Crazy for Salt Cod

QCould you please tell me how long salt cod will keep in the package from the supermarket? And how long if it’s frozen? — Hugh M.

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ASpoilage is a result of bacteria or mold feeding on proteins and fat in the presence of moisture. Water is the key issue here. Salt cod is 80% protein and contains practically no water or fat, so if kept in a dry place, it won’t spoil for very long periods. It has been stored on long sea voyages — and kept in hot, dry climates — without refrigeration, for centuries. (I hasten to add that individual pieces of salt cod haven’t been kept for centuries, but that the method of salting and storing has been used for centuries, although you might think that some fish are that old when you’re trying to soak them!) Additionally, the high salt content kills bacteria by increasing osmotic pressure within the bacterial cells, bursting them.

As long as salt cod is kept dry, it ‘s unlikely to spoil. Freezing shouldn’t affect the longevity of the product, but because of the high salt content, the fish might not even freeze — so it’s unnecessary.

If you’re concerned about the quality of a particular piece of salt cod, look at the color: It should be nice and white. Reddish or yellowish salt cod has been affected by microorganisms and/or oxidation and will have off flavors.

If you haven’t read Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World ,you might find it interesting. — Gary Allen

Article © 2008 Gary Allen. All rights reserved. Visit Gary’s Web site, On the Table.

About Gary Allen

Our food history editor, Gary Allen, teaches food writing and various food and culture courses at Empire State College, has been vice-president, newsletter editor and webmaster for the Association for the Study of Food and Society. His books include The Resource Guide for Food Writers, The Herbalist in the Kitchen, The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries and the anthology Human Cuisine.
His latest book, Herbs: A Global History, a volume in The Edible Series of Reaktion Press, will be published in May 2012. He’s currently at work on another book for the same series—on sausage. Visit him at his website, On the Table, and blog, Just Served.

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