Why It Works
- Salt-curing center-cut cod fillets produces nicely seasoned and textured baccalà that's perfect for braising.
- Skipping the traditional pan-searing step for the baccalà helps to highlight the delicate texture of homemade salt cod, and makes this a one-pan recipe.
The winter holiday season in Italy is also prime baccalà season. In Central and Southern Italy, salt cod features heavily on Christmas Eve menus—you can find it battered and fried as an appetizer, flaked and tossed with potatoes and onion as a salad, simmered into a tomato sauce for pasta, or, in this case, braised in large fillets as a secondo. In Livorno, a seaside town in Tuscany, baccalà is traditionally braised with tomato and potato for a hearty main course. In Southern Italy, you’re more likely to find it cooked in a briny tomato sauce with capers and olives, in the same style as swordfish alla ghiotta.
Marrying salt cod with salted capers and brined olives may sound like trouble. As I found out during recipe development, the dish can easily become an inedible salt bomb. Round after round of testing with store-bought baccalà yielded inconsistent results. Even when I stretched out the soaking time for the salt cod to four days, I couldn’t account for differences in salinity levels between salt cod producers; one batch would turn out perfectly and another, soaked for the same amount of time, would be a disaster.
For most recipes, slight differences in salt levels don’t end up being that noticeable. The intensity of salt cod in a brandade, for example, is tempered by potato and dairy. But in baccalà alla napoletana, there’s no wiggle room. I was also running into problems with the pieces of cod themselves. This dish is meant to feature meaty, thick portions of baccalà, but here in the US, shoppers rarely have a say about the size of the pieces they purchase, and often end up with thin scraps from the tail or belly. That wasn’t going to work. In need of a solution, Daniel suggested that I just make salt cod myself.
Traditional vs. Home-Cured Cod
Curing often sounds like a daunting project, but salt-curing fish is remarkably easy, and it doesn’t get much simpler than salt cod. To be clear, the goal for making baccalà for this recipe wasn’t to produce a facsimile of traditional, fully dried salt cod that can be stored for months. Instead, I wanted to cure cod long enough to deeply season and firm up the flesh, transforming it from soft to silky with a slight chew. In his cookbook My Portugal, Chef George Mendes provides a simple method for curing salt cod that gave me just the results I was looking for.
Curing the Fillets
I pack thick cod fillets in kosher salt in a baking dish and refrigerate them for two days, redistributing salt as needed to keep the fish completely covered (the fillets absorb a lot of salt during the first 12 hours). I then rinse the cod and soak it in water for another two days, to tone down the saltiness of the fish. During testing, I experimented with shorter curing and soaking times, hoping that I could find a way to cut down on the total time for this process, but a shorter cure produced cod that was still too delicate to be called baccalà, and a shorter soaking time just produced overly salty fish. However, the four-day process is well worth it: When I ran side by side tests of baccalà alla napoletana made with my cured cod going up against the store-bought stuff, the homemade cod blew the regular baccalà out of the water (or tomato sauce).
The thick fillets are firm, with just the right amount of chew on the surface that gives way to a silky interior. With the texture right where I wanted it, I was able to do away with the flouring and pan-frying step that's traditionally used to give the baccalà a light crust and move right on to nestling the cured fillets into the puttanesca-like sauce, finishing them in the oven until just cooked through. This is a one-pan recipe that’s also a perfect centerpiece for a festive meal.
- For the Salt Cod:
- 2 pounds (910g) boneless, skinless center-cut cod fillets (see note)
- Kosher salt
- For the Sauce and Finishing:
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 medium garlic cloves (10g), thinly sliced
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- One 28-ounce (795g) can whole peeled tomatoes with juices, tomatoes roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup (70g) pitted black olives, such as Gaeta or Kalamata
- 1 tablespoon (15g) capers, drained
- 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 cup (10g) tightly packed fresh parsley leaves and tender stems, roughly chopped
For the Salt Cod (Four Days Before Serving): Pat cod dry with paper towels. In a tall-sided nonreactive container large enough to hold the cod fillets in a single layer, spread an even 1/2-inch layer of salt. Place cod fillets on top and cover them completely with salt, using your hands to pat salt around sides of cod to make sure it's completely covered. Cover and refrigerate for 48 hours, checking occasionally to discard any accumulated liquid in the container and adding extra salt as needed to keep cod completely covered.
Once cod has cured for 48 hours, remove from salt and rinse fillets under cold water; discard salt and rinse out container. Return cod to container and cover with cold water. Cover and refrigerate for at least 36 hours and up to 48 hours, changing the water several times during that period (at least once every 12 hours). Drain salt cod and pat dry with paper towels. Using a sharp knife, cut fillets crosswise into six equal portions. Set aside.
For the Sauce and Finishing: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). In a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan, combine olive oil and garlic, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until garlic just begins to turn pale golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, olives, capers, and oregano. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened slightly, about 10 minutes.
Add cod to skillet, nestling portions into the tomato sauce. Transfer skillet to the oven and cook until thickest parts of fillets register 130° to 135°F (54.5° to 57°C) on an instant-read thermometer, 8 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley, and serve.
While we prefer the more delicate texture and salinity of homemade thick-cut salt cod fillets for this recipe, it can also be made with store-bought salt cod. Use 1 pound (455g) salt cod fillets, ideally thick, center-cut pieces. Rinse the cod and soak in water in a large container, changing the water every 12 hours, for 4 days. Cut cod into equal portions and proceed with step 3 of the recipe.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The salt cod needs to be started four days before you plan to serve the dish. The finished dish is best enjoyed right away, but leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Reheat gently before serving.