How to Identify and Prepare Baccalà
The term "baccal" (English) or baccalà (Italian; Venetian / Istrian: bacalà) is used to mean two different things: 1) a type of prepared fish (salt cod), and 2) a family of dishes made with stoccafisso or stoccofisso (English: stockfish).
Identifying the fish
The difference between the two fish types is that baccalà is salt-cured cod, whereas stoccafisso is an air-dried fish that can be cod, haddock or hake. The two types of fish are different products and are therefore not entirely interchangeable in cooked recipes.
From early times, Italy's salt-cured cod and air-dried cod has come from northern countries in the fish trade industry dating back a millennium. In fact, both Italian words, baccalà and stoccafisso, probably derive from old Dutch and Middle Dutch (through the Norwegian), respectively. Salt cod products are especially popular in most regions of Italy, France, Spain, and Greece, but for some reason nonexistent in the southern Mediterranean. The Italians would trade wine, cloth, and spices among other things for salt cod.
It is a curious fact that we should regard cod, a north-sea fish, as a specialty of our Dalmatian and Istrian cuisine where it is prepared in a variety of ways and consumed in prodigious amounts. Depending on the region it can used as a salad, a' la white, as cod brodetto, cod soup, cod à la red, and in many other ways. In Istria, both the salt-cured and the air-dried cod products are used in various recipes, and some recipes will allow the two types of cod to be interchangeable. That is NOT true for the traditional Christmas baccal which is made strictly from stockfish. Compare this with the baccala' dishes in parts of Italy where the distinction has been forgotten.
In any case, both types of fish products are also extensively eaten throughout southern Europe. In the United States, where fresh cod is plentiful, there traditionally has been little demand for either salt-cured or air-dried cod except in various ethnic communities - Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and some West Indian. In ethnic Italian neighborhoods, stockfish is generally available only during the Christmas season, whereas baccalà (salt-cured) is available year-round in Italian and West Indian neighborhoods. On the other hand, in Melbourne and other parts of Australia, stockfish is generally available year-round.
The two fish products are distinguishable from each other by four factors:
1. Physical characteristics
Apart from the general fact that smaller fish are tastier and therefore preferable to their larger counterparts, stoccafisso (air-dried stockfish) unquestionably has a more delicate flavor than baccalà (salt-cured baccal).
Stoccafisso is more costly than baccalà as well as being more difficult to find outside of specialty stores or ethnic neighborhoods in the U.S.A:, but in other countries (such as Australia), they are more readily available year-round.
Both salt cod (baccalà) and air-dried cod (stoccafisso) are sold with the bone in or out or in chunks, but air-dried cod is generally found as a whole fish. Baccalà is more commonly found in America than stoccafisso and, being salted, needs soaking in water for several days to remove the salt, whereas the air-dried fish needs soaking for an equal amount of time to rehydrate it. Some salt cod products are pre-soaked and will be labeled as such. With these products, any cartilage, bone, or skin can be removed at this point, and they are then ready for use in the recipe.
When purchasing cod, one must ensure that it is flat, white (the salt-cured fish) or light grey (the air-dried fish) and transparent about the ears, and that its fins are turned upwards. Also, smaller cod are tastier than their big brothers.
Baccalà - that is, salt cod - being too salty for immediate use, must be soaked for at least two days (five would be better) in several changes of water to ensure that the excess salt is drained away. It can then be poached, fried, baked, or used in pates, mousses, and sauces.
Stockfish is much drier and has a woody texture and appearance, so it must be bashed a little with a wooden pounder or mallet to break down its fibrous texture before being soaked in the same manner as baccalà for at least three and up to four or five days in plenty of fresh water that is changed at least once daily and kept well-chilled. If kept covered, the odor of the fish is low, so keeping the soaking fish in the refrigerator is a reasonable option. Should the fish be larger than any available vessel, bend it and tie it with string, or saw it into smaller pieces. If you cannot afford the time to soak the fish in water, wrap it in a damp cloth and steam it, or cover it with hot ashes. The fish is then boiled, cleaned from the bone, and, typically, beaten to a mousse-like consistency with oil or cream.
The two different types of fish prepared in these two ways can be scraped, washed and cooked according to an appropriate recipe. Once cooked, the fish should flake easily. Once softened, place it in cold water and boiled, but do not overcook because it will be inclined to become tough.
This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran