Salt cod, (or salted cod) had been a mainstay of the British and Irish diet from before the Dark Ages to the Georgian period. It is a great way of keeping a stock of nutritious food as a supply through the lean times, and most people, unless living by the coast, would only experience fish in their diet through this preserved process; fresh fish being unable to be kept long enough for it to be transported any great distance in land. The most traditional method of salting the cod was to cover it in salt for a few days, and then it was dried outdoors by the wind and sun, either on rocks, or on a wooden rack, and then it was stored in wooden barrels – cod can be kept for many years this way – before being soaked to regain moisture, washed to remove the salt, and then used as an ingredient in stews etc.
While cod, caught and preserved right by the coast, was prepared and then just hung up to dry over a longer period, the salt in the air was enough to preserve the fish. It could then be sold inland or exported. The reasons why it was so popular as a food source was because Salt cod had three main merits for the people 1) it is a very simple and cost effective way of preserving the fish 2) it was capable of long-term storage, for seasonal hard times when fresh food was scarce and 3) when the Christian Church gained in influence it was an acceptable food for the many fasting days decreed by the Church, days when the flesh of animals (meat) was forbidden.
Many British fishermen would salt cod, to have food in the winter months, when fishing became too dangerous, and to sell to places in land, where the demand for it was high. English merchants and fisherman began sailing to Iceland in great numbers to catch or buy cod from the late 1300’s. A report from the English parliament, dated 1415, states that English vessels had by that time been sailing to the Icelandic fishing grounds for six or seven years, and on that basis, English fishermen could therefore claim a traditional ‘title’ to them
Note On Preparing Salt Cod: We can do it in the traditional way, it does not take a great deal more effort, (this is the way we do it) or we can use modern equipment, and leave the cod in the oven for 36 hours on a very low heat setting to dry it out – note we are not cooking the fish, just replicating the drying out process. What we get at the end of the process is a fish that has shrunk in size and weight (with the loss of water) and has become slightly hard and inflexible.
Note On Eating Salt Cod: After all the trouble of salting and drying our cod, when we actually come to eating salt cod, either on its own, or used as an ingredient, we must first soak it for two days in clean water (replacing the water at least twice) to re-hydrate it and wash out some of the excess salt. Now this might seem totally counter-productive, but we cannot replicate the taste or texture of a dish calling for salted cod unless we actually do the salting and drying process first. Cod that had been preserved in this way, which had lasted years in storage, was so dry and tough that it had to be soaked, beaten, soaked, and beaten many times to make it edible. However, our cod will not be that far gone, and it will be perfect for recipes calling upon it.
Salt cod has many of the characteristics of fresh cod, (if soaked properly) it has large, soft flakes of tasty, opaque flesh. It also has other qualities, an extraordinary texture from the salting, it is firmer than fresh cod, with a slightly chewy and toothsome quality. You can see why it was a favourite of Medieval cooks and households, it is a beautifully seasoned ingredient, with a pleasingly pungent taste. When soaking the fish, before it is ready to use, you have to be careful, (with practice you can start to judge it perfectly) too short a soaking time and the salt cod is still too salty and stiff, too long and it will become bloated, and woolly in texture and taste.
Buying Salt Cod: Salted cod can be bought in many specialist delis, it is still popular in Portuguese and Spanish cooking today. But preparing your own, is no great effort.
Salt Cod Recipe
- 2 Kg Cod loin, or fillet, (skin on)
- 1 Kg sea salt
As your local fishmonger for a large, fat and fresh 2 Kg Cod loin, (or a fillet) with the skin left on and de-boned. When you get it home use a pair of tweezers to go over the fish checking for any small bones left in the fish. Note: A cod fillet is one side of the whole fish, with the head, tail, guts, bones removed. A loin is the middle third of the fillet – the thick bit. We prepare a loin if using it for ingredients in a dish or a full fillet if we are re-creating a Medieval feast course to display it.
Pat the fish dry with a clean cloth. Rub a handful of salt all over the cod, both sides, do it carefully, unlike with a joint of meat, rubbing in the salt too roughly will tear and break it. Later versions of this dish can have sugar, herbs, and even lemon zest added to the rub, but for a Medieval dish we are just preparing it with salt.
In a long, shallow, wooden box or glass / plastic tray (not a metal one) which the fish will fit into comfortably, pour in some salt to cover the base, about 5 mm thick, place the fish, flesh side down, skin side up, onto this salt bed. Pour the remaining salt all over the fish.
Next, place a clean, small, plastic chopping board (or similar – not metal) onto the fish, (which will cover most of the fish, but will also fit into the dish). Wrap cling film loosely around the whole tray, it needs to be loose so it does not tear when we put two heavy glass jars of pickles etc. (or a clean house brick) on top of the plastic board, so they apply weight down onto the fish. This weight should not be too heavy. Wrap more cling film around the whole thing to seal it (if you think it needs it) and place it in the fridge or a cold room.
Leave it like this for 5 days, (no fewer than 4 days, and no more than 6 days). It depends on the weight of the fish, give it just under 3 days per kilo.
After 5 days it needs to be unwrapped, and taken from the salt. Brush it carefully to remove all the excess salt, and, using some paper towels, pat it dry and remove any remaining surface salt. If it needs to be washed with a little running water, be careful not to undo the work the salt just did i.e. remove the moisture from the fish, and dry it thoroughly after.
With a knife make a small hole in one end of the fish, about 12 cm from the end, so that it does not tear, and push some butcher’s string through it, to make a loop with which to hang the salted fish up to air dry.
We now need to hang it up somewhere where a cool dry air flow can get to it, and leave it for up to 21 days (no less than 14 days, no more than 30). We place ours in a secure drying pantry, which allows air to flow over it, but it is out of the direct sunlight and nothing can get to it to spoil it. We salt our cod in the winter months, ready for use the next year, this means it is cool in the pantry and no flies etc are around. A little moisture can still drip from the fish as it is drying so put a tray under it, we hang it from a rack up out of the way with a tray bolted into it to catch any drips. If you live in a cold area you can hang it up outside, under a covered area to stop rain and with chicken wire and a fly screen around it as protection from squirrels etc. This also means your indoor areas do not have to smell of fish during the drying process … this outside set up is also perfect for air drying several fish at once and air drying a medieval cured ham.
Related Recipe: you might also like to make a Dry Cured Ham which uses a similar process.
Tip: The best time to do this would be in the cooler months, in Britain it is usual for the domestic cook to salt cod at the end of autumn, so that they can get a good cool, dry wind to circulate around the fish in a secured larder or pantry. Doing this at the height of the summer months, without being able to put the cod in an airy chilled space, would not be a good idea to start off your first salt cod process. Dry and cool are the key things a salt cod needs, too damp, or too hot, and the fish will spoil before it has a chance to be naturally preserved. Oven Dry: In this case it would be best after the salting to put the cod on an oven tray, place it in an oven at the lowest setting, and dry it out over a 36 hour process, check to see if it needs longer, it should have no moisture left in it, before wrapping and storing in the fridge or pantry for later use.
After salting for 5 days and left to dry for 21 days the salt cod can now be wrapped and stored in the pantry or fridge. It will need to be soaked for two days before use, but will last like this for months until needed.