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What is Salt Cod?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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Salt cod is cod which has been dried and salted to preserve it, creating a pliable, compact piece of dish which can keep for months under the right conditions. It has become an integral part of the cuisine of many nations, thanks to its common use as a staple on board ships and in colonies, and many popular traditional dishes from Italy to Brazil are made with salt cod. Although such exhaustive preserving techniques are no longer needed, several nations including Norway and Canada continue to produce salt cod since people have acquired a taste for it. The flavor is radically different from fresh fish, as is the texture, and it appears in soups, stews, tapenades, and other dishes, along with ingredients like fresh herbs, greens, potatoes, and others.

People have been drying and salting meats and fish to preserve them for thousands of years, and salt cod has been made since at least the 1500s, when European explorers became acquainted with the vast cod fisheries of the Grand Banks in the North Atlantic. The fish could be split and cleaned onboard ship, and taken ashore for drying and salting to preserve it so that it could be sold in Europe. Cod can also simply be dried, in which case it is known as stockfish.

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In order to use salt cod, people must soak the dried fish in several changes of water to draw out the salt. Once soaked, salt cod can be used to add a distinct chewy texture and mild flavor to food. Salt cod dishes are popular in Northern Europe, many Mediterranean countries, the Caribbean, and parts of South America, reflecting the once mighty power of the cod industry. In Europe, cod was sold to the poor, who might not be able to afford other forms of protein, and it was stocked on board ships as well as being used as a staple food for slaves on colonial plantations.

This food is also known as bacalao, baccala, or klippfisk in various regional dialects. At one point, salt cod came in many grades, from very high quality fish to poorly split and preserved fish which would sometimes go bad. Most modern salt cod is of average to high quality, and when selecting fillets, people should avoid highly discolored, slimy, or woody fish, as it will not be palatable.

Because cod stocks in the Atlantic have been heavily depleted, many companies dry and salt other white fish using the traditional techniques employed for salt cod, and they may label these products “salt cod.” There are some flavor differences between true salt cod and the imitation, but many people are perfectly satisfied with other whitefish. Alternates to true cod are also a better ecological choice, as they will allow the cod fishery to recover.

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