History of Saltfish

A hundred years ago, saltfish was an essential part of the Massachusetts economy. It gave rise to boat building for fishermen, ship building for trade and trade routes to the Caribbean.

Much of the production of saltfish moved north concentrating in the Canadian Maritimes.

Fish is salted in order to preserve it for future consumption. The objective is to rapidly remove moisture while allowing the salt to uniformly penetrate the flesh of the fish. This process occurs through osmosis. Preservation is achieved by reducing the moisture content and it is enhanced by the high salt concentration in the flesh, which prevents the growth of bacteria.

There are two methods of salting fish; the dry method and the brine method. In both, the fish is placed in a container in alternating layers of fish and salt. In the dry salting process, the moisture which seeps from the fish forming a brine is drained during processing. The resulting fish is fairly dry, and is usually dried further by natural or artificial means. In the brine method, the brine is left in continual contact with the flesh until it is fully cured.

Prior to World War II, groundfish was dried on “flakes” (long tables of wire mesh) in the sun. Although this method is still employed today, after 1945, modern fish dryers were installed in many fish plants, replacing the traditional methods.

Dryers have several advantages. They leave the fishermen free to spend more time fishing and less time tending the fish during the curing and drying process. The dryers also ensure a more uniform product and supply, free from the vagaries of the weather to which sun-dried fish is subject.

Increasing emphasis on fresh and frozen products after World War II, as well as the increase in home refrigeration, lessened the demand for salted fish products. However, since cured fish has its own special flavor that cannot be recreated in fresh fish, many consumers still buy salted fish for its unique flavor.

Salted fish (cod, pollock, hake, haddock, and cusk) is now available in retail stores either as fillets in small wooden boxes; as whole fish, fillets, or pieces in plastic bags; or in bulk as larger whole fillets or the traditional kite-shaped whole fish.

The flavor of whole fish is considered superior by some purists but the convenience of the pre-packaged forms makes them much simpler to use. The whole fish takes longer to “freshen” and requires peeling the skin and removing bones.

All salted fish products must be soaked out before cooking, the longer the soaking, the less salty the fish. Most recipes recommend changing the water 3-4 times over a 8-24 hour period. The salted fish will plump up after freshening.

Freshened fish is still uncooked and, once re-hydrated, will spoil unless cooked promptly.

Traditionally, recipes call for salted codfish, however, pollock, hake, cusk, and haddock are offered salted and dried at lower cost. Demand for these fish is now quite strong as well.