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Unsung Ingredient: Salt Cod

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Today: Salt cod gets the justice it deserves.

Salt Cod

Sometimes, a name -- and a concept -- doesn’t do a food justice.

Salt cod is one of those foods.

We get it. Salt cod -- by definition, cod that has been preserved by salting and drying, resulting in a sweeter taste and chewier texture than fresh cod -- doesn’t sound appealing. It doesn’t sound reliable, or very delicious. 

But there’s a reason that Pellegrino Artusi’s 1891 opus La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiare Bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) contains more recipes for salt cod than any other dish. There’s a reason that salt cod occupies a place in almost every European, Carribbean, and South American cuisine. And there’s a reason that a thousand years after its first production -- a time when salt cod was cheaper than other proteins, and could be preserved for months -- salt cod is still weaving its way through home kitchens and top-tiered restaurant menus, being flaked into stews and soups and pastas and fried rice, and assuring us that it is a product -- an ingredient, a concept, and a name -- that deserves to be talked about.

Find it

Salt cod can be found at a local fish store -- or even at some supermarkets. Make sure to check the label; other white fish is sometimes used instead. Cod that’s been dried without salt is called stockfish, but we recommend true salt cod; the salting imparts a unique flavor and texture. When choosing a piece, stray away from those that seem too stiff; instead, look for ones that are compact and pliant.

Prepare it

Salt cod can stay in your refrigerator almost indefinitely -- bringing a whole new meaning to a pantry meal. Before it can be eaten, the product must be soaked in cold water for one to three days, changing the water two to three times a day. To speed up this process, Mark Bittman has a trick: you can poach the cod in water for five minutes, then rinsing it and changing the water, and repeating the process until most of the saltiness has abated. After four to five changes of water, taste a piece; if it tastes good, it’s ready to use.

Brandade Croquettes

Fry it

One of salt cod’s most delicious and innocuous forms, of course, is the fritter. In fact, a fried version of salt cod exists in essentially every cuisine that it is a part of. We’re fans of lastnightsdinner’s Brandade Croquettes, which use potatoes as the base for the batter -- but if you feel like mixing it up, flour-based batters, like the ones in the traditional Stamp-and-Go fritters of Jamaican cuisine, are delicious as well.

Puree it

Almost everything is delicious when whipped with milk and mashed potatoes. The French, unsurprisingly, subject salt cod to this method in one of the cuisine’s most famous dishes, Brandade de Morue. The fish is cooked in milk and aromatics, flaked into a bowl, roughly mashed with potatoes, garlicky olive oil, and more milk or cream -- and whipped. You can top this with breadcrumbs and throw it in the oven, or pile it onto olive-oiled toast.

The Venetians have their own version of this dish, Baccala Mantecato, which consists of salt cod, milk, white wine, onion, and aromatics. The mixture is whipped and served with toast or polenta.

Braise it

Braising salt cod in tomato sauce seems almost too easy, or too obvious. There’s a reason it’s traditional in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese cuisines. Try cooking it in Marcella’s Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion, or add wine and sugar and vinegar, or toss in raisins and pine nuts or red pepper flakes or any and all of the above. You can eat it whole, of course -- but it’s also delicious flaked into pasta or rice.

Stew it

Because salt cod’s texture holds up so well, it’s delicious when flaked into soups and stews; it provides a mild chew and bite that makes a dish more complex. Try flaking it into your next seafood stew, or adding it to your next hearty winter soup, or even using the poaching liquid as the base for a stock.  

Poach it

One of the easiest ways to use salt cod is to simply poach it in water -- and to use it in a salad. We love our Test Kitchen Manager Jennifer Vogliano’s Baccala Salad, which her mother makes every Christmas Day. It’s easy and low-maintenance, quick and flavorful: a perfect example of what salt cod has to offer.

Tell us, how do you like to use salt cod in your kitchen? 

Mom's Christmas Baccala Salad

Mom's Christmas Baccala Salad by jvcooks

Serves 8-10

1 4-5 pound piece of salt cod
extra virgin olive oil
fresh lemon
cherry peppers
pepperoncini peppers
celery stalks with leaves, chopped
Moroccan oil-cured black olives
gaeta olives
freshly ground black pepper
flat leaf parsley, chopped

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here. 

Tags: unsung ingredient, salt cod, cod, fish, how-to & diy

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