What is Lutefisk?

Mary McMahon

Lutefisk is a Scandinavian dish which is made from dried stockfish, also called whitefish. Most commonly, the fish of choice is cod, although other white fleshed fish can be used as well. The fish is rehydrated before being soaked in lye and then soaked in fresh water. Finally, lutefisk is cooked and served with an assortment of side dishes. This particular fish delicacy is a topic of intense discussion and debate in some parts of the world; it has a unique texture and scent which can be quite intense for first-timers.

Lutefisk is often eaten with mashed peas and other vegetables.
Lutefisk is often eaten with mashed peas and other vegetables.

Making lutefisk is a complex process. The cook starts with a good quality dried fish, typically not salted. The fish is soaked in several changes of fresh cold water for around a week. Next, the fish is soaked in caustic soda for around two days; at the end of the lye soaking process, the fish will be puffed up and very fragile. Several fresh changes of cold water over a course of two to three days are used to leach the lye out, and then the fish is carefully steamed or broiled.

Lutefisk is associated with Norway, where it is a popular dish.
Lutefisk is associated with Norway, where it is a popular dish.

While lutefisk tends to be associated specifically with Norway, it is also eaten in Sweden and Finland. The dish is immensely popular in some regions of the Midwestern United States, thanks to the large population of Scandinavian descent, and it is often served at Scandinavian heritage festivals in these regions. In Scandinavia itself, lutefisk is eaten in the winter, typically between November and December as a holiday dish.

Cod is typically used to make lutefisk.
Cod is typically used to make lutefisk.

Writings from the medieval era suggest that lutefisk has been consumed since at least the 1300s, and possibly earlier. The concept of soaking dried cod and other whitefish in water and then cooking them is not unique, but the addition of lye certainly is. The lye depletes the protein in the fish, creating a very distinctive jelly-like texture. When lutefisk is perfectly cooked, it is partially transparent, and it can have a very pungent odor. It is traditionally served with a side of boiled potatoes, and sometimes mashed peas and other vegetables are used as well.

The fish itself has a very mild flavor, causing many people to serve it with mustard, pepper, bitter greens, and other ingredients to make the lutefisk more zesty. Another common accompaniment to lutefisk is a creamy bechamel sauce or a rich bacon gravy. Visitors to Scandinavia can often find lutefisk during the winter months; some people have actually complained of lutefisk trauma, due to hosts who are eager to share the unique dish with their guests.

Lutefisk is often served with a creamy bechamel sauce.
Lutefisk is often served with a creamy bechamel sauce.

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Discussion Comments


My reason for loving this time of the year: Ludefisk not just once, but twice for dinner. Some say I am crazy. We are not even Swedish or Norwegian, although there are some in the the family who can't stand it. Such fools.


The dish might be Sweedish or Norwegian, but that type of fish is eaten in other parts of the world too. During the process of soaking and preparing the fish, the fish smell is terrible, but the final product is delicious.


I lived in Sweden for 3 years and each Christmas Eve, when the main meal was eaten, lutefisk was one of the dishes served. It was served with a mustard sauce that had the quality that is normally found with French mustards. Without the sauce the fish had no discernible flavor. I would joke that they only eat the fish as an excuse to eat the sauce. But my hosts obviously were very attached to this dish, especially at Christmas

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