Bacalhau (Portuguese Salt Cod Stew)

Portuguese salt cod stew (bacalhau or bacalhoada) is layered and baked in the oven. Made with salt cod, potatoes, hard boiled eggs, onions, olives, and lots of olive oil, it’s a satisfying recipe for cozy nights.

Portuguese Salt Cod Stew Bacalhoada Bacalao
Elise Bauer

The first time my Brazilian friend and fellow food blogger Fernanda mentioned wanting to make a Portuguese salt cod stew (aka Bacalao or Bacalhoada), I was intrigued.

Given how well Fernanda's salmon fish stew had turned out, I was game to try it!

What is Salt Cod?

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 find, as the drying process that preserves salt cod greatly concentrates its flavor.

Names for Salt Cod Stew: Bacalhoada, Bacalhau, and Bacalao

The minute I first tasted Fernanda's bacalhoada, as it is called in Portuguese (or Bacalao in Spanish), I knew I had to make it.

We found the salt cod at 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 and bacalao recipes I've found online.

Portuguese Salt Cod Stew Bacalhoada Bacalao
Elise Bauer

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.

Tips for Success in Making Bacalhoada Salt Cod Stew

  • Adjust for salt. 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.
  • Add plenty of olive oil. It helps to be 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.

Variations of Salt Cod Stew to Try

Bacalhau is the Portuguese word for cod, and the varieties of recipes that highlight bacalhau are numerous. Salt cod stew recipes spread throughout the countries colonized by Portugal and throughout Europe, as well, during the time salting and drying cod was the only way you could preserve the fish (long before refrigeration). In the 20th Century, salt cod stew spread to Norway, by way of Spain and Italy.

The well-revered cod itself is an import from Norway. Portuguese fisherman brought the salted fish back from Norwegian waters in the 16th Century.

Some make it with or without tomatoes. Others soak in milk, while others would never let dairy touch their fish. Variations include different types of olives (or none), with or without hard boiled eggs. Some add garlic, others put in shallots.

However you make your salt cod stew, add what you like to match your own tastes.

Looking for a Bacalao Recipe?

The Spanish relative of this Portuguese dish is bacalao. It's similar in that it uses salt cod, onions, potatoes and olives, but also includes tomatoes. The Spanish version was introduced into Norwegian cuisine, and is spelled bakalao in Norwegian.

Here's Marta Rivera’s Bacalao Guisado recipe, which is Puerto Rican and simliar to the Spanish version, containing tomatoes and is cooked on the stove-top. 

How to Store and Reheat Salt Cod Stew

This bacalhoada recipe makes a pretty large pot, so you may have some leftovers to enjoy later. Just bring the stew to room temperature, and you can place the whole covered pot in the refrigerator.

When you're ready to reheat the stew, just transfer the pot to your stove-top and reheat gently over low heat until heated through. Salt cod stew will keep covered in the fridge for 3 to 4 days.

What to Serve with Salt Cod Stew

More Cod Recipes to Try!

From the Editors Of Simply Recipes

Bacalhau (Portuguese Salt Cod Stew)

Prep Time 20 mins
Cook Time 100 mins
Soaking Time 24 hrs
Total Time 26 hrs
Servings 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound salt cod fillets, preferably skinless and boneless

  • 3/4 to 1 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil

  • Milk, optional

  • 2 large yellow or sweet Vidalia onions, sliced

  • 2 pounds waxy potatoes (Yukon Gold works 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

  1. Soak salt cod in water:

    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 changes of the water.

    bacalao salt cod for bacalhoada portuguese stew
    Elise Bauer
    bacalao salt cod soaking in water
    Elise Bauer

    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 changes of water, and the bones and the skin removed and discarded after soaking.

  2. Preheat the oven (optional):

    If you plan to bake the bacalhoada, instead of simmering it on the stove, preheat the oven to 350°F.

  3. Simmer salt cod in milk and/or water:

    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.

  4. Parboil potatoes and slice:

    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.

  5. Layer the casserole:

    In a large pyrex casserole or Dutch oven (use a Dutch oven if making on a stove-top), generously coat the bottom with olive oil. Place a layer of sliced onions over the bottom of the pan.

    Place a layer of sliced potatoes over the onions.

    layer bacalao stew casserole with onions
    Elise Bauer
    layer portuguese bacalhoada salt cod stew with potatoes
    Elise Bauer

    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 onto the fish as you place the layers down.

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

    layer bacaloa in the portuguese salt cod stew
    Elise Bauer
    top bacalao stew with eggs and olives
    Elise Bauer

    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.

  6. Cook on stove-top or bake:

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

    Serve with sides of rice and salad, or some crusty bread.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
594 Calories
33g Fat
31g Carbs
42g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 6 to 8
Amount per serving
Calories 594
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 33g 43%
Saturated Fat 5g 26%
Cholesterol 179mg 60%
Sodium 4209mg 183%
Total Carbohydrate 31g 11%
Dietary Fiber 4g 14%
Total Sugars 5g
Protein 42g
Vitamin C 16mg 81%
Calcium 151mg 12%
Iron 4mg 22%
Potassium 1555mg 33%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate. In cases where multiple ingredient alternatives are given, the first listed is calculated for nutrition. Garnishes and optional ingredients are not included.