August 19, 2022

why it works

  • Salt-cut cod fillets produce a well-seasoned and textured baccalà, perfect for braising.
  • Skipping the traditional pan-frying step for baccalà helps bring out the delicate texture of homemade salt cod and makes it a one-pan recipe.

The winter holiday season in Italy is also the main bachelor season. In central and southern Italy, salt cod features prominently on Christmas Eve menus – you can find it breaded and fried as an appetizer, crumbled and tossed with potatoes and onions in a salad, simmered in tomato sauce for pasta, or, in this case, braised in large fillets as a secondo. In Livorno, a seaside town in Tuscany, baccalà is traditionally braised with tomatoes and potatoes for a hearty main course. In southern Italy it is more likely to be found cooked in a briny tomato sauce with capers and olives, in the same style as swordfish alla ghiotta.

Pairing salted cod with salted capers and pickled olives may seem problematic. As I discovered while developing the recipe, the dish can easily become an inedible salt bomb. Round after round of testing with store-bought baccala yielded inconsistent results. Even when I extended the salt cod soaking time to four days, I could not account for differences in salinity levels between salt cod producers; one batch would turn out perfectly and another, soaked for the same time, would be a disaster.

For most recipes, slight differences in salt levels are not so noticeable. The intensity of brandade salted cod, for example, is tempered with potato and dairy products. But at baccalà alla napoletana, there is no leeway. I was also having trouble with the cod pieces themselves. This dish is supposed to contain meaty, thick portions of baccalà, but here in the United States buyers rarely have a say in the size of the pieces they buy and often end up with thin remnants of the tail or the belly. It wasn’t going to work. Need a solution, Daniel suggested I make salt cod myself.

Serious Eating / Vicky Wasik

Traditional or house-dried cod

Salting often seems like a daunting project, but salting fish is remarkably easy and it doesn’t get much simpler than salt cod. To be clear, the goal of making baccalà for this recipe was not to produce a facsimile of traditional fully dried salt cod that could be stored for months. Instead, I wanted to dry the cod long enough to deeply season and firm the flesh, turning it from soft to silky with a light chew. In her cookbook My Portugalchef George Mendes offers a simple method of curing salt cod that gave me exactly the results I was looking for.

Harden the fillets

I wrap thick cod fillets in kosher salt in a baking dish and refrigerate them for two days, redistributing the salt as needed to keep the fish completely covered (the fillets absorb a lot of salt for the first 12 hours ). I then rinse the cod and soak it in water for another two days, to reduce the saltiness of the fish. During testing I experimented with shorter drying and soaking times, hoping to find a way to reduce the total time for this process, but shorter drying produced cod that was still too delicate to be called baccalà, and a shorter soaking time just produced overly salty fish. However, the four-day process is well worth it: when I ran side-by-side tests of baccalà alla napoletana made with my dried cod against the store-bought stuff, the homemade cod blew the regular baccalà out of the box. water (or tomato sauce).

Serious Eating / Vicky Wasik

The thick fillets are firm, with just enough chewiness on the surface to give way to a silky interior. With the texture exactly where I wanted it, I was able to skip the flouring and searing step that is traditionally used to give baccalà a light crust and go straight to nesting the salted fillets in the puttanesca-like sauce, finish in the oven until just done. This is a one-dish recipe that is also a perfect centerpiece for a party meal.

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