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What is Bacalhau?

By J. Beam
Updated May 17, 2024
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Bacalhau is a family of food dishes made from codfish, which has been dried and salted for preservation. Bacalhau originated in Portugal, but is very popular in many countries from Brazil to several countries in Southeast Asia. In Portuguese, the word bacalhua means codfish, but bacalhau most commonly refers to any of a variety of dishes that are prepared with codfish, or salt cod, as the main ingredient. Strictly a form of Portuguese cuisine, bacalhau is a dish that has been around for several hundred years.

The codfish that serve as the main ingredient in a bacalhau dish are found mainly in the waters off Canada and Norway. Though there are almost countless bacalhau recipes, the Portuguese often reserve bacalhau dishes for special occasions and celebrations because the fish can be expensive to purchase. Bacalhau is also a popular dish during Lent and other observances when meat is forbidden.

Most bacalhau recipes include salt cod that is baked and accompanied by a variety of vegetables and seasonings. However, it is not uncommon to see a bacalhau dish where the codfish has been used with other ingredients, especially parsley, to create a mixture. The mixture is then rolled into balls or flattened into cakes, breaded and deep-fried. Potatoes are a popular accompaniment to bacalhau as is well-aged wine. Some recipes call for the potatoes and wine to be cooked with the dish, while others call for potatoes as a side dish. Green and white wines are preferred drink accompaniments to bacalhau, depending on personal taste.

Bacalhau recipes can be found in any number of cookbooks that contain international cuisine, seafood recipes, or from numerous cooking resources online. Bacalhau was also the title of a little-known movie made in 1975 that spoofed the original Steven Spielberg film, Jaws of the same year. The spoof film featured a giant and monstrous codfish that terrorized a beach one summer and could only be caught by a Portuguese oceanographer.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By cloudel — On Aug 05, 2011

My friend makes bacalhau in the form of a casserole. She soaks salt cod overnight and boils it the next day for fifteen minutes. Then, she flakes it and sets it aside.

Next, she boils five large potatoes and slices them. She boils three eggs also. She slices an onion, green peppers, and garlic and sautees them in olive oil. Then, she layers the ingredients in a big casserole dish.

The first layer is potatoes, followed by fish, then eggs, onion, peppers, and garlic. She sprinkles black olives, black pepper, and parsley over everything. Then, she pours olive oil over all of it.

She bakes this dish for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. It is great to serve for family gatherings.

By mentirosa — On Jan 15, 2009

I have seen it also spelled bakalar. It is a delicious dish. One version involves cooking bakalar and potatoes and at the end adding olive oil. It soaks up a lot of oil, but at the end, it is a wonderfully rich dish, eaten only once or twice a year. Because bacalhau is dry, before cooking it has to be soaked in water for 48 hours. So it is really a long process but well worth it.

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