Though humble in appearance, salt cod played an important role in the diet of Vikings, who caught cod and cured it on their ships. The resulting salt cod provided sustenance and allowed them to stay out at sea longer and go farther. In that sense, the preserved fish contributed to the Vikings’ eventual discovery of Canada.
These days, salt cod is commonly eaten in countries ranging from Norway to Trinidad and Tobago. While Caribbean cultures may rely on salt cod because fresh cod is less available, chef Jim Burke, of Caffè Storico on Central Park West, says there’s an added benefit to the preserved version.
“Cod actually benefits from the salting,” he said. “It’s a very mild and watery fish so the salting actually concentrates the flavor. You lose some of water content so you get a firmer flesh and a stronger, more assertive flavor.”
Cooking with salt cod does require more work than using fresh fillets, though. First, it has to be rinsed well to wash off the caked salt — but that’s just the beginning.
“You soak it in fresh, cold water for at least 24 hours,” said Burke (pictured below). “[How long it needs to soak] depends on the thickness of the fish; it depends on the quality of the fish as well. And you want to change the water at least a few times throughout that day.”
Burke emphasizes the importance of changing the water because, at a certain point, the salinity of the water will equal that of the fish. Fresh water will continue to pull more salt out of the flesh. He also notes that there’s no real way to hurry the desalting process. Boiling the fish and changing the water will affect the integrity of the fish, potentially making the flesh mushy.
Instead, time and patience is key. Burke says to look for thick cuts.
“It means that [the salting process] happens a little more gradually and that it’s not as aggressive a salt flavor,” he said. “It’s not as difficult to get the salt out. The main thing, actually, you can do is know your fish purveyor and to know that they’re getting a good product.”
Burke adds that he prefers salt cod with the rib bones intact, though it’s harder to find. The bones help protect the integrity of the fish.
Once desalted, the cod can be prepared numerous different ways.
“The Italians, the Spanish, the Portugese … they often prepare it as you would a fresh fish fillet,” said Burke.” You would cut a piece and either braise it or pan sear it.”
He says that it takes a little longer to cook than fresh cod. Undercooking or overcooking can make the flesh tough, though, so use caution.
At Caffè Storico, which is a part of The New-York Historical Society, Burke serves salted cod as baccala mantecato, a Venetian bar snack that is essentially a warm dip or puree. He adds that baccala mantecato and similar chichetti, or small plates, are a traditional part of Venetian dining: “[Chichetti are] the little snacks that the Venetians eat while they’re taking their late afternoon stroll around town, meeting friends, have a glass of wine and a few chicchetti."
Get Burke’s recipe for baccala mantecato below. He recommends serving it with grilled polenta or toast.
by Jim Burke, Executive Chef, Caffè Storico
- 1 side salt cod (approximately 2.5 lbs.)
- 1 very small white onion, sliced very thinly
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup milk
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Rinse the cod well and soak in fresh cold water for 2 days, changing the water 3 times a day. Remove from the water and pat dry with absorbent towels. Remove any pinbones, and cut the cod into 4 to 5 oz. pieces. In a pan that will comfortably fit all the cod, slowly stew the onion in a generous pat of butter until very soft, but not colored. Add the wine, milk and cod to the pan and bring to a simmer. Simmer steadily for 20 minutes. Remove the cod and onions and transfer them (while still hot) to a mixer with the paddle attachment or a food processor. Puree with just enough of the cooking liquid to moisten the mixture (about a ¼ cup) and then begin to add very good extra virgin olive oil in a thin stream until the mixture is very creamy, emulsified and just barely holds its shape. Serve with the chopped parsley and pieces of toasted bread or polenta (made with 1 quart of water for every 8 oz of dry polenta and allowed to cool and set).