10 PORTUGUESE CODFISH RECIPES STEP BY STEP
How to choose, to soak and to cook your Portuguese salted codfish?
In Portugal we say that there are as many Portuguese cod fish recipes in Portugal as there are days in the year. Yes, you heard it well! At least 365 different recipes! So next time someone asks you how the codfish Portuguese style is cooked, you know what to say!
Codfish cakes, codfish soup, baked cod fillets, codfish stew, fried codfish, grilled, marinated or even uncooked! You name it! Local people can be very innovative and surprising on how to prepare a delicious and tasty Portuguese salted cod dish.
Since all of Portugal consumes salted cod – in the Alentejo plains, in the Beira mountains, or along the coast – each region has its own local specificities. We even have unique recipes created by families, like the one where we stop on our 17 Tastings Lisbon Food tour: a family-owned restaurant that is proud to have one of the best codfish recipes in town, cooked specially for us!
As you probably know, Portuguese people traditionally do not eat fresh codfish. More than 98% of the recipes are made with salted and dried codfish which attests to the importance of this preserved fish in Portugal, since the 15th century.
From the North to the South, Elise and I outlined ten of the most emblematic and tasty Portuguese codfish recipes. In soups, in stews, roasted, in savory cakes or simply fried… I’m hungry, let’s start!
How to cook Portuguese codfish?
Where does Portuguese codfish come from?
The cod which Portuguese people consume, Gadus Morue, never existed on the Portuguese coast. Codfish lives in cold waters and deeper sea regions throughout the North Atlantic, namely in North Carolina, Greenland, but also Iceland and Norwegian Coasts, where most of the cod that is nowadays eaten in Portugal comes from.
Portuguese Bacalhau in English is simply translated to codfish, but in fact it should be translated to salted and dried cod. When you say bacalhau in Portugal, everyone knows you are referring to the salted and dried kind. Unlike other types of fish , if you want to eat fresh bacalhau, you will really need to look for the adjective fresh next to the name bacalhau (bacalhau fresco).
So you will not find the Portuguese salted cod in a common fish market, but in stores next to the beans, canned products and other staples of Portuguese cuisine.
Next time, check the origin of the codfish to confirm where it comes from !
How to choose the best salted codfish?
If you want to prepare your Portuguese codfish recipe from scratch you should look for salted and dry cod. Firstly it is important to check its origin. Some of the best are the codfish from Norwegian or Icelandic coasts and the exact term that you would look for is Gadus morhua (de Norge).
Guidelines to choose your codfish
Shape – triangular, in a delta shape
Texture – solid and hard, when holding it in your hand it must not bend
Size – preferably big and thick
Color – “ ivory” or pale straw color but never white which could mean the presence of additives (something we do not want!)
Until now it has been my father who has been choosing all the salted cod for the family, namely mine. I do cook at home, Portuguese food but also food from most countries: I make pasta, homemade gyozas, pizza dough, mother-dough, but… I never chose my own codfish! And I still don’t know why I haven´t taken the initiative of doing it. It’s like a sacred secret that I don’t want to practice quite yet.
How to prepare codfish?
Thanks to this conservation process based on salt, the cod keeps for several weeks before being consumed. Before we cook it we need to soak it in water for 1-2 days as an average, depending on its size and thickness.
Many guests, during our gastronomic expeditions, when at one of the historical food stores in Lisbon, facing Mr. Cod, all dried and salty, uncooked, in its more ‘pure’ state, ask me if “can we eat it just like that”?
No, you can’t! If you cook and eat it as you see it in the shop, without any preparation you wouldn’t be able to bare the saltiness or you could even have an overdose of salt (yes! this happens!).
Basically, you will need to extract the excess of salt, by soaking it which will also rehydrate the cod. But how?
I will let you know the method used by my parents for decades!
Guidelines to desalt Portuguese cod
Considering we bought an entire codfish (which is what happens with most traditional Portuguese families who cook it at home), we now need to slice the cod in fillets, wash off the salt and then we put it in a large container, covering it with very cold water, skin on top.
We leave it in the fridge from 24h to 72h maximum for the big ones. Make sure to change the water every 6 hours to rinse the fish from the salty water, specially during the first 24 hours. During this process, the codfish usually gains up to 30% of its volume.
The tricky thing, as I normally say, is to know when to stop this unsalting and soaking process. We don’t want to eat salty cod, but we will be strongly criticized by our family and friends, if the cod becomes tasteless, for being soaked for too long.
In fact, it’s common to witness long discussions about it, while eating codfish. Yes, Portuguese have this strong personality trait of talking about the food they are eating! And some dishes – like the cod, but also the sardines – are more prone for this to happen, leading to animated conversations that can last an entire meal!
Anyway, what makes this soaking task so hard to achieve perfectly is that, when you buy an entire cod and you slice it, before soaking, most of the pieces will have a thicker and a thinner part. So you will need to find a balance between them. Not too salty on the thicker end and not too blend on the thinner one.
Secret Portuguese technique (pre- Covid!)
When doing this at home, one of the most traditional and simple techniques until recently to know when to stop the soaking process, was to pick one piece of cod and suck both sides of it (the thinner and the thicker side) in order to assess the saltiness of the cod. This allows the cook to decide if the soaking process will stop or continue and to estimate for how long.
Anyway, you can always skip the soaking process by buying an already soaked and prepared cod in the supermarket, but I must say that my parents never did this!
All of the following recipes are done with salty and dry cod that has been previously soaked, except for the last one.
But before, follow Sílvia Olivença, Oh! My Cod founder, in this BBC short movie, and wonder through Lisbon streets and the local family business working with this Portuguese staple!
Portuguese codfish recipes
Bacalhau à Brás (Lisboa)
A Brás style cod or Stir-fried codfish with eggs
In case you are wondering, the name Brás actually refers to its creator, a tavern owner in Bairro Alto, Lisbon.
For 6 pers.
3 cloves of minced garlic
2 large onions – thinly sliced
1 chilli pepper
6 lightly beaten eggs
400g of pre-soaked salted codfish
300g of potatoes
Skin, debone and shred the pre-soaked cod by hand. Fry the potatoes in hot oil until they are lightly brown and drain with absorbent paper (there is a faster version that suggests adding pre-fried potato sticks. Our favorite ones? Ti-ti pre-fried potatoes !). Set aside.
Cut the onions into thin slices and cook it in a pan with lots of olive oil and the laurel (bay) leaf, until they reach a translucent texture. Add the codfish to the onions – well-drained – and stir slowly until the fish is cooked and well impregnated with the olive oil (do not overcook – a few minutes will be enough). Add the fried potatoes, and mix for 1-2 minutes. Add the lightly beaten eggs, salt and pepper, and stir it well until the eggs are softly cooked but make sure not to overcook it or it will be dry. The eggs should be cooked but still soft and juicy (if the pan is too hot, you may want to remove it from the fire and place the egg mix aside, similar to what you would do with the eggs in an Italian Carbonara recipe).
Serve on a plate sprinkled with some olives and chopped parsley.
The name à Brás can be considered in fact a technique which can be used to cook different types of fish, and even vegetables! To the base we listed before – onions, garlic and potatoes – you can add leek, courgette, or any other vegetable you think will suit well to your taste and then glued together with creamy scrambled eggs.
Suggested wines to pair with
Colares Tavares Rodrigues White (Colares), Morgado de Santa Catarina White (Bucelas), Casa do Cadaval White (Ribatejo), Palácio da Brejoeira Green.
Pasteis de Bacalhau (Lisboa)
For 6 pers.
1kg of unsalted salted codfish
1kg of boiled potatoes
1 big onion
1 branch of fresh parsley
Cut the pre soaked salted codfish into small pieces, removing skin and bones.
Mash potatoes and add them to the bowl with the egg yolks, a splash of olive oil and finely chopped onions and parsley. Mix them all together with a spoon adding the egg whites, previously well beaten until they form peaks, then season with salt and pepper. With 2 spoons, make small cakes by hand, with the help of two soup spoons to shape them, and cook them in very hot oil until they are lightly golden. Finally, drain them.
A bit of history and context
The ‘pastéis’ were once exclusive to the North of Portugal where they were known as ‘bolos (cakes) or cod cakes. Today they are found throughout Portugal. In the old recipes they were served with cod rice, tomato rice, beans rice or with ‘feijão frade’ salad or lettuce, chopped cucumbers and tomatoes. They are great when served hot but also nice when served cold for picnics and snacks.
Bacalhau com todos (on Christmas eve)
Codfish with everything
For 6 pers.
6 pre-soaked salted codfish fillets
1kg of turnips
500gr of dried chickpeas
1 onion and 6 garlic cloves
1 fresh parsley branch, olive oil and vinegar
3 teaspoons of sweet paprika, salt and pepper
The day before, soak the chickpeas in water.
Cook the pre soaked cod fillets in water for about 15 mins. Meanwhile, cook chickpeas, potatoes, turnips, and eggs (boiled). Prepare the sides: chop the onions into very thin slices, chop the garlic and parsley and put each one in different service plates as well as the paprika. Put the hot preparation on a serving plate and serve immediately, putting on the table the sides and the olive oil and vinegar so everyone can garnish their plates as they prefer.
Bacalhau à Lagareiro (Algarve)
Codfish Lagareiro style
For 6 pers.
6 unsalted cod fish fillets
6 medium onions
6 big potatoes
2 red sweet peppers
Salt and pepper
Place the pre-soaked codfish in a large pan, cover it with cold water and bring it to boil. When the water is boiling, turn off the fire and let it rest for about 15 mins. Drain and put it aside.
Chop the onions and the pepper into small slices. Fry the onions in a pan with some olive oil for a few minutes, add the sweet pepper and fry them for about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat, cover the pan and let it cook for another 10 minutes.
On a serving plate that goes to the oven, place the cod fish and cover it with the cooked onions and peppers as well as the cooking oils. Add some olives on the top and bake it in the oven at 180°C (356°F). While the codfish is cooking, cut the potatoes into thin slices and fry them in hot oil then drain them well on absorbent paper.
Serve on a plate the cod fish preparation with the onions and peppers on top and the fried potatoes on the sides.
Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (Porto)
Boiled Codfish Casserole Gomes de Sá Style
For 6 pers.
750gr of unsalted codfish
750gr of potatoes
2 dl of olive oil
2 onions and 1 garlic clove
2dl of milk
Salt and pepper
3 hard-boiled eggs
A dozen of black olives and some fresh parsley
Put the pre soaked codfish in a large pan and cover it with cold water. Bring it to boil and cook it for about 20 mins. Drain well and cut it into small slices, removing the skin and the bones and placing them in a serving plate that goes in the oven. Cover it with warm milk and let it rest for 2 hours. In the meantime, cook the potatoes with their skin on, drain them, peel them and cut them into – not too thin – slices. Slice the onions into fine slices, chop the garlic and fry them in the oil.
Remove the milk from the cod fish, add the potatoes and the cooked onions and bake it in the oven for about 15 mins. Garnish plate with hard-boiled eggs cut into slices, some olives, chopped parsley, and serve immediately!
Bacalhau à Minhota (Minho)
Baked Cod recipe Minho Style
For 4 pers:
1kg of pre-soaked cod
4 big potatoes
2 large onions
4 garlic cloves
1 red bell pepper
Parsley or cilantro, to taste
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Of all the cod fish recipes, this is one of my favorites. Either trying this at home or in a restaurant, remember that in this dish the quality of the cod is very important. It should be oily, flaky, tender and not dry or it will ruin your dish no matter what you do.
Place the slices of pre soaked bacalhau with paprika in a frying pan and fry them in oil, browning both sides.
In the same oil, fry the potato slices. Now add the garlic and sliced onions to a frying pan with olive oil. Let them saute on medium to low heat until the onions are caramelized and well browned.
Place the slices of cod and potatoes on a baking dish and cover with the onions and garlic. Bake for 6-8 minutes in the oven at 355 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once this is done, remove from the oven and serve on a platter with sliced black olives and a salad on the side.
Meia desfeita de Bacalhau (Lisbon)
Chickpeas and codfish salad
For 4 pers:
300g of chickpeas
400g of pre-soaked salted cod (4 steaks)
3 cloves of garlic
2 dl of olive oil
2 tbsp of vinegar, salt and pepper
3 hard boiled eggs
Soak dried chickpeas for 6 hours, drain, put them in a saucepan and boil in water and add 0.5 of olive oil. Simmer for 2 hours (or 30 minutes in a pressure cooker). Meanwhile, boil the pre-soaked cod (if using dry salted cod, it should have been soaked in cold water for 24-48 hours depending on the thickness of the steaks). In the meantime, prepare the ‘jardim’ (garden): finely chop the onions, garlic and sprig of parsley all together in one bowl or separate into individual bowls. In a dccp serving dish lay the cod and put the peas on top. Sprinkle onto it the rest of the olive oil and the vinegar which previously had been mixed and seasoned with pepper. Garnish with sliced hard boiled eggs. Serve immediately . You may choose to serve the ‘jardim’ (garden) in their individual bowls, including the paprika.
A bit of history and context
The shredded cod with chickpeas is a typical delicacy from Lisbon.
The name Meia Desfeita comes from the habit of guests ordering a half (meia) portion of the shredded cod (desfeita).
Ramalho Ortigão, a Portuguese writer, mentions it in the book ‘Galeria das Figuras Portuguesas’ in the following way: “(…)in the streets of Mouraria, where after midnight one can eat this dish which is a delicacy comprising of cod, chickpeas and is distinctly covered spicy paprika.” Eça de Queiroz also describes his sophisticated literary hero, Fradique Mendes, tasting this titbit with his sleeves rolled up , in the quarter of Mouraria.
In the middle of the 19th century, the most popular of Lisbon’s Inn serving Meia Desfeita was “João do Grão” (translated to John, the Chickpea), located in the old Carreirinha do Socorro, a street that at that time linked Rua dos Cavaleiros to Rua de São Lázaro, in Mouraria. The owner of this place, who died in 1883 or 1884, had been a soldier in the former Guarda Municipal (City Police), from which he had been expelled, because he lent his uniform to a woman, who disguised herself with it during carnival.
Two other taverns, famous for cooking the dish Meia Desfeita well were ´José do Borralho, at Campo Santana, and the other was ‘Mariana do Grão’ which was a very old place in front of the fountain at Esperança.
Fried Codfish Fritters
For 4 persons:
1 piece of pre-soaked salted cod
1 tbsp of olive oil
1 small onion
1 cup of flour
Milk and lemon
Salt, pepper and parsley
Salt, pepper and parsley
Remove the skin and bones from the pre-soaked cod. Shred the meat or cut it into small fillets and marinade in a little bit of milk and lemon juice for 2 hours. Separately, make a thick sauce by mixing the flour, the egg, salt, pepper, grated onion and parsley, olive oil and a sufficient amount of water. If the cod is shredded, carefully dip the pieces in the sauce, then remove with a spoon and fry in hot oil. If the cod is cut into fillets, spoon over the sauce, shaking off the excess and fry them. Drain in absorbent paper and season with salt. It is normally served with haricot beans salad.
Bacalhau cru desfiado
Raw Shredded Cod
For 4 persons:
1 piece of dry salted cod (do not pre-soak!)
3 tbsp of olive oil
1 tbsp of vinegar
1 small onion
1 clove of garlic
For this cod fish recipe we will not soak the fish, since we will use its salt to season the dish.
By hand, remove the skin and bones from the dry salted cod and shred the fish into fine strips. Put the shredded cod into a saucepan with handles? Change the water, repeating this operation 2 more times. Lay the cod in a salad bowl and pour on the olive oil and vinegar. Add the finely chopped onion, garlic and pepper for seasoning.
Filetes de Bacalhau
Fried Cod Fillets
200g of pre-soaked cod
Prepare, clean and fillet the pre-soaked cod cut into steaks. Baste in the beaten egg, roll in flour and fry in hot oil.
Where to find it in Lisbon?
These fillets can be considered a sort of street food in Portugal. If you are in Lisbon, go to As Bifanas do Afonso, a small place in downtown known among tourists for having one of the best bifanas in the city. But Afonso, the owner, does much more than just this! Locals queue up there not only for the bifanas, but for all sorts of Portuguese street food snacks, namely the fried cod fillets, which can be eaten on a small plate with a glass of wine or beer, or inside a light and airy papo seco, a Portuguese bread roll (the same used for bifanas).
Want to more about Portuguese Cod fish and other Portuguese Foods?
Article by :
Sílvia Olivença (anthropologist and food guide/CEO at Oh! My Cod Food Tours)
Elise Ridou (Intern French Master student in Tourism)
Adriana Schmidt (food guide at Oh! My Cod Food Tours)