Bacalao al pil-pil is a traditional dish from the Basque Country (El Pais Vasco), a region of northern Spain that is credited with bringing cod fish back from the Atlantic Ocean for hundreds of years. It is a well-known dish all over Spain, and popular with Spaniards and tourists alike. It is made with salt cod, garlic, and olive oil, and constant motion allows the olive oil and salt cod to emulsify into the fantastic pil-pil sauce. It is a very tasty dish and although the pil-pil sauce can be tricky to thicken, there are some simple tricks at the bottom of this recipe.
- 2 lb (1 kg) of salt cod
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 1 cup plus 3 Tbsp Spanish extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small dried hot pepper (such as a cayenne pepper) or 1/2 of a jalapeno pepper
This cod with pil-pil Sauce makes four full servings.
Note: The salted codfish must be soaked in water for AT LEAST 24 hours, though preferably 48 hours before cooking. This is necessary to leach out the salt. Change the water 2-3 times in a 24-hour period. If this is not done, the fish will be so salty that it will not be edible!
- Begin by cutting the cod into smaller pieces, so that it has more area to absorb the water. Rinse the pieces under cold water and rub the outside to remove excess salt.
- Place the chunks of fish into a large (13”x9”) glass baking dish in a single layer. Add water to the dish until fish is completely covered by the water. Cover dish with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator. Change water 2-3 times over the next 24 hours.
- Rinse the cod and pat dry with a paper towel. Cut into large pieces (3”x 3”).
- Peel and slice the garlic cloves. If using fresh peppers, cut off the tops of the peppers and remove the seeds. Then cut the peppers into rings and set aside. If using dried cayenne peppers, ignore this step and add the whole dried peppers later on in the recipe.
- In a heavy-bottomed casserole dish or a large open flame-proof clay dish, pour a few tablespoons of olive oil and heat on low. Sauté the garlic until the slices begin to brown. Remove garlic and set aside.
- Allow the oil in the pan to cool to lukewarm. When the oil is cool, add the cod (skin side up) and begin to stir the oil slowly. Place the pan or casserole back on a low heat and continue to stir the oil without stopping. Drizzle in the rest of the olive oil and continue to stir for approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Be sure to maintain the heat at a very low temperature. The fish will release its juices and those juices will mix with the oil and will form a thick emulsion. Place the garlic and pepper on top of the fish and allow to cool for 5 minutes and the pil-pil sauce will thicken.
Note: If the pil-pil sauce does not result in a thick emulsion, some Spanish cooks use the following “tricks” to obtain the right consistency:
- Pour the sauce from the pan and use a stick blender to whip the sauce a bit. Be careful not to whip it too long or it will thicken too much.
- Remove half of the sauce from the pan, add a pinch of cornstarch to it and use a stick blender to whip. Be careful not to whip it too long or it will thicken too much. Return to pan and stir to mix in.
- While stirring the sauce in the pan, add 1-2 Tbsp whole milk to thicken.
Although purists may cringe at the above methods, they can salvage a meal.