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Bacalhau de Natal: Portuguese salt cod recipes for Christmas

Salted cod is, without a doubt, one of the most relevant ingredients in traditional Portuguese cooking and one we certainly use a lot during our cooking classes in Lisbon. Even though this is a species which is imported, as it is not found in waters along our coastline, it has been a staple on the Portuguese table for about half a millenia.

A brief history of codfish in Portugal

The bond between the Portuguese population and cod is a strong one. So much so that, here in the country, this fish is affectionately referred to as o fiel amigo, that is, the faithful friend, as it is one we can always count on. If not for emotional support, at least to comfort our bellies and taste buds on so many occasions.

Portugal’s love affair with bacalhau dates back to at least the 16th century, even though there are many historical reports which trace the introduction of cod in this region as far back as when the Vikings first visited, that is, during the Middle Ages.

We know for sure that, during the Age of Explorations, around the 1500s, cod was introduced to the masses in our country and its popularization at large happened during this period and in years to come. The Portuguese came across large populations of cod when they reached Newfoundland, in Canada. The art of dry curing fish was popularized in Portugal during the days of the Roman Empire, about 1500 years prior, and ever since that time, preserving fish with salt and air has been a part of the Portuguese food handling tradition. Even though this was historically done with smaller species found in our coast, such as sardines, mackerel or even octopus, once the Portuguese came across larger fish such as cod, they didn’t let the opportunity slip, as this represented a great source of nourishment. At first, they started salting cod to have enough food to last on the boat trip back home during the explorations. And, eventually, this started being done to have provisions which would last during their ongoing trips around the world or simply to bring back to the motherland.

During the 16th century, the Portuguese developed a fleet to specifically capture cod, something that helped bring the fish into the country in larger amounts. As this was back then a source of cheap food, bacalhau was considered a food of the lower classes. Especially alluring for those in the interior areas of the country, back in the days when a trip to the coastline would certainly not be as quick as it indeed is today, cod represented an opportunity for eating fish in areas where traditionally this wouldn't happen all that much. Salted cod was for many decades seen as a cheap alternative not only to fresh fish, but also to meat, which was back then mostly reserved for the elites.

It was only later on, during the 20th century, that the status of cod started to change throughout Portugal. The political propaganda done by the dictatorial regime (known as Estado Novo), namely via a political campaign which was called Campanha do Bacalhau, contributed a great deal towards that. The cod fishermen were celebrated for their courage, as indeed heading out on cod fishing boats, known in Portuguese as lugres bacalhoeiros (pictured above), was a hard and fairly risky job. So much so that men were given the option to go work on a cod fishing fleet or to join the compulsory military service. During those days, the fishing industry was thriving but was also controlled by the government, who’d be responsible for setting the prices of the fish and, over all, promote its consumption nationwide. 

In the 50s, Portugal was definitely one of the biggest “producers” of cod worldwide. But with the fall of the fascist regime and the democracy that ensued after the peaceful revolution of 1974, things changed for this industry. After this time, we started depending on imported cod to satisfy our increased demand. We would import the fresh fish, just like we still do until today, and perform the salt curing process in our own country, according to the traditional methods which only vary today in the sense that temperature and moisture controlled chambers are used instead of relying on the unstable weather and other natural occurring elements outdoors.

With the lower availability of cod in recent decades, the prices have naturally increased. The most valued cod now comes from Norway and Iceland and it is certainly not as affordable as it used to be back during Salazar’s days. This is how the upper classes also started giving cod a certain importance, as it was no longer considered “the food of the poor”.

Nowadays, bacalhau is transversal to people of all statuses across Portugal. It’s an ingredient which may not be as easy to buy as it once was, but that is indeed enjoyed by all sorts of families, rural or urban, humbler or rich. Cod is so prevalent on the Portuguese table, that it makes an appearance during many of our special occasions, including Christmas Eve.

Why do the Portuguese eat cod on Christmas Eve?

There’s a popular saying that mentions there are at least 365 recipes of salt cod in Portugal, “one for each day of the year”. We’re not sure there are literally that many, but indeed the variety is astounding, from fritters to oven roasted, from grilled to boiled, sauteed and more. In fact, we share some of these beautiful bacalhau recipes with you during our traditional Portuguese food experiences at Cooking Lisbon.

On Christmas Eve, during the consoada, most Portuguese families will consume salt cod. Interestingly though, on this occasion, we tend to cook it rather straightforwardly, boiled and served with also boiled potatoes, leafy greens and, sometimes, boiled eggs. The cod loins are drenched with olive oil and, depending on the family or cook in charge, garlic may be used to either infuse this oil or simply thinly chopped to be added on top of the overall ingredients. This recipe is referred to as bacalhau com todos (literally cod with “everything”) or bacalhau cozido (boiled cod) and while it may suffer slight changes from home to home, it is indeed pretty simple.

But why has salt cod become Portugal’s go to dinner on the 24th of December? The fact that the meal on Christmas Eve revolves around fish has to do with religious tradition. According to the Catholic faith, one should fast before the time when Christ was born and, in this case, “fasting” didn’t mean not eating per se, but abstaining from indulging in meat products. As during a long period of time salted cod was the cheapest fish the Portuguese population could come by, this became the most popular option for Christmas. Until today, traditionally, it is only during Christmas lunch on the 25th of December, that meat such as goatling, lamb or turkey is eventually consumed.


We have previously shared with you the recipe to make the most common version of salt cod during Christmas, bacalhau com todos. But there’s no denying that this beloved ingredient is incredibly versatile and, in modern times, there are families across Portugal which have chosen to cook it in other interesting ways rather than simply boiled. Not only because it can be more interesting for the most demanding palates but, often, also because the younger generations tend to appreciate other methods of preparing it.

Today, we bring you 3 recipes which you can cook to bring a contemporary Portuguese taste to your home during Christmas!

Bacalhau com broa - recipe for Portuguese salt cod with cornbread

Ingredients for 4 people:

4 salt cod loins

4 garlic cloves

4 onions

½ Portuguese cornbread “broa” or another type of crumbly cornbread you can get your hands on

8 potatoes (a good type for roasting, depending on what’s available on your side of the world - calculate a good amount of potatoes depending on their size)

Olive oil

A handful of fresh parsley (if you prefer, coriander also works)

Salt & pepper to taste

There are usually two approaches to this recipe here in Portugal. When you make bacalhau com broa you can prepare it casserole style, in one big tray to be baked to the oven, where you lay the shredded deboned cod with the other ingredients, or you can cook individual portions, which seem more festive and a tad more luxurious considering we’re preparing this meal for Christmas Eve. 

To prepare any salt cod dish, you first need to desalt the fish. This can easily take up to 48 hours if your loins are as thick as we would ideally want them to be for this recipe. To learn more about this process, check out this video which explains how to desalt your cod step by step. Here in Portugal, you can also purchase already desalted cod, bacalhau demolhado, which is not to be mistaken with fresh cod, as this is fish which has already undergone the curing process and has been desalted prior to being deep frozen. If you’re in a hurry or simply unsure about how to do the unsalting process, try to look for deep-frozen previously soaked cod loins.

Now, onto the actual recipe: start by cutting the cornbread into small pieces. Peel the garlic, slice it and add it to the cornbread. Add your chopped fresh herb of choice, salt, pepper and a little olive oil and grind everything in a food mixer. If you do not have one, you could also do this by hand, chopping everything into the smallest possible chunks you can achieve with a knife.

You will be cooking the cod in the oven, but you can bring it to a boil in a pot full of water for about 10 minutes, so that the oven roasting process is a little quicker, without drying out the cod loins. In a separate pot with water, salted to basically taste like the sea, boil the potatoes. Once fork tender, drain them.

Drizzle a little olive oil on an oven baking tray and line the surface with the onions cut in half moon slices. Place the cod loins on top, allowing for some space between them. Cover each loin with some cornbread mix, patting it gently with your hands so that the crumbs sit nicely on top of the fish, and drizzle with some more olive oil - don’t be shy, as the bread tends to absorb quite an amount of it.

Bake inside a preheated oven at 180ºC / 350ºF for about 15 minutes, until the cornbread is crispy on top and the fish is cooked through. You may also place the boiled potatoes in the oven for a more golden touch, drizzling them with olive oil. Here in Portugal, it is also common to serve bacalhau com broa with sauteed turnip greens (you could also use spinach if this kind of leafy green is hard to come by where you are). If you’re up for a little fancy plating, place the greens on the bottom, each cod loin on top and a couple of potatoes on the side. We’re positive your family will be impressed!

Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá - recipe for Portuguese salt cod casserole

Ingredients for 4 people:

500gr previously soaked cod (remove skin and bones)

500gr potatoes

500ml milk

2 onions

2 garlic cloves

2 boiled eggs

1 bay leaf

A handful of fresh parsley

A handful of black olives

Olive oil

Salt & pepper to taste

This salt cod casserole originally from the northern Portuguese city of Porto is pretty straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t festive. It’s a good variation from the more traditionally Christmassy bacalhau com todos, and which we believe has more potential to please those new to the Portuguese speciality.

Poach the cod pieces in a pan with plenty of water. You may be using previously deboned fish but, if this is not the case, once the fish is cooked, remove it from the water and place it in a deep bowl, covered with a clean kitchen towel for about 15 minutes. This process will make it way easier for you to tear apart the nice white flesh and separate it from the slimy skin and fish bones. One way or another, you will want to shred your codfish into flakes, as this is what will be featured in this recipe.

Fill a bowl with hot milk and place the cod flakes inside. Allow them to soak up the creaminess of the milk for about a couple of hours. This step can easily be done on the previous day if you wish to save some time. Just don’t forget to remove the cod from the milk after a maximum of 3 hours have elapsed. You can easily store it inside the fridge, in an airtight container 

Meanwhile, cut the onions and garlic cloves into slices and cook them in olive oil until slightly brown.

Boil the potatoes (you can either peel them or choose to remove the peel after cooking - we prefer doing the latter as the potato better preserves its shape this way), and cut into fairly thick slices. 

Add the potato slices into the pan where the onions and garlic are cooking and, after a couple of minutes, throw in the previously drained cod shreds too. Stir everything slightly for a brief moment and turn off the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer the mix to a ceramic baking tray (the same one which will be used to serve the dish at the table) and bake in a preheated oven at 180ºC / 350ºF for about 10 minutes. 

Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley and garnished with slices of boiled egg and black olives. Bom apetite!

Bacalhau Espiritual - recipe for oven baked creamy cod

Ingredients for 4 people:

500gr previously soaked cod (remove skin and bones)

1lt milk

50g butter

50g all purpose flour

2 small bread buns

4 egg yolks

2 carrots

1 onion

2 garlic cloves

1 bay leaf

Shredded cheese to taste

1 cup of bread crumbs

Olive oil

Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste

If salted cod may be an acquired taste for some, bacalhau espiritual is one of those recipes which will be a very easy introduction to this beloved Portuguese ingredient, and one most folks would enjoy. It’s creamy, packed with flavor, and it is one of those recipes which is not so hard to cook and which is also fairly straightforward to make in large quantities for a big family gathering. So here we go:

Start by preparing a béchamel sauce: in a small pot over a gentle flame, melt the butter and cook it together with the flour. Once you have achieved a roux, add in about 800 ml of milk (which is not the total amount you will need for this recipe) and cook over medium flame while you keep whisking the mix. Once the mix has thicked to the usual consistency of a béchamel, remove from the heat and season with salt and nutmeg to taste.

Use the remaining amount of milk to moisten the bread in a separate bowl, being that the buns should be torn apart into smaller pieces simply by using our hands or with the aid of a knife. You do not need precise or even chunks.

Peel the onion, garlic and carrots. You will sautee these veggies first adding the sliced onions into a pan with olive oil and bay leaf. Once the onions start getting translucent, add in the chopped garlic and shredded carrots. Saute the veggies and, when they’re about to be done, add in the shredded cod (only the white fleshy parts) - saute for 5 more minutes on medium heat. Drain the bread from the milk and add the moistened crumb in as well. Check the seasonings: add ground black pepper for sure and, depending on the level of saltiness of your cod, you may want to still add in a little bit of salt. Let your taste buds guide you. You may now remove the bay leaf from this mix.

In a separate bowl, use a little bit of warm béchamel to temper the egg yolks, always mixing them to prevent them from cooking through. 

It’s time to get all of the ingredients together with the eggs and half of the béchamel which was initially prepared. Place this mixture in a baking tray and cover with the remaining white sauce. Top up with shredded cheese to taste and a little bit of bread crumbs for a nice crusty layer.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180ºC / 350ºF for about 20 minutes. You may want to serve your bacalhau epsiritual with a simple but refreshing side salad featuring greens, which will help cut through the richness of this dish. We’re sure everyone will love it!

If you were to serve salt cod for Christmas, what recipe would you consider going for? Tell us all about it on Instagram, where we’re always happy to hear from you and see your food photos tagged #cookinglisbon 

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Cooking Lisbon

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​1150-068 Lisboa, Portugal

(+351) 916 047 883


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