Salt cod.  It’s not your every day ingredient, I know. But you can find it in most fish markets, often in neat little wood boxes labeled “Salt Cod – Skinless and Boneless fillets”.*

The History of Salt Cod

Cod has a fascinating, lucrative history.  Much of it has to do with its salted version.  Cod was and still is fished primarily in the North Atlantic and before the days of refrigeration, when a cod fishing trip lasted months, the fish was laid down in the hold with layers of salt to preserve it. By the time the shipped docked the cod was dry as a bone, preserved for more travel, hope chests, tucking in the pantry for a hungry day.

salt cod in water

Desalting cod

In France, salt cod was the only fish those who didn’t live near a coastline or a river could get.  It was the culinary cousin of  “dry goods,” sent across prairie, forest and field.  Once in the kitchen and put to use, the first step was to rid it of the salt that preserved it.  That was easy – it just required soaking in several changes of fresh water, which mostly de-salted and also plumped it. One of the things I love about salt cod is the knowledge that the de-salting I do is the same practiced by cooks for centuries.

With the ease of getting fish fresh from the water today, though, it’s a wonder we can still get salt cod. It would be a sad day if we couldn’t, because there is one major French dish that depends on salt cod for its life, and without that dish, French gastronomy would be poor indeed. Called Brandade de Morue,  it hails from around the city of Nimes, which is near the port of Aigues Morte.  This is significant, because Aiges Morte was France’s primary salt port in the 18th century, from whence salt sailed for lands far away.  This attracted the cod fishermen, who offloaded their dry catch and traded it for salt. The salt cod made its way from Aigues Morte to Nimes, where cooks turned it into a thing of beauty.  How? Well, they did what good French cooks have always done: they added their finest local ingredients to the salt cod and, voila, brandade was born.

The simplest ingredients for brandade de morue

I have loved brandade since the day I first made it as an apprentice at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, in Paris.  There is something about this garlicky, silken dish that is rustic and refined, ancient and contemporary. Each time I make it then eat it, I take a voyage to the Mediterranean coast, to Nimes with its lilting accent, aboard those rustic ships that carried both cod and salt.

finished salt cod puree

Uptown Brandade de Morue

There are as many versions of brandade as there are cooks who make it.  Often, potatoes are incorporated, which is likely the most ancient version. What I present here is a more “uptown” style, the one I learned as an apprentice and the one I prefer, with a few touches of my own!

Cod in salt

Cod in salt with bay leaves for flavor

*While packaged salt cod is fine, it’s simple to salt your own firm, white fish fillet. Cod is the best, of course, but try flounder, lingcod, or even tilapia. Use coarse grey sea salt or kosher salt (grey sea salt is preferable). Sprinkle a thin, even layer in a non-reactive dish. Lay the fillets on top, add a few bay leaves for extra flavor, and sprinkle them with a thin layer of salt. The salt doesn’t need to completely cover them. Cover and refrigerate for 3 to 24 hours. The cod will give up lots of liquid. Pour it off, and to refresh the cod, soak it in fresh water for 1 hour (if you salted it for 3 hours) or up to 3 hours if you’ve salted it longer. Note that your own salt cod will absorb less milk than commercially salted cod.

Why the Salt?

Why salt the cod at all, if you’re going to refresh it? The salt firms it up, giving it a delightful texture that’s necessary for the brandade, and it seasons it too. As an aside, I often salt cod for an hour before I cook it in any fashion, because I like the resulting texture.

Before you get in the kitchen, check out the Cooking Classes and Country Lunches I’ve planned, just for you!

Print Recipe
Salt Cod - Brandade de Morue
Salt cod becomes silken in this tempting dish from the Mediterranean coast of France.
Salt Cod - Brandade de Morue
Cuisine French
Servings
people
Ingredients
  • 1 pound, 500g skinless boneless salt cod
  • 1 cup;250ml whole milk
  • 3/4 cup;180ml extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 large cloves garlic green germ removed
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 to 10 small slices bread toasted and rubbed with 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 cup oil or salt-cured black olives
  • piment d’Espelette or hot paprika
Cuisine French
Servings
people
Ingredients
  • 1 pound, 500g skinless boneless salt cod
  • 1 cup;250ml whole milk
  • 3/4 cup;180ml extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 large cloves garlic green germ removed
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 to 10 small slices bread toasted and rubbed with 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 cup oil or salt-cured black olives
  • piment d’Espelette or hot paprika
Salt Cod - Brandade de Morue
Instructions
  1. Soak the cod in plenty of cold water, changing the water several times, for 1 to 2 days.
    Soak the cod in plenty of cold water, changing the water several times, for 1 to 2 days.
  2. Drain the cod well. Place it in a saucepan, add cold water to cover , and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, simmer the cod until softened slightly, about 10 minutes. Drain the cod. When cool enough to handle, break into flakes, discarding any skin or bones.
    Drain the cod well. Place it in a saucepan, add cold water to cover , and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat to medium, simmer the cod until softened slightly, about 10 minutes. Drain the cod. When cool enough to handle, break into flakes, discarding any skin or bones.
  3. Scald the milk in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. At the same time, heat the olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat, until hot but not smoking.
  4. Place the salt cod and the garlic in the bowl of a food processor. With the machine running, add the hot oil in a thin stream. Pulse on and off, so the cod isn’t over-beaten. When the oil is incorporated and the mixture is quite smooth, slowly add the milk in a thin stream, pulsing on and off to avoid over mixing the brandade. It should be light, white, and fluffy, like pudding.
    Place the salt cod and the garlic in the bowl of a food processor. With the machine running, add the hot oil in a thin stream. Pulse on and off, so the cod isn’t over-beaten.  When the oil is incorporated and the mixture is quite smooth, slowly add the milk in a thin stream, pulsing on and off to avoid over mixing the brandade.  It should be light, white, and fluffy, like pudding.
  5. Add the nutmeg and the lemon juice to the brandade; pulse 1 to 2 times. Season with the pepper. Scrape the brandade into a shallow serving bowl, mounding it in the center.
  6. Cut the toast into triangles. To serve, arrange the toast triangles with a point up, around the base of the brandade. Sprinkle with the piment d'Espelette and serve.
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8 Responses to Salt Cod Goes Uptown

  1. In the States, I can find either the very old, overdried salt cod in small wooden boxes that seems to never sell, or the half salted ones from Spain that have a softer texture. I prefer using the later when I make brandade, or better yet, brandade a la Benedictine, as it gives a silkier mouth feel. As I understood it, adding potatoes came after as a way to stretch brandade further. The colorful story was of a monk who received extra guests and needed to stretch his brandade to accommodate. I like to serve brandade in hollowed out baked potatoes that are browned in a hot oven. Thanks for posting and reminding me it is time to make some brandade!

    • Susan says:

      Francois – this is a GREAT story. I love it! A lot of people add potatoes and it’s delicious that way, much heartier and more robust. That’s why I called the post Salt Cod Goes Uptown! And I’m glad to know that you can get the Spanish cod. I didn’t know about that. If you have a minute, could you photograph and send me a pic, then I’ll look for it the next time I’m Stateside. The hard cod in the boxes does soften up with soaking, though, in case you’re stuck.

  2. Jay van says:

    Is there something missing from step 2 or 3? The cod in second pix looks slightly browned as if it has been sauteed, but the only cooking direction I see is to simmer it in water.

    • Susan says:

      Dear Jay, No, nothing is missing. It’s the lighting. I try to do photographs in natural light, but here in the north the days are short and sometimes the light isn’t natural, which is what happened here. Sorry for the confusion. The recipe is correct as written!

  3. Rich Marschner says:

    Susan, just a suggested change in the wording of the second-to-last ingredient, for clarity:

    “1/4 cup black olives, oil- or salt-cured”.

    (As a life-long editor, I just can’t help myself….)

    We still remember fondly the day we spend cooking — and eating! — in you home just a few years back. Just the three of us. What a treat that was….

    Rich Marschner
    Wiley Cornell
    Tucson, AZ

  4. Kameela Hays says:

    Thank you Susan for reminding me how much I love this dish. I enjoyed piquant salt cod dishes as a child in South America in the form of fricasse fish cakes and fritters. All that changed when I visited la belle France for the first time in 1974 and tasted brandade. I was converted!! I make this often and add extra piment. I will have a go at salting it myself to see how it turns out . Bon appetit.😊

    • Susan says:

      Kameela – you’ll love it, and I predict you’ll salt all your cod from here on out. It is such a little delicious trick!

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