More Mexican Christmas dinner tales: bacalao


December 28, 2009Recipes7 Comments

Bacalao is the Spanish word for a slab of boneless, skinless dried salt cod. The filets — long, snowy looking things — pop up in all the Mexico City grocery stores and markets during Christmastime.

I had eaten fried bacalao a few times in Spain, but I’d never tried it the Mexican way, which combines tomatoes, onions, green olives, chiles and garlic to make a kind of fishy stew.

The idea of cooking with salted fish intrigued me, in a Laura Ingalls Wilder kind of way. (Remember how her family used to eat salt pork?) So I picked out a rather large, one-and-a-half pound piece at Mercado de la Merced a few weeks ago, and asked the vendor for cooking instructions.

She gave me a detailed list, which I wrote down in my moleskine. You can see them below, at the bottom of the page.

To check the recipe’s veracity, I flipped through Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless, who currently comprise the bulk of my Mexican cooking library. Luckily, “Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen” had a recipe that mirrored the vendor’s instructions almost exactly. I decided I’d whip up a mixture of his dish and the market vendor’s.

Unfortunately, amid attending a friend’s posada and throwing my own tamalada, I didn’t plan very well. Bacalao must be de-salted before cooking, which means it has to sit in a dish of water for several hours. Once mine was sufficiently salt-free, I was up to my ears in cornhusks. I wasn’t ready to cook it, so I stuck it in the freezer for a few days and prayed.

Surprisingly, it turned out great. The fish was hearty and toothsome, but not tough. And the tomato-onion mixture was the perfect foil — light, spicy, and with a kick of saltiness from the olives. I added small red potatoes, too, although you can also serve it with rice. The dish looks complicated, but really, it’s not difficult at all. We’ve been eating the leftovers over the past few days and it only gets better with time.

I think this might be another new Christmas tradition, along with figgy pudding.

Recipe below.

Christmas Bacalao
Inspired by a vendor at Mercado de la Merced, and Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen
Serves 6 to 8 as a light dinner

Bacalao is sold all over Mexico City around Christmas time, and once you buy it, it keeps for up to two months, or so says the lady at Mercado de la Merced. To cook it, start preparing the day before. Place the bacalao in a dish and cover with cold water. Change out the water every few hours, until the bacalao is sufficiently less salty. You can also freeze it for a few days, if you totally lose track of time.

Also, it’s not the traditionally Mexican thing to do, but I’d serve this with a fresh green salad sprinkled with panela cheese, or any other mild fresh farmer’s cheese to contrast with the bold flavors of the fish. A big hunk of crunchy bread would go well, too.

It’s best to use the freshest, ripest tomatoes possible. Only about half of mine were truly ripe, and the dish still turned out well, but lacked a big bright punch of tomato flavor. Next time I may try slow-roasting a few tomatoes, and adding that into the mix as well.


1 1/2 pounds of bacalao (salted, dried cod)
1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes
2 pounds ripe tomatoes
1 large white onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley
3/4 cup green olives, either left whole, or pitted and sliced
6 pickled guerito chiles, or more if you like it spicy
1/2 teaspoon thyme

Prepare the cod the day before by placing it in a dish of cold water. Change out the water every few hours, until the cod no longer tastes overly salty.

If you live in a high altitude, like me, you’ll want to prepare the potatoes next, because they take forever to cook. I like to save time by zapping them in the microwave. Place them in a microwaveable bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon salt. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and cook at 5 minute intervals, on high, until they’re tender. Leave them in the microwave, covered, to keep warm.

Roast your tomatoes either under the broiler or on a comal, until they’re blackened and blistered in spots. Remove the skins once they’re cool enough to handle, and place them in a blender. Puree until you no longer see any thick pieces of tomato.

Heat a few glugs of olive oil over medium heat in a large, 12-inch skillet, or a enameled dutch oven. Add your onion and cook until softened, about five minutes. Then add garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds to a minute. Add the tomato mixture, stir, and cook the whole thing until it’s reduced and thick, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on your altitude.

While the tomato mixture is cooking, place your newly salt-free bacalao in a sauce pan, and cover it with water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer the fish for about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Once your tomato sauce has thickened, add the parsley, olives, guerito chiles, and thyme. [Note: The Mercado de la Merced market vendor also says to add carrots here. I didn’t have any in the house so I didn’t use them, but a touch of sweetness from the carrots would make a nice addition.] Stir in enough water to create a soupy broth, and then add your fish into the pan, nestling it inside so it’s covered by the other ingredients. Simmer for an hour, adding more water if fish looks too dry. Bayless’s recipe says the fish should break up into chunks, but mine didn’t entirely do that, and it still tasted fine.

When fish is done cooking, add your potatoes to the pot and stir. Serve in heaping spoonfuls on a plate, and garnish with parsley. Sing “Feliz Navidad” as you eat.

7 Responses to “More Mexican Christmas dinner tales: bacalao”
  1. Joaquin Herrera

    At my house, we eat the bacalao inside a roll… kinda like a torta. so yummy!

  2. Don Cuevas

    The first time I had this dish, on NYE, 1991, my first day in Mexico City, it was served at room temperature, with a big, plump prune. It became One Of The Mexican Holiday Dishes I Don’t Love. (The other being Romeritos con Tortitas de Camarón Seco.)

    The second time I had it, at the house of friends in Cd. Satélite, there was no prune, and it was tolerable. Yours looks much better.

    Have you considered making Salt Codfish Cakes with bacalao? I wanted too, but just couldn’t get to it this Christmas.

    Don Cuevas

  3. jennifer rose


    1.5 to 2 kilos bacalao (legitimate Norwegian salt cod, without bones). Don’t buy the flat board-like sheets. Use the thicker more expensive filet.

    2 kilos tomato. Preferably Roma, although any kind of red tomato will work.

    Raisins to taste

    200 grams almonds (or more), slivered

    500-600 grams green olives. I prefer the olives which still have the seeds, because it takes people longer to eat. If using seeded olives, use less.

    Italian parsley to taste

    3 cloves garlic (or more)

    1 medium or large white or yellow onion

    1 glass of brandy

    Cooking oil

    Starting 2 days before cooking, soak the bacalao in water in an enamel, glass or non-reactive vessel. Drain and change the water every 6 hours.

    After the final bath, drain the water again. Cook the fish for 2 hours in water. (I think this is a little longer than necessary, but that’s what cook told me.) Drain and discard the cooking water.

    Flake the fish.

    Cook the almonds lightly in a small amount butter, and then slightly toast them.

    Zap the garlic, tomato and onion in the blender until finely pureed. Using a small amount of cooking oil, make a sofrito in a large frying pan, casserole, or something big enough to accommodate all of the rest of the ingredients. If I were making this again, I’d use olive oil. Cook the garlic-tomato-onion mixture until about 75% of the liquid is gone.

    Add the fish to the sofrito, along with the almonds, chopped parsley, raisins, and a glass of brandy. Stir it around, and cook covered just a few minutes for the every to heat up and the flavors to mix. Add the olives. If you don’t like olives, you could add drained capers.

    Do not add any salt, because there’s still some residual salt in the fish.

    Refrigerate for a day or so for the flavors to meld. If it seems a little dry, make some more sofrito and add it to the mixture.

    Serve at room temperature.

    Refrigerated, the dish should be good for about a week. This recipe makes a huge quantity!


    my mom in law is old school born an raised in mexico city, she uses a different recipe an it is remarkable, we love fish, so we love this recipe.

  5. Michael D

    Lesley Tellez does not include important information such as do the potatoes get peeled, etc? Next, 2 pounds of salted cod is not enough for 8 people; buy 3-4 pounds and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces before you soak them. Thirdly, if the sauce is failing to thicken, you can add tomato paste little by little. The cod does get tough because it is getting cooked too much. My suggestion would be to not simmer it as in the recipe but to add it to the sauce and let it simmer in the sauce a little longer instead. it will definitely add more to the flavor and be more tender. I cooked this last night for 8 Mexican family members. After I made the necessary adjustments before and during it turned out great!!!!! “Doggy Bags” for everyone!!!!!!!

    • Michael D

      I made this on December 24th, 2013, by the way.

      • Lesley Tellez

        Hi Michael: Glad you tried the recipe! I generally don’t peel my potatoes, because I’m lazy. Also, at high altitudes sauces will thicken very fast, because liquids evaporate much more quickly than they do at sea level — thank you for the tip on the tomato paste, which I’m sure will help folks who want it to thicken faster.

        I’m not sure I would cut the salted fish beforehand, as I recall it being particularly hard/tough when you buy it in the markets. If I made it again, I might flake it while it’s in the pot.

        Appreciate your suggestions!

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