Baccalà al forno con patate (Oven-Roasted Salt Cod with Potatoes)

Franksecondi piatti42 Comments

Baccalà al forno

As many of our readers doubt already know, Christmas Eve dinner among Italians traditionally features a seafood menu. And it just wouldn’t be Christmas Eve unless at least one dish on that menu includes baccalà, or dried and salted cod.

Besides being a fixture on festive tables, baccalà is immensely popular year round, especially in the colder months. Italians have come up with a whole array of recipes for its preparation. On this blog we’ve already shown you how to make the classic Neapolitan baccalà alla napoletana, with its zesty tomato sauce scented with olives, capers and anchovies, the Roman classic baccalà in guazzetto, with light tomato sauce perfumed with raisins and pine nuts, filetti di baccalà, battered and fried in the Roman manner, the Venetian classic baccalà mantecato, whipped and served with polenta crostini, and last but not least, Vicenza’s baccalà alla vicentina, slow-cooked with milk and onions until it’s reduced into a creamy mass served with soft polenta.

This week I want to offer up what may be the quickest and simplest baccalà dish in the Italian repertoire: baccalà al forno con patate, or Oven-Roasted Salt Cod with Potatoes. In this recipe, the baccalà fillets are oven-roasted on a bed of garlicky potatoes studded with tomatoes and olives. After arranging the ingredients in a baking dish, you just pop it in a hot oven and 30 minutes later, you’re ready to eat. No fuss, no muss. E Buon Natale!

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 1 kilo (2 lb) salt cod
  • 500g (1 lb) yellow-fleshed potatoes, or more if you need or want, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
  • A handful of cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • A handful of black olives, pitted
  • A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely minced
  • White wine
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

The day before you’re planning on cooking, rinse the salt cod and place it in a large bowl and cover entirely with water. Place in the fridge and leave for 24 hours, changing the water at least three times. (NB: Soaking times can vary—see Notes for details.)

Once the salt cod has soaked, remove it from the water and examine it for any stray bits of bone and remove them along with any skin. Cut the cod into serving pieces and pat dry.

Grease a baking dish large enough to hold all the cod in one layer.

In a large mixing bowl, toss the sliced potatoes with the garlic, parsley, salt, pepper and a good pour of olive oil, enough to coat the slices well.

Lay out the potato slices to cover the bottom of the baking dish. (The potatoes can overlap a bit but don’t pile them high.) Arrange the salt cod pieces on top of the potatoes, then place the tomatoes and black olives here and there around the salt cod, along with any extra potato slices.

Drizzle on some white wine, just enough to wet the bottom of the dish, perhaps 4-5 tbsp worth. Top with the breadcrumbs and then drizzle over more olive oil.

Bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and the top is golden brown. If need be, you can finish the dish off by running it under the broiler for a minute or two to brown the top.

Serve hot.

Baccalà al forno

Notes

Baccalà, known as salt cod in English, is cod that has been salt and hung to dry, traditionally outdoors by the wind and sun, often on cliffs and other bare rock-faces, these days indoors by electric heaters. Salt cod been produced in the lands around the northernmost reaches of the Atlantic for over 500 years, and according to some sources much longer than that. It may come as a surprise, but this product from the planet’s northernmost regions found its way down to Italy, where it is (or at least was) enormously popular, despite the abundance of wonderful fresh fish in the seas that surround this slender peninsula on three sides.

It’s an interesting question exactly why this is so—and a question that, in all honesty, I can’t answer. Except perhaps that baccalà is practical since it keeps indefinitely and was, back in the day, very affordable. But that’s certainly no longer the case. Overfishing has resulted in a sharp decline of North Atlantic fish stocks, which in turn means that salt cod is quite pricey today.

Soaking Salt Cod

Soaking times for salt cod can vary wildly. Much depends on how dry and salted it is, as well as your own preference. Most recipes call for 24 hours soaking, though I’ve seen some calling for three days of soaking. And I’ve bought lightly salted cod that was ready to cook after a relatively short overnight soak. Your best bet is to check the box for instructions. If it doesn’t have instructions, then a 24 hour soak is prudent.

After soaking, the fish should be surprisingly un-salty and well rehydrated. For this dish, do make sure that your baccalà is well soaked. This way it won’t dry out in the oven’s intense dry heat. (You can be less fastidious about soaking in braised baccalà dishes.) If you have a “Little Italy” nearby, you may also be able to find pre-soaked salt cod, which of course makes things simple.

Variations

In perhaps the most common variation on baccalà al forno con patate, you layer potatoes both under and over the baccalà pieces. This helps protect the fish from the oven’s dry heat. And it allows you to “stretch” the dish as you’ll need to use more potatoes, up to double the amount given here. In this variation, you can omit the breadcrumbs if you like.

Another very common variation on baccalà al forno con patate involves using thinly sliced onion rather than garlic. The onion is sometimes softened in olive oil beforehand. Some recipes call for oregano, or less commonly rosemary or thyme, rather than parsley. Not all recipes include the olives. But all the ones I know do include tomato, either cherry or grape tomatoes as indicated here, or larger ones cut into dice.

Some recipes have you parboil the potatoes beforehand, in which case you need not be so fastidious about the thinness of your slicing. Yet others have you parboil the baccalà as well, an extra bit of hydration which may help it from drying out in the oven.

Frank’s personal touches

I’ve added a few personal touches here to the traditional recipe for baccalà al forno con patate. The tossing of the potatoes with their seasonings and oil, for instance. This ensures that all the slices are well coated. The usual recipe just has you drizzle the potatoes already arranged in the baking dish. The bit of white wine, too, is my personal little “trick”. I find it helps to cook the potatoes (easier than parboiling) and keep the dish a bit moist. It should, however, evaporate entirely by the end of cooking.

Can’t find salt cod? Use fresh fish…

Finally, since baccalà can sometimes be hard to source, you should know that this recipe will also work with fillets of fresh cod or other kinds of fish. In that case, hold back the fish fillets until about 10-15 minutes before the end (depending on the their thickness). Remove the baking dish from the oven and lay them on top of the partially cooked potatoes. Top with breadcrumbs and drizzle some olive oil over the fillets and return to the oven to finish cooking.

Baccalà al forno

Oven Roasted Salt Cod with Potatoes
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Italian
Keyword: baked, fish, roasted, seafood

Ingredients

  • 1 kilo 2 lbs salt cod
  • 500g 1 lb yellow-fleshed potatoes (or more if you need or want) peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1-2 cloves garlic peeled and slightly crushed 
  • A handful of cherry or grape tomatoes halved 
  • A handful of black olives pitted
  • A few sprigs of fresh parsley finely minced
  • White wine
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  • The day before you're planning on cooking, place the salt cod in a large bowl and cover entirely with water. Place in the fridge and leave for 24 hours, changing the water from time to time.
  • Once the salt cod has soaked, remove it from the water and examine it for any stray bits of bone and remove them along with any skin. Cut the cod into serving pieces and pat dry. 
  • Grease a baking dish large enough to hold all the cod in one layer. 
  • In a large mixing bowl, toss the sliced potatoes with the garlic, parsley, salt, pepper and a good pour of olive oil, enough to coat the slices well. 
  • Lay out the potato slices to cover the bottom of the baking dish. (The potatoes can overlap a bit but don't pile them high.) Arrange the salt cod pieces on top of the potatoes, then place the tomatoes and black olives here and there around the salt cod, along with any extra potato slices.
  • Drizzle on some white wine, just enough to wet the bottom of the dish, perhaps 4-5 tbsp worth. Top with the breadcrumbs and then drizzle over more olive oil.
  • Bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and the top is golden brown. If need be, you can finish the dish off by running it under the broiler for a minute or two to brown the top. 
  • Serve hot

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42 Comments on “Baccalà al forno con patate (Oven-Roasted Salt Cod with Potatoes)”

  1. Thanks yet again Frank for another great recipe. Baccala’ al forno is a family recipe except we don’t include olives. I also liked your option of parboiling the potatoes. This time I included the olives and parboiled the potatoes and cooked it for Christmas Eve and it was even better than usual. Buon Natale!!

  2. Frank, this post brought back memories of our first Christmas in New Hampshire. We drove down to Boston to buy salted cod in Little Italy. I had a large piece of salted cod soaking in our basement for two days before my husband said it was perfect. Merry Christmas.

  3. You certainly do have a variety of baccala recipes out here, Frank! I’ve never made this, but it does sound absolutely fantastic. I miss our Italian shops in upstate New York, although I suspect somewhere in Asheville will have some authentic Italian ingredients. This post has inspired me to go on a hunt to find that place now! Merry Christmas to you and your family – and I hope Santa brings you everything you asked for this year!

  4. This is one of my favorite fish, in fact I so love it even I am highly allergic to salt cod I still eat them just with antihistamine on the side (yes I am that addicted to this fish). I think my body got used to it, now I dont have bad allergic reactions anymore and I am excatly thinking of cooking the same thing, a dish called bacalao in the Philippines, same ingredients with added chickpeas and a different cooking technique. Will defitniely try this recipe of your too

    1. Wow, now that is dedication, Raymund! You know, by coincidence there’s a Roman dish as well combining salt cod and chickpeas. It’s a fantastic combination. Hope you like this version as well!

  5. Love baccala salad! I am putting this recipe on my Christmas Eve festa! Love your recipes.

  6. Beautiful, festive Italian classic for sure. I just had my Baccalà mantecato alla veneziana a minute ago for my office lunch and must say, it is thebest time of the year! Buon Natale!

  7. Frank, salt cod is hard to find here, but I’ll give it a try using fresh cod. I had to chuckle when I read Mad Dogs comment as I too was going to ask if you’ve read “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World”. Although an excellent read, my favorite of his writings is “Salt, A world history”. Take care and have a wonderful holiday season…

    1. Ron, I’m intrigued (and surprised!) to hear that salt cod is hard to find in Sweden. I wonder why when, as I understand it, it is (or at least was) huge right next door in Norway… Btw, I also have “Salt” but haven’t gotten around to read it yet. I supposed there’s much about salt curing in that book.

  8. I love salt fish (It’s a quite common ingredient in Atlantic Canada). But I’ve only tasted salt cod in restaurants – and only as the part of 2-3 recipes like salt fish cakes and stew. This dish looks phenomenal; so simple and cozy yet worth serving for a super important occasion!

    1. Indeed what better place to enjoy salt cod than where so much cod is actually caught, eh? I think you’d like this way of preparing it, Ben. Merry Christmas!

  9. Hi Frank,
    Thanks so much for sharing this tasty recipe. Cod is very popular in Italy and belongs to my family cooking tradition. I will certain try it with baked with poatatoes. Happy Holidays, Paola

  10. Thanks for the recipe Frank. We love baccala however I have never cooked it in the Italian style, usually Portuguese (Gomes d’ Sa) or Spanish (Viscaya). Have you ever cooked Stockfish, the air dried cod that you can hang on the wall? Some old neighbours from the Abruzzo used to serve it at Xmas as a sort of dip mixed with oil and garlic. Not sure if it was cooked or just reconstituted and shredded.

    1. John, the dish you describe sounds very much like baccala mantecato. It’s a Venetian dish but of course folks from other parts of Italy make it. And despite the name, it’s traditionally made with stoccafisso or stockfish. That said, it’s impossible to find stockfish where I live now so I use salt cod.

  11. I just discovered your beautiful website and lots of wonderful recipes. My grandmother made her version of this dish often, and it’s great to now finally have the exact measurements because she always cooked by memory. I’ll be making this soon. Thanks and Merry Christmas!

    1. Welcome to the blog, Margaret. So happy to hear you’ve discovered our little corner of the internet! And thanks so much for the kind words. I do hope this recipe helps you recreate this old family recipe. It’s a winner for sure.. 🙂

  12. I love salt cod every which way, and this is a superb presentation. Love the olives. My mother cooked with it when I was growing up, and my favorite was when she smothered it in a bechamel, topped with a poached egg and capers. I don’t even know if that’s a “real” recipe or not, but wow it’s good.

    1. Hmm… your mother’s recipe sounds delicious and quite different from anything I’ve tried before. Did she gratinée it?

    1. Interesting. I’ve never tried salt mullet but I bet it would work very nicely prepared in this way. If you do give it a go, I’d be curious to know what you think. Frsh cod (or other fish) also works nicely using a slightly modified version of the recipe. Buon Natale!

    1. The recipe (slightly adjusted) works perfectly with fresh cod, too. But it’s worth seeing if you can find salt cod, just to experience it at least once. Quite a unique flavor. I believe you’re in Australia? If so, with its large Italian community, I have to imagine it’s available…

  13. Reading this I am smiling and hoping that the very inviting dish presented may ‘change’ my mind re bacalao ! Remembering way back I recall my poor longtime Portuguese housekeeper coming quite a distance by bus frustratingly carrying variations of her beloved salt cod recipes for us to try . . . without success. She cooked beautifully . . . we just could not ‘cope’ with the fish !!! I know I can buy it even here in the country – so, after all this time . . . perhaps my taste buds will sing 🙂 !!!

    1. You know, it’s one of those things you either love or you hate, it seems. You could try it one last time—or make this with fresh fish if you like. Equally delicious.

  14. My mum just had a big piece of baccala delivered this week! I showed her this recipe and I think we’re going to try it! It looks so good, Frank! Thanks so much!

  15. Like most of these tried and true recipes, this one sounds and looks delicious. I cooked salt cod for the first time earlier this year but I may give this dish a go with frozen cod, only because I have some at home.

  16. I though, “Christmas Eve”, as soon as I saw the picture! I l love baccalà and will definiely be making this.
    The Cod book by Mark Kurlansky, suggests that the Basques learnt about curing cod from the Vikings, who also told them about an abundance on the Grand Banks. Supposedly, the Basques were sailing across the Atlantic in tiny fishing boats 500 or so years before Columbus! There are remnants of small costal huts and drying racks, left by these brave sailors in North America. I think these men are mentioned in Native American histories too. Merry Christmas Frank!

    1. Interesting! I have that book, and it’s a fascinating read. I was actually going to go back and re-read it for this post but ran out of time. Merry Christmas!

  17. We had the guazzetto several times in Rome, each version a little different. And of course the mantecato in Venice (the version without the parsley has no garlic!), but never this beautiful dish — can’t wait to try this!

    1. I hope you like it, David! Even my fish-shy better half enjoyed this one, so you know it’s got to be good, although I’m also a huge fan of guazzetto and most of all mantecato. Anything with baccalà, really. 🙂

  18. This is one of my favorite dishes! I was introduced to it when I went to Italy for culinary school. I used this dish as one of my examples of Italian food when I taught European Cuisine. Thanks for refreshing my memory on this classic.

    1. You’re welcome! I imagine this is an ideal dish for students since it’s delicious but not really quite easy to prepare.

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