve with slices of avocado. Leftovers may be stored in the refrigerator for 3 days.