My friend Kenichi asked me to throw this out there, here it is – my favorite way to prepare baccala` (or bacalao, or bacalhau, or salt cod, salt fish, etc.) for (re)cooking.
I’m beginning with the assumption that we’re working with skinless, boneless, tranches of the crystallized cod. If you’re already comfortably bagging and carting home the still finned, black-skinned, boney brine boards, you don’t need my help…so what we are talking about, unless you live near a very good Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, etc. market is 2 roughly half pound pieces in a thick plastic bag. If you do come across a big, usually wooden box of unwrapped baccala`, here’s a few purchasing tips:
– Pieces should be fairly large – at least 6-7 inches or more – and should fairly closely resemble a piece of fresh, white-fleshed fish, just denser to the touch, and gritty from the salt. If the surface looks yellowish, and/or has a rough flakey look, beware. A good piece of baccala` should be neither crumbly, sawdust dry, nor at all wet. Damp/wet baccala` has been mishandled or has been sitting around too long. Being intensely salty, baccala` wants to drink water REAL BAD, so the longer baccala` sits around unwrapped, the more water it’ll just suck right out of the air, and then get a bit slimy, and soon after, a bit stinky…a good piece of baccala` should have an intensely briny, only slightly funky aroma.
If you find packaged baccala`, be sure that in whatever place that you find it is refrigerated. Yes, the point of salted fish is that it’s not supposed to need too much refrigeration, but if you plop it into a thick plastic bag, and store it next to the tartar sauce and the cans of Old Bay seasoning, within a few days, you’ve got chunks of cod sloshing around with a fair amount of water – THIS IS NOT NORMAL – Do not buy WET baccala` A slight sign of moistness within the bag is OK, but as a rule, when buying bagged baccala`, the drier the better.
So to the method. Start this process AT LEAST 24 hours (but 36 0r even 48 hour is safer) before you plan to cook the fish. The best vessel in which to revive a piece of salt cod is big enough to hold it without folding it – deep, lidded glass or porcelain casseroles are best.
Lay the fish into the casserole, and get out the milk (WHAAAAT!?) Yes, milk. The fat in the milk helps to take out some of the early “fish tank” smells one might encounter, and certain enzymes help to re-tenderize the fish…
Pour a cup of milk over the baccala` and then, preferably with filtered or spring water, cover the fish, and leave to soak, covered, in a cool place for 4- 6 hours. Completely drain. Repeat the process every 4-6 hours over the course of 24 to 36 hours, using the milk for two more changes, and then just water. If soaking takes you overnight, store, top front, in the fridge, and remove first thing when you rise.
To cook: Choose a wide, deep, lidded skillet, add the fish, and cover completely with water. Set the pan over medium-high heat and cook until you just begin to see a few bubbles begin to frequently break the surface. Cover, kill the heat, and let rest in the water for 15 minutes. Drain and let cool …and you’re (probably) done! Just one more matter: tasting. From the thinnest part of filet, break off a piece and taste it. Contrary to popular belief , BACCALA` SHOULD NOT BE “SALTY” – it should PERHAPS be SLIGHTLY more aggressively seasoned, but a fishy salt-lick, no…Now if you find that the fish is too salty, and your recipe calls for flaking the flesh, do so, and just warm the flaked fish in a good amount of water over low heat for 5 or 10 minutes, and re-taste. At some point, you’ll find the sweet spot so to speak. Strain and begin your recipe. If however you’re making a dish in which the baccala` is being cooked in larger pieces (battered and fried for example) use the same process as above, just figuring in a bit more time, and taking care not to stir or break up the pieces while desalinating…That’s it…Buon appetito!