These traditional Newfoundland salt cod fish cakes are made with some simple ingredients like salt cod, potato, onion, savoury and flour. They are a tasty, iconic dish of Newfoundland. Comforting and delicious, these easy fish cakes hit the spot every time!
When someone references a ‘fish cake’ in Newfoundland it is pretty much assumed that it’s a ‘salt’ fish cake. They are super popular here in the province and loved by my family.
Every year before Christmas hubby and I go to my mother-in-law’s home for salt cod fish cakes. It’s definitely a tradition we look forward to.
Hubby usually helps his mother prepare them while I watch. This year, I decided to take my camera and photo all the action.
So, this recipe for salt fish cakes is from my dear mother-in-law. I’m sure you will love them as much as we do!
What is Bacalao? What is Salt Fish?
Bacalao or salt fish is cod that has been preserved in salt and dried (traditionally, it was dried outside).
I have vivid memories growing up in rural Newfoundland and seeing people have their salt cod laid out drying in the sun.
Years ago when refrigeration lacked, people would salt their fish out of necessity as a method of preserving so it would last longer.
Cod is the fish in Newfoundland and for hundreds of years, a lot of the cod you would find in other parts of the world was supplied by this province.
Salt fish is probably eaten a little less these days than years ago, but it is definitely a traditional Newfoundland ingredient and enjoyed all over the province. For me, it’s a real treat and I usually associate it with Christmas.
What is Salted Cod Used For?
While one of the most common uses for salt cod here in Newfoundland is salt fish cakes, another very popular Newfoundland recipe is fish and brewis.
Fish and brewis (or a similar version called fisherman’s brewis) is basically salt fish simply mixed with potatoes, hard bread, pork fat and fried onion (and maybe a little drawn butter over top). My father makes fish and brewis every Christmas; perhaps I’ll share that one with you another time.
Other uses for salt cod is in stews or fritters. But, really, the possibilities are endless and all so tasty! Saveur has 14 recipes to cook with salt cod if you want to check that out.
How to Soak Salt Cod
Because salt fish is coated in salt to preserve it, it definitely has to be soaked in water to remove excess salt. The fish pieces should be soaked skin side up (should the skin still be intact) in a large bowl of cold water.
How Long to Soak
The length of time you soak the salt fish will vary depending on:
- how heavily salted it is
- how thick it is
- your salt preference
Typically, for preparing salt cod for fish cakes soaking time can range from 12 to 24 hours (keeping in a cool place), changing the water 1 to 2 times after the original water (drain water and replace with fresh, cold water).
If you are using the salt cod for a recipe other than salt fish cakes (a recipe that doesn’t boil the fish prior to use) you may want to soak the fish another day or two (changing water) to remove more salt.
Note: For this fish cake recipe, the fish was thicker and my mom-in-law soaked for 12 hours and changed the water once after the original pot of water.
How to Cook
After soaking the fish, it has to be cooked. Typically, the salt fish is placed in a large pot of boiling water and boiled anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes (depending on how thick the pieces of fish are).
Roughly at the 15 minute mark, taste the water and fish for saltiness. What you are looking for is the water to be a tad salty, but not overly so. You want the water to be slightly saltier than water you would have for, say, salted water for pasta.
Also, at the 15 minute mark, if the salt fish tastes overly salty, take some water out of the pot and replace with fresh water. Bring to a boil and cook a few more minutes. After cooking, you want it to flake easily.
Note: Keep in mind that there is no more salt added to this recipe. So, if your salt cod is just a tad salty after preparing, that is okay because it will be combined with the mashed potatoes.
How to Prepare Once It’s Soaked & Cooked
After the salt fish has been soaked and cooked, drain the water. Then, let it cool long enough so you can handle it. Once cool enough to handle, remove skin and all bones. Larger bones can be removed with a fork (as below), but you still need to pick through the fish to remove smaller bones. Ain’t no one got time for bones in their fish cakes.
Note: Different parts of the cod fish may have more or less bones than other parts. Ensure that all bones are removed before proceeding with making the salt fish cakes.
This is what a small bone would look like. Remove those from the cod and discard.
How to Make Fish Cakes with Salt Cod
Now, the fun part: fish cakes! A little bit of planning is involved to make salt cod fish cakes (mainly because the fish has to be soaked to remove excess salt), but other than that these traditional Newfoundland salt fish cakes are easy!
Full details are in the recipe card below, but here are the basics:
- Boil soaked salt fish in a pot of water for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Drain salt cod and let cool slightly. Remove skin and bones.
- Boil potatoes in a pot of water, drain and let cool slightly. Roughly mash (don’t overwork your potatoes).
- In a pot or bowl, mix salt fish with mashed potatoes, onion, savoury, pepper and flour.
- Portion the salt cod/potato mixture for your fish cakes (a round ice-cream scoop works great here).
- Form into patties.
- Dredge fish cake patties in a little flour.
- Fry the fish cakes in a cast-iron skillet until golden on both sides and heated through.
Note: For this recipe, a round ice-cream scoop was used and the fish cakes were left on the thicker side. They were roughly 60 to 65 grams per fish cake.
This recipe yields about 32 to 36 fish cakes. If you make your fish cakes smaller or larger, the quantity you yield will vary. Make ’em whatever size pleases you!
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Can I Freeze Fish Cakes?
Every year when we have fish cakes at my mom-in-law’s we always take some to go. Because my mother-in-law is so generous, she basically gives us almost everything that’s left. We end up enjoying some the next day and freezing the rest.
To freeze, simply place cooled fish cakes on a waxed paper lined baking sheet and freeze for a half hour or so (so you don’t mush ’em when you seal them). Then, place in vacuum sealer bags, seal (per vacuum sealer instructions) and freeze. Alternatively, place the fish cakes in freezer-safe bags or freezer-safe containers. Freeze for up to 2 to 3 months.
Thaw in the refrigerator overnight when ready to enjoy. When thawed, fry in a pan (greased with some oil) on the stovetop on medium-low to medium heat until heated through. Another option is to bake in the oven on a sheet pan at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until heated through.
What to Serve with Fish Cakes
These fish cakes are super rich and savoury and a meal all on their own, but if you want to serve something with it, try any of these:
- Molasses. You may think this is a little strange, but if you are a fan of salty/sweet combos like me, try this. It works!
- Mustard pickles
- Lemon wedge
- A simple green salad
- Homemade baked beans
- Serve with an egg. So lovely with a poached egg on top for breakfast!
More Recipe Tips
Besides the flour to dredge the salt cod fish cakes, about a heaping tablespoon is used to bind them. Just use enough until it comes together.
Don’t overwork your potatoes or salt fish cake mixture. You don’t want to make your potatoes ‘gummy’.
Use your grocery’s scale to weigh the quantity of potatoes you need for this recipe (if you don’t have a scale at home).
Because the salt level of salt fish can vary, your soak boil time will be anywhere from 12 to 24 hours soak time and 15 to 20 minutes boil time. Plus, everyone’s preference for salt varies. Soak, and boil to what suits you.
Ensure the pan is over medium heat. You don’t want the temperature too low that the fish cakes soak up all the oil immediately, but you don’t want the temperature too high that the flour burns. You want a decent about of oil in the pan (about 2 to 3 tablespoons per batch). They will fry up nice and golden and brown and get all those yummy crispy bits (my fave)!
Don’t overcrowd your pan when cooking the fish cakes. Work in batches.
If you can’t find savoury where you are, replace with dried thyme or marjoram (or a mixture of the two). I would suggest starting with a little less than 2 tablespoons because I find those more potent than savoury.
For a binder, my mother-in-law uses a little flour for these salt fish cakes. Another option is to mix in a whisked egg instead.
If you aren’t a fan of raw onion, you can cook the onion in a little oil or butter until tender. Then, add to the fish cakes.
If you’d love to see more traditional Newfoundland recipes, please let me know!
If you make these traditional Newfoundland fish cakes, be sure to leave a comment below. Love hearing from you! Thank you!
Traditional Newfoundland Salt Cod Fish Cakes (Mom-in-Law’s Recipe)
- 1.5 pounds salt fish pieces
- 3 to 3.5 pounds potato , peeled
- 1 yellow onion , peeled and minced
- 2 tablespoons dried savoury (or thyme or marjoram)
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour , divided (approximately)
- vegetable or canola oil (as needed for frying fish cakes)
- Mustard pickles (for serving with, optional)
- Molasses (for serving with, optional)
- Soak salt fish pieces 12 to 24 hours in a large bowl of cold water, with the fish fully submerged (draining and changing water once or twice during that time. See text above/notes below).
- In a large pot of fresh water, boil pieces of salt cod for 15 to 20 minutes (there should be an inch or two of water above the salt cod, basically ensuring that it is fully submerged and covered by the water). Drain.
- Once salt fish is cool enough to handle, remove skin and all bones (and discard), shred fish with your hands (checking again for bones and discarding) and lay fish to one side in a bowl.
- Meanwhile, boil potatoes in a pot of lightly salted water until tender (there should be an inch or two of water above the potatoes, basically ensuring that they are fully submerged and covered by the water). Drain and let cool slightly. Roughly mash potatoes in the pot.
- To pot of mashed potatoes, add onion, savoury, pepper, salt fish and about 1 heaping tablespoon of flour. Stir to combine everything, but don't overmix.
- Using a round ice-cream scoop, form salt fish cakes (the size I made were about 60 to 65 grams each). Pat down to form a patty. Place remaining flour in a small bowl. One at a time, lightly dredge fish cakes in flour, shaking off excess.
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit to keep fish cakes warm (as you will be working in batches).
- To cook fish cakes, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil in a cast-iron pan over medium heat.Note: Cook fish cakes are cooked in batches, about 4 to 5 fish cakes per batch.
- Place about 4 to 5 fish cakes in the pan. Cook about 4 to 5 minutes on one side.
- Flip fish cakes to the other side and continue to cook for another 4 to 5 minutes or until the outside is golden brown and crispy. Transfer fish cakes to a baking sheet and place into your preheated oven to keep warm while you are finishing your batches.
- Repeat process to cook remaining fish cakes.Note: Monitor the temperature as you are cooking the fish cakes so that they don't burn. The skillet tends to get hotter as you are cooking your batches.
- These fish cakes are delicious served with mustard pickles and a drizzle of molasses. Enjoy!
- Cook time listed (8 minutes) is for frying one batch of fish cakes. To cook all batches, it will take approximately an hour or so.
- Because the salt level of salt fish can vary, your soak and boil time will be anywhere from 12 to 24 hours soak time and 15 to 20 minutes boil time. Plus, everyone’s preference for salt varies. Soak, and boil to what suits you.
- Keep in mind that there is no more salt added to this recipe. So, if your salt cod is just a tad salty after preparing, that is okay because it will be combined with the mashed potatoes.
- Different parts of the cod fish may have more or less bones than other parts. Ensure that all bones are removed before proceeding with making the salt fish cakes.
- Besides the flour to dredge the salt cod fish cakes, about a heaping tablespoon is used to bind them. Just use enough until it comes together.
- Don’t overwork your potatoes or salt fish cake mixture. You don’t want to make your potatoes ‘gummy’.
- Use your grocery’s scale to weigh the quantity of potatoes you need for this recipe (if you don’t have a scale at home).
- Ensure the pan is over medium heat. You don’t want the temperature too low that the fish cakes soak up all the oil immediately, but you don’t want the temperature too high that the flour burns. You want a decent about of oil in the pan (about 2 to 3 tablespoons per batch).
- Don’t overcrowd your pan when cooking the fish cakes. Work in batches.
Nutrition estimate (if provided) is based on 1 Serving.
Nutrition information (if provided) is provided as a courtesy and should be considered an estimate only. Ingredients can vary and Girl Heart Food makes no guarantees to the accuracy of this information. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.
A note on times provided: appliances vary, any prep and/or cook times provided are guidelines only.