In Puerto Rico, bacalaitos are a huge part of street food culture. All kinds of fritanga (fried foods) dominate the kiosks and food shacks that line the beaches and roads; deep fried fritters, plantains, and meat are all kept warm while the cooks drop different batters into piping hot oil-filled calderos.
After spending a day at the beach, my favorite thing to snack on is a bacalaito; the salted cod fish fritters are absolutely perfect with an ice-cold beer. The dough varies from super crunchy to fluffy because everyone makes them different. But that’s the beauty of this light, simple batter that’s chock full of fish, fresh herbs, and other seasonings.
Growing up, my Tata Abuela (my maternal grandmother) was well-known for her bacalaitos among friends and family. She always made them scratch and I vividly remember the smell of salted cod boiling on the stove when we’d visit her house in Aguas Buenas. She’d pick guineos (green bananas) out of her backyard and pair them with fritters and she would sit next to me at the kitchen counter while we snacked on the hot, crispy bites.
Recently, my mom taught me how to make bacalaitos and guanimes con serenata de bacalao, two of my Tata Abuela’s specialities. Guanimes are corn tamales that are wrapped in banana leaves that are topped with a salted cod salad. Cooking together, sharing memories, and making food that my Tata Abuela made was very special to me; she constantly made simple, filing dishes that were inexpensive and delicious enough to feed a family of seven. I find that making her food is my way of staying connected to her.
Making the bacalaitos was a quick process and the batter came together nicely. It holds well in the fridge if you make a big batch and is easy to adjust with adding more flour or water based on the batter’s consistency. You’ll want to make sure that the oil is preheated and that all of your ingredients are mised en place because once you start frying the fritters, things move quickly! Let’s get to it.
Bacalaitos (Puerto Rican Cod Fish Fritters)
Time: 30 minutes
Vegetable oil for frying
4 cups All-Purpose flour (whisked to remove any lumps)
1 tbsp granulated garlic
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tsp sazón (homemade or Goya brand)
3 1/2 cups of diluted bacalao water*
1/2 tsp Simple Sofrito
1 tsp cilantro, finely chopped
1 tsp recao (known as culantro), finely chopped**
1 tsp oregano brujo, finely chopped**
1 1/2 cups boiled and flaked bacalao (salted cod)
*Keep the water from the boiled bacalao. See instructions below.
**If you aren’t able to find fresh recao or oregano brujo, you can substitute more cilantro or plain fresh oregano in its place.
First, get a large frying pan ready (cast iron would be great here) and heat up with about 2 inches of oil (enough for a shallow fry) over medium heat and bring up to temperature.
Next, in a large stockpot, cover the bacalao with cold water and let it sit for about 10 minutes. Drain and rinse. Then, cover the fish again with fresh water and bring it to a boil. Salted cod is a cured fish, so you’re going to want to remove the majority of the salt by boiling it off.
Once the water comes to a boil, let it cook for 10 minutes. Taste a piece after it has boiled. If it’s too salty for you, continue to change the water out and boil again to rinse it off. Remember, it’s supposed to be salty and you won’t need any salt in the batter because of this, but it shouldn’t be overpowering at all. You’re looking for a good balance.
Keep the salted water, since you’ll be using it for the batter. You want to dilute it with equal parts of plain water to avoid oversalting it. Set aside.
Once the fish has cooled down, flake up the fish into medium sized chunks as pictured below.
Next, in a large mixing bowl, add the all-purpose flour, granulated garlic, black pepper, sazón, and whisk well.
Then, gradually add the diluted bacalao water to the flour mixture until everything is incorporated and relatively thin. It should look like a thinned out pancake batter.
Once the batter looks like above, then you can add the sofrito and finely chopped herbs.
Next up, add and fold in the flaked fish into the batter and mix well.
Once the batter is ready and the oil is hot, ladle in the batter and evenly spread out to fry up. The batter should start to turn a light golden color and crisp up on the edges. I enjoy my bacalaitos a little fluffy and dense in the middle with very crispy edges, the same way I like my traditional pancakes.
The bacalaitos should crisp up nicely after about 10 minutes of cooking, flipping occasionally with a fork. I used a wooden skewer to hang up the fritters to drain the oil and cool slightly. Serve immediately and try not to eat all of them yourself! If you do, I promise I won’t tell anyone.