Unless you were lucky enough to grow up immersed in a Mediterranean or Latin cuisine (or in New England), you’re probably wondering just exactly what salt cod is. I know I had never seen salt cod until I went to live in France. And it was only when I began cooking in Provence that I really learned anything about it, like the fact that it is, quite literally, fresh cod that has been cured—or preserved—in salt and then dried. I learned that to enjoy salt cod, it must be thoroughly soaked to remove the salt. Best of all, I discovered that desalted salt cod actually has a more interesting flavor and texture than fresh cod—almost like ham compared to fresh pork—and it’s delicious paired with traditional Mediterranean flavors like garlic and olive oil.
Salt cod first became popular before the days of refrigeration in countries with Catholic traditions. It was often the only fish to be had during Lent, on Fridays, and at other times of fasting. But the love for traditional salt cod dishes—like the fritters and brandade (a purée of salt cod and potatoes) I’ve included here—has never died, and immigrants to the United States have kept demand for salt cod high here. Once I knew about salt cod, I discovered that it’s available all over the U.S. in neighborhood markets—and some large grocery stores—in Italian, Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, Cuban, and Caribbean communities. It’s probably most widely available in New England, where it’s traditional fare in coastal communities. Most of the salt cod sold here comes from Canada. Sometimes it’s sold under different names: bacalhau (Portuguese), bacallà (Catalan), or bacalao (Basque). It’s also easier to find around Christmas and Easter, when more of it is sold.
Choose thick, creamy white pieces. At the store, look for uniform texture and color; avoid pieces with a yellowish tint. To my mind, the thicker the piece, the better. When pressed, the surface should be smooth. My favorite pieces are sometimes called “middles” or “loins”: they’re cut from the thickest part of the fish. A few bones may still cling to them, but they’re easily removed after poaching.
Most salt cod is sold skinless and boneless, which is easier to handle. Sometimes you’ll see whole skinless, boneless fillets in large crates. They will vary in thickness but are often better quality than the pieces sold in plastic bags. You’ll also see salt cod packed in small wooden boxes. These contain folded fillets; some may be thin, but the quality should be fine.
Before cooking, soak salt cod for 48 hours. Eating salt cod that hasn’t been properly desalted may be why some people think they don’t like this fish. Some cooks tell you that 24 hours is sufficient, but too often, that’s not enough. I prefer to desalt mine for 48 hours. Salt cod varies from piece to piece; the thickness of the fillet or steak and the salting and drying method at the source are all variables. To desalt the cod, cut it into chunks, put them in a large bowl, and cover with water. Change the water at least four times a day over 48 hours. Although some say you needn’t refrigerate the soaking fish, I usually do—if nothing else, to keep it away from my cat. To check that your fish is sufficiently desalted, taste a bit: it should be appealingly briny, but not salty.
Cook salt cod before using it in other dishes. Gently poach the salt cod until it reaches a nice flaky consistency. If you boil it vigorously, it tends to toughen and get cottony. After cooking, flake the fish into pieces. Use your hands so you’ll be able to detect any bones. Gently rub the fish between your first two fingers and thumb; it should fall apart into distinct, slippery flakes. Then proceed with your recipe.