Bolinhos de Bacalhau – Salt Cod Fish Cakes

Bolinhos de bacalhau, also known as pasteis de bacalhau, will be made in most homes and are sold in cafes and restaurants.  Usually when you buy them they have far too much potato to the ratio of saltcod, making it more economical but they will taste mainly of mash potato and lacking the important texture of the bacalhau.  They are usually served at room temperature.  I love them as they come out of the fryer when the outside is still crispy.  They make perfect snack/picnic food.

The proportion of ingredients will vary from cook to cook depending on personal taste or how much bacalhau they have.  My great-grandmother would make her bolinhos de bacalhau with very little potato saying that, “I want to eat bacalhau.  I can eat potatoes any time.”

The higher proportion of bacalhau will give you a harder fishcakes as the cod is dense, but for some that’s what makes their perfect bolinhos.

You will have to buy properly salted fish cod.  To buy bacalhau outside of Portugal look for a Portuguese cafe, they will know where to buy some if they don’t sell it themselves. Salting your own cod for a few days is not the same as bacalhau because you have to completely dehydrate the fish in order to change the texture of it, it’s not simply a matter of firming up the fish.  The texture of bacalhau is unique.



It smells very strongly when you get it, and when you hydrated it, and also if you boil it but it does not taste anything like it smells.  There is good and bad quality salt cold.  I would buy some from a Portuguese or Spanish deli as in my experience they tend to be fussier on the quality.  I wouldn’t touch those sad thin small pieces I’ve seen selling in the world food section in supermarkets.

On buying salt cold you want to go for the thick parts like the ones here cut from the centre of the cod.  When they hydrate they produce thick chunks of cod with great texture, few small bones and easier to flake. You can buy cut pieces already soaked in the freezer, also means you can skip the hassle of soaking.


The soaking can take anything from 2-3 days depending on the thickness of the pieces and how often you change the water.

The bacalhau can be soaked and then frozen making it easy and ready for cooking.  Soak in a bucket filled with cold water and change the water every 12hrs.  Keep it somewhere cold, easy in the winter kept in a garage or outside the kitchen door (with a heavy object covering it to keep cats out).  In hot weather you’ll find it will take less time to hydrate, keep it indoors away from sun.  

After the second day pinch some of the cod and taste it, it should not taste salty but slightly salty is right.  If it doesn’t taste of any salt you will need to adjust the salt in the recipe later. (In case you’re worried you can eat raw hydrated cod). 

Bacalhau cut from the centre in its dehydrated state.

Boil the cod. You can boil the cod without any flavourings.  I experimented for these photos and concluded that I could not tell they made any difference to the flavour of the bolinhos. 

When the cod is cooked it will come apart when probed with a fork.

Remove the pieces from the water and let them cool enough to handle.

Skin and debone.

Shredding the Cod

Food Processor

For the quickest and easiest way follow the video and use the food processor on a pulse action until cod is shredded into fine looking pieces appearing like threads. 

The traditional way is to use a tea towel as shown below.

Get yourself a tea towel.

Place the cod in the middle

Gather the towel and hold it securely, and then press the cod squeezing with the palm of your hands.  While doing this rock the cod back and forwards hard on the surface, this movement will be shredding it inside.

Check that you have done it long enough, you may have to do it again, you want the texture of the cod to be in little shreds, clumping together with most of large pieces broken down.

As you transfer the cod into a dish use you fingers to feel through bits of it to feel for small bones.

Cod is now ready for cooking, can be prepare to this stage and kept in the fridge tightly covered the day before.

The best way to deal with the tea towel is to put into a bowl and pour boiling water from the kettle over it to cover it, let it cool it will remove the large bits and then put into the washing machine.

Mix all the ingredients together but add the egg one at a time to make sure you get the consistency you want, should be binding together nicely but not very wet.

Again you can have the mixture ready to this stage the day before using, store it in the fridge.

Easiest way to shape them is the quenelle especially if you have made the mixture a tad wet.

Good Frying

Frying them too quickly like below will burn them on the outside and produce a raw mixture inside.

They should not be like this inside still wet with raw parts of egg.

Eventually I worked out the temperature was good at around 160C.

I also notice how the bubbles in the oil changed if I had oil too hot.  See the photo below where the oil is fiercely frying and creating small bubbles, well that’s too hot.

When I turned down the temperature and added the fish cakes into the correct temperature the bubbles in the oil were rather larger as the photo below shows.

By the time they’re nice and golden on the outside they should be perfectly cooked inside.

Cooked inside.



Bolinhos de Bacalhau - Salt Cod Fish Cakes
Quantities below are a guide. Every household will make it in proportions to what they have and personal preference. But the rule is that a heavier dose of bacalhau will result in chewier texture. The more egg added the floppier the mixture will be and puffier as a result. Too much potato will make them taste of potato. Can be shaped round or into quenelles. Make them untraditional by adding chilli, teaspoon lemon zest, coriander, parsley, basil. Go and experiment using your own flavourings but you might upset a traditionalist.
  • 300g / 10 oz of salt cod / 3 generous cups (hydrated/soaked weight) see soaking details above
  • 500g / 1 lb potatoes. Boil and mash without any butter or milk added, you want a dry mixture
  • 1 large onion finely chopped by hand or food processor
  • parsley large handful chopped about 3-5 tablespoons
  • 2 medium eggs lightly beaten with a fork, start with 2 eggs see if there's enough moisture to bind the mixture into cakes
  • Salt (if your cod has been really washed out of all salt then you'll need to season these cakes as per normal, taste some once all mixed and decide)
  • Flavourless Vegetable oil for deep frying such sunflower or corn.
  1. Boil the cod on a gentle boil for 4-5minutes. The cod won't take long to cook especially if you have thinner pieces. Remove the pieces from the water and let them cool enough to handle.
  2. Remove skin and bones
  3. Put the bacalhau in the food process and using pulse action shred the cod until it's very small resembling pieces of thread.
  4. In a large bowl add the very finely chopped onion, finely chopped parsley, mashed potatoes and eggs. Blend it together and taste for seasoning.
  5. Shape them into quenelles using two spoons and fry them for 2-3 minutes until golden brown on the outside and hot in the middle. Drain them on kitchen paper.