How to Buy, Reconstitute, and Cook Salt Cod

Wondering how to buy, reconstitute, and cook salt cod? Here’s our expert advice on stores where you can find it, the proper way to soak it, and the simple basics you need to know before cooking it.

A plank of dried salt cod.Photo: Violeta Pasat

How to buy salt cod

When you happen upon a recipe that calls for salt cod, or bacalhau, first of all, thank your lucky stars. Then look for the quality salt cod, like the one pictured above, that hail from Norway. You should have no trouble finding in Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Spanish, and Latin markets. Select the thickest, firmest pieces possible (it’s sorta a special thing to be able to get your hands on a thick, stunning specimen). And it’ll make for the most gasp-inducing accolades from anyone who’s in your kitchen.

Salt cod fillets, garlic, and olive oil on marble.Photo: Natalia Mylova

How long to soak the cod

First, rinse the salt cod well under running water to remove any surface salt. Then place the piece or pieces of cod in a large bowl or other, more oblong container and add enough cold water to cover by at least a couple inches. Stretch some plastic wrap over the bowl so it’s tightly covered (trust us, you’re going to want this to be airtight) and refrigerate, changing the water several times, until the fish is sufficiently desalted for you, anywhere from 12 to 48 hours, depending on the type and size of the fillet. Take a nibble now and again. If the cod seems too salty, change the water again and let it sit for a few more hours. Bear in mind: You can always add more salt to the recipe later, but you can’t take any more salt away once the cod has been incorporated into your recipe.

A copper pot of bacalhau a Bras--or Portuguese scrambled eggs, salt cod, potatoes, onions, olives, and parsley.Photo: David Leite

How to cook salt cod

Pour enough water–or, if you prefer, milk to temper a little of the fishiness–to submerge the cod in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, add the soaked and drained cod, and simmer gently until it flakes easily when poked and prodded with a fork, 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fillets. Drain in a colander and let cool. Remove any bits of skin, bones, and spongy ends and then carry on with the recipe. (And if you’re tempted to try to substitute fresh cod, for the love of all things good, don’t do it. Salt cod is a marvelously unique ingredient that brings a complex and, curiously, almost sweet taste and incomparable texture to dishes.)



  1. The doctor says I need to eat less salt. Can I rinse and soak salted cod long enough for it to be heart healthy.

    1. Rob, I want to be careful here as I can’t dispense medical advice. My suggestion to you is to use fresh cod or another firm white fish in your dish. The reason is I don’t know how much salt remains in salt cod, even after a long soak in water.

  2. Why would anybody freeze dried cod? The whole salting and drying process was developed to preserve the fish before refrigeration was available. I could see freezing fresh cod and often do it myself after vacuum sealing. Is it frozen after reconstituting to simplify preparation?

  3. Still hoping to find “fresh” salt cod in a market around here in Seattle. So far all we’ve found is frozen – packaged in one pound boxes at a local fish market (Pike Place Market) and it’s pretty pricey at $20 for that one pound.

    I’m assuming I would need to thaw the cod first, and then start the process of soaking and cooking – can you confirm that for me?

    I’m planning to make Bacalhau à Brás since I do have one of those boxes in my freezer, and I think I might head to the Brazilian market for some batatas palha to make my life easier 🙂

    Thanks for these recipes – since we can’t return to Portugal for the foreseeable future I’m going to have to recreate some of our favorite recipes at home for now!

      1. Your recipe, of course! I may substitute batata palha in place of the potato matchsticks though – our local Brazilian market carries them (but not the salt cod). I did learn that a local fish market does carry unfrozen bacalhau (although they’re currently sold out), but now I wonder – how do you store it, and how long can I keep it laying around? Would it make sense to buy a couple sides? I also want to make pasteis de bacalhau and a couple of other dishes we loved in Portugal

  4. Or you could do as the Norwegians have done for centuries. Soak the cod in a lye solution, then rinse and soak the lye out. Lutefisk is something of an acquired taste. If it is done right, you get a mild, slightly salty, flakey, and almost gelatinous fish. Not done right and you get a nasty fish Jello. Hard to find either salt cod or lutefisk down here on the Gulf.

    1. Thanks for sharing that with us, Vincent. Here’s hoping no one has to eat any done the wrong way!

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