Take an edible walk down the beaches of la Isla del Encanto (the Isle of Enchantment), AKA Puerto Rico. These bacalaitos are classic Puerto Rican street food found at many kiosks that dot the island’s beachsides. They’re easy to make and addictive enough to keep you coming back for more, so be sure to make the full recipe. Follow my tips and techniques below to ensure you make the most authentic salted codfish fritters this side of Loíza.
Our beloved motherland of Puerto Rico has been through the natural disaster/act of God ringer lately. Traveling hasn’t been on our family’s list of activities, all things considered, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pine for home. Instead, we enjoy what foods and activities we can here at home. Many people who observe Lent eat fish during this season, but especially on Fridays. That was the norm in Hector’s family: Fish on Fridays. We don’t adhere much to tradition, but I thought it would be nice to send you a recipe (or a few) if you’re less “heathen-ish” than we are.
What are Bacalaitos?
Bacalaitos are deep-fried codfish fritters made from a flour-based batter punctuated with typical Puerto Rican herbs and spices.
Here, instead of using fresh cod, we use heavily salted, nearly desiccated codfish. After removing the salt from the fish and shredding the meat, you mix in aromatic vegetables and herbs. This is combined with a simple-to-make batter before getting a bath in hot oil. The crispy result is something between a funnel cake and a salted chip. But, in the best way possible, because that sounds kind of weird.
Where do Bacalaitos come from?
It’s hard to say where exactly codfish fritters come from. You can find codfish in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, so we can’t say the fish itself is from one place. We can also find dried codfish in nearly every country of the world, so that doesn’t help. Many countries also have their own version of salted codfish fritters.
I will say that bacalaitos, made this way, are from Puerto Rico. The most popular place to find these fritters is at los kioskos (or the kiosks). Two of the most well-known are in the municipalities of Loíza and Luquillo, Puerto Rico. Many others dot the island elsewhere, though. Piñones is our local haunt since it’s closest to where Hector’s family lives. Kioskos are often wooden buildings, many with zinc roofs, perched near the water’s edge. Some of them are fancier, made from cinder block with more stable roofs, but all have an air of humility.
People traveling through the cities stop in at their favorite ones and order many frituras (fried foods). Many kiosks have their specialties, and it’s not unheard of to kiosk-hop to ensure you get the best of the best. After grabbing your Medallas (Puerto Rico’s beer), piña coladas, or mojitos to drink; you claim your spot and dig in.
My favorite kiosk in Luquillo was Marta’s, of course. I have to brace myself for our next visit to the island, though. I don’t know if hers survived Maria. Okay, enough sad talk. Let’s get back to the recipe.
What is salt cod? Where can I find it?
Salted cod is a throwback to the days of sailing *cough* colonizing *cough* when fresh food wasn’t practical. It was also a way of preserving meats and fish when ice chests and electric fridges were non-existent. Loins of fish were buried under salt to pull out the moisture in the flesh, which is what bacteria feed on. Now they had fish that could travel on their voyages to “civilize” the natives without killing themselves off eating rotted meat.
Though refrigeration is an everyday luxury, many people worldwide still eat salted cod. In the Caribbean, especially, salt fish or bacalao is a staple. The West Indies are known for their Salt Fish and Bakes. This recipe from Imma at African Bites is a great place to start. Portugal has something like 1001 ways to prepare the fish. Many African countries also use codfish in their recipes. Check out this Cape Verdean recipe Crystal from Crumbsnatched has on her site. And, of course, we cook with it a lot.
Salted cod is usually in the seafood section, but it’s most often in a refrigerated case near the canned crab meat and smoked salmon. If you don’t find it there, just ask your seafood guy if they ever get it in. If you have a large African, Caribbean, or Asian community, you may find it in their grocery stores. There, it’s usually very salted and therefore very dry. It’s also most likely sold with more bones, fins, and skin. Depending on how dry your fish is, the time to desalinate can take anywhere from 1 hour to 24 hours. The drier it is, the longer you must soak and change out the water to remove that salt.
How long do I have to soak the codfish?
Avoid Goya bacalao. Hector picked it up. I have no idea why. He knows how I feel about the brand. That’s what’s in the pot in the picture above. After attempting to work with it, I finally threw it out with a flurry of curses. Not only was the meat skimpy and thin, but it was also FULL of pin bones. The stupid tail was still on it, the skin, the fins! I was livid by the time I realized I would never get all of the pin bones out. Do not buy their salt cod. Try to find a refrigerated brand. They are meatier, have very few bones, are skinless, and are not as salty.
Once you get it home and are ready to make your bacalaitos, rinse the fillets under cold running water. Pop them into a large bowl (or the pot you plan to boil it in) and cover it with 4 to 6-inches of cold water. Leave the cod to soak for 30 minutes, then drain off the water. Give the fish another rinse under cold water, pull the fish apart into big chunks, and put it into a pot or dutch oven. Cover it with 4 to 6-inches of cold water and bring the water up to a boil over medium-high heat. Once the water in the pot starts to boil, set a timer for 15 minutes.
When the timer goes off, save 1 cup of this cooking water. Allow it to cool, then add 1 cup of fresh, cold water to it. I’ll tell you what to do with it later.
Can I use fresh cod to make Bacalaitos?
While I encourage you to use salted cod, you might have difficulty finding it in certain areas. If so, feel free to use fresh cod that’s been steamed or baked for 10 minutes. After it’s mostly cooked and flakes easily with a fork, flake it into chunks. When you make the batter, you need to add salt to compensate for the cod’s lack of salt.
If you use the salt fish, drain the rest of the fish’s cooking water and give it another rinse. Pull the meat apart into smaller chunks. You want pieces of fish that are hearty but not more than a bite-sized chunk. Start with them on the larger side because as you fold the fish into the batter, the meat will break up further.
What other fish can I use for this recipe?
Pollock, haddock, hake, and striped bass are all very similar to cod. So is tilapia, but it’s a trash fish, so I don’t recommend it.
Each of these fish can be used in place of cod if you can’t get your hands on it or are allergic to it. To my knowledge, pollock and hake are the only fish that comes salted as cod does. If, however, you can’t get them salted, just follow the instructions for replacing the salt that I gave above.
How do I make the batter for Bacalaitos?
The most difficult part of this recipe is desalinating the fish and frying it…well, keeping yourself from eating them all is a challenge, but I wouldn’t call it “difficult,” per se.
The base of the batter is all-purpose flour and cornstarch, which makes it crunchy. You also add pepper, oregano, and sazón to this mixture. Notice there’s no salt added. I’ve never needed to add more salt between the salt in the fish and the sodium in the sazón. Your preference may vary, so later, I’ll show you how to test if you need to add more salt. The remaining ingredients are onion, red bell pepper, and garlic minced (but I mean suuuuuuper small), and sofrito. I also add a dash of rum to provide some twang, but you can replace that with white vinegar. Finally, a neutral oil for deep frying the bacalaitos.
In a mixing bowl, fold the aromatics and sofrito into the flaked codfish. Hit it with a couple of splashes of white rum.
Can I use gluten-free flour to make Bacalaitos?
In a separate, larger bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, and spices. Just stir them together with a whisk to distribute them evenly.
Use Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour if you have a gluten allergy. Same amounts and all.
I don’t like flat Bacalaitos. How do I make mine puffy?
Puerto Rican bacalaito-makers can get pretty obnoxious with the size of their fritters. I’ve seen bacalaitos that are 3 feet long by 2 feet wide. We won’t get that crazy here. These fritters are going to be on the flatter side, though. I prefer them that way, but if you like yours to be puffier, just add a teaspoon of baking powder to your flour mixture.
On the flip side, for even flatter fritters, you can dilute the batter with a little more water than called for. This is a matter of preference, but as written, the bacalaitos will rise to about 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch.
Remember that cooking water we reserved? Use that to create the batter. This, again, is why we don’t need additional salt in this recipe. Add as much or as little of this water as you need to reach the desired thickness of your fried bacalaitos. The more water you add, the thinner the fritters will be. Pancake-like fritters will use about 1- 1 1/2 cups of this liquid. These will fry up like funnel cakes. Super thin, almost chip-like bacalaitos require a very thin batter: almost the thickness of milk. That may take the entire 2 cups of liquid.
Whisk the cooking water into the flour until you’re happy with the consistency.
How far ahead can I make the Bacalaitos batter?
Add the fish to this batter and use a rubber spatula to fold the fish in just until evenly combined.
They make this batter in bulk at the kioskos and keep it on standby in coolers all day. You can totally make the batter the day before and fry it the next day. That is if you didn’t add baking powder to it. If you do add baking powder- because you want puffy bacalaitos- you need to fry them shortly after mixing the fish into the batter. If not, your fritters won’t be puffy for lack of leavening.
What’s the best oil for deep-frying?
Once the fish is mixed into the batter, begin heating your frying oil to 350°-375°F (177°-190°C) in a caldero or wide cast-iron dutch oven. You want to use a pot that conducts heat well because it won’t have hot spots. I use a pot with a wide surface area because I want my bacalaitos to have room to spread out, too. If you have a deep fryer and want to use that, it’s fine.
The best oil for frying is one that has a neutral flavor. Peanut oil is one of the best frying oils around, but not so great if you have nut allergies. Lots of folks in PR fry theirs in lard. I guard my lard like the holy grail, so I use vegetable oil. Canola oil works fine here, as well.
While you’re waiting for the oil to heat, grab a wide spoon or transfer your batter to a big glass or metal pitcher. These help with dropping the batter into the hot frying oil. Now’s a good time to set up your draining station as well.
How do I know if my frying oil is hot enough to begin?
You can test your frying oil in two ways. In the image above, I dropped a pea-size amount of the batter into the oil to test it. The batter went all the way to the bottom of the caldero before tiny bubbles developed around it. It took nearly 10 seconds for the batter to rise from the bottom of the pot to the surface. All those factors told me my oil wasn’t hot enough. When using this method to test your oil, the batter should be surrounded immediately with bubbles and hover between the top and middle of the pot.
The most foolproof way to test your oil is with a Thermoworks Thermapen. It’s an instant-read, so you just put it in the oil, telling you if the oil is hot enough. Don’t start frying right when the oil hits 350°F. Because once you add the batter, the temperature will drop by 15-20°F, and you’ll end up boiling your bacalaitos instead. Wait until the thermometer reads at least 360°F.
How long do I need to fry Bacalaitos?
Scoop a spoonful of the batter up with your kitchen spoon. Bring the spoon to the surface of the hot oil and “lay” it into the oil, spreading the batter into a line as you pull away from you to the other side of the pot. This is how to form the telltale oval shape of the bacalaitos. Try to be steady and not let the batter splash too much as you go from bowl to pot.
Using a pitcher to pour a line of the batter is much easier for those who are afraid of deep-frying. Just make sure to get the pitcher’s spout as close to the surface of the oil as possible to avoid popping yourself with the oil. Also, make sure to use a metal or glass pitcher for this. Plastic will melt as soon as it touches the oil.
Fry the first “test” bacalaito for 3 minutes, then use a pair of tongs to flip it to the other side. Fry it for another 3-4 minutes or until it is a deep golden brown and crisp. Remove this tester from the oil and allow it to drain on a cooling rack set over a sheetpan. Paper towels aren’t great for draining oil because it just traps the oil and causes steam to develop. Taste this bacalaito. Make sure its saltiness is good to you. If it’s too salty, thin the batter with more water. Add more salt (a 1/2 teaspoon) if it’s not salty enough. Too thick? Add more water to thin it. Not thick enough? Add a little more flour to thicken it up.
Once your bacalaito batter is adjusted to suit your preferences, continue frying the batter just like you did before.
Can I air-fry Bacalaitos?
Unfortunately, this is one of those recipes where the air fryer version doesn’t closely mimic the deep-fried one. An air-fried bacalaito is softer in the middle with crispy edges. The family all said it reminded them of a baked empanada, but they still thought it made a good snack. If you need to cut down on fat, though, this recipe will suffice. You will need an air fryer with a tray, and not one with only a basket.
Make the batter on the thicker side by limiting the amount of the cooking water you add to it. You want the consistency to be somewhere between pancake batter and heavy cream.
- Preheat an air fryer to 400°F on the “Air Fry” setting.
- Line the tray with a double-layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil (regular foil is more prone to tearing).
- Generously grease the foil with non-stick cooking spray. I use an olive oil spray to keep the bacalaitos from sticking.
- Spoon a puddle of the bacalaito batter onto the tray about 2-inches in diameter.
- Slide the tray into the air fryer and fry them on the first side for 5 minutes.
- Pull the tray out and carefully lift up the bacalaitos around the edges. Once the edges are up, flip the bacalaitos over.
- Return the tray to the air fryer and fry the bacalaitos for another 5 minutes.
They’re not going to be crispy-crunchy, but they will be “meatier” for lack of a better adjective. Also, be patient when flipping them. The thinner edges will stick to the foil more. It’s worth it to avoid using more oil on the foil, which could cause a flair-up.
Don’t come for me in the comments about how they’re not “exactly the same,” because I just said that. But, again, they’ll do.
Are Bacalaitos an appetizer or a main course?
Bacalaitos in Puerto Rico don’t have a specific time of day when they are eaten. Usually, we eat them mid-morning on through to late in the evening. I would say they’re a snack/appetizer/main course if you want them to be.
Shoot, I’ve served them as lunch for the family when I didn’t want to be bothered with a “meal meal.”
Again, though, this is “typically” served as fast food or a snack in PR.
How do I store leftovers?
Leftovers don’t really taste as good as freshly made bacalaitos. They get doughy and soggy the longer they sit, and even reheating them in the oven doesn’t produce the same results.
If you don’t think you can eat all of them, just make as many as you will enjoy in one sitting. Put the batter in the fridge for up to 24 hours. You can also freeze the batter after you mix it. Just pop it into a freezer-safe storage container and freeze for 2 months. When you’re ready to fry them up, thaw them in the fridge before cooking.
I miss our islita something fierce, but I’m so grateful Puerto Rico is in our hearts and minds. Hopefully, we can make a trip back this year. Until then, I’ll remember it through recipes like this.
Let me know what you think when you make this beloved recipe. Don’t forget to pin it to your favorite boards and share it with your buddies.
Bacalaitos (Puerto Rican Salted Codfish Fritters)
- 1 pound (454 grams) salted codfish desalinated, 1 cup of cooking water reserved (see instructions in post) *see notes for directions on using fresh cod*
- 1/4 cup (13 grams) onion from 1/4 of a medium onion, minced
- 1/4 cup (37 grams) red bell pepper from 1/4 of a large pepper, minced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 2 tablespoons sofrito
- 1 1/2 teaspoons white rum or white vinegar, optional
- 1 cup (150 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon (7 grams) cornstarch
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (1 packet) sazón con culantro y achiote
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup (237 milliliters) cold water plus more as needed
- oil for frying (about 8 cups)
- In a wide caldero or dutch oven, preheat 8 cups of cooking oil to 360°F (182°C) over medium-high heat. Set a cooling rack set over a sheetpan to drain the fried bacalaitos on later.
Prepare the Bacalaito Batter
- Pull the cooked codfish apart into smaller chunks that are hearty but not more than a bite-sized chunk. In a mixing bowl, fold the onion, red bell pepper, garlic, sofrito, and rum (or vinegar) into the flaked codfish. Set this bowl aside.
- In a separate, larger bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, sazón, oregano, and black pepper. Stir the ingredients together with a whisk to distribute them evenly.Combine the cold water with the reserved cooking water from the bacalao. Add anywhere from 1 1/2-2 cups of this water to the flour mixture, whisking slowly until a batter forms. The more water you add, the thinner the fritters will be once they're fried.*
- Add the fish to this batter and use a rubber spatula to fold the fish in just until evenly combined.
Fry the Bacalaitos
- Use a wide spoon or transfer your batter to a big glass or metal pitcher. These help with dropping the batter into the hot frying oil. Once the oil reaches 360°F (182°C), scoop a spoonful** of the batter up with your kitchen spoon. Bring the spoon to the surface of the hot oil and "lay" it into the oil, spreading the batter into a line as you pull away from you to the other side of the pot. Try to avoid splashing the batter as you go from bowl to pot.
- Fry the first "test" bacalaito for 3 minutes, then use a pair of tongs to flip it to the other side. Fry it for another 3-4 minutes or until it is a deep golden brown and crisp. Taste this bacalaito. Adjust the seasoning/consistency of the rest of the batter as needed.
- Once your bacalaito batter is adjusted to suit your preferences, continue frying the batter just like you did before.Transfer the fried bacalaitos to the cooling rack. Try to stand them up in between the racks so most of the oil drains from them onto the pan below. You can keep them warm in a 170°F oven, but I find they get soggier faster in enclosed spaces.
Swaps and Substitutions:
- If you can't find salted codfish, use salted pollock or hake.
- If you can't find any salted fish, use fresh cod, pollock, hake, haddock, or striped bass and boil it for 10 minutes or broil it for 6 minutes on high.
Once cooked, flake it with a fork and use as instructed. Add 1 teaspoon salt to the flour with the rest of the spices.
- Replace the all-purpose flour with Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour if you have a gluten allergy.
- For puffy bacalaitos add 1 teaspoon of baking powder to your flour mixture.
*For thick, funnel cake-like bacalaitos add 1- 1 1/2 cups of the cooking water.
For super thin, almost chip-like bacalaitos add 2 cups of the cooking water.
- Make the batter the day before you plan to fry it and store it in a covered container in the fridge for up to 24 hours.
- Fry as instructed
**Using a pitcher to pour a line of the batter is much easier for those who are afraid of deep-frying. Make sure to get the pitcher's spout as close to the surface of the oil as possible to avoid popping yourself with the oil. Also, make sure to use a metal or glass pitcher for this. Plastic will melt as soon as it touches the oil.
Air-Fryer Directions:You will need an air fryer with a tray. Make the batter on the thicker side by adding 1 1/2 cups of the water to it. You want the consistency to be somewhere between pancake batter and heavy cream.
- Preheat an air fryer to 400°F on the "Air Fry" setting.
- Line the tray with a double-layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Use heavy duty since regular foil is more prone to tear.
- Generously grease the foil with non-stick cooking spray. I use an olive oil spray, but any that's flavored well will do. Be sure to spray it liberally to keep the bacalaitos from sticking.
- Spoon a puddle of the bacalaito batter onto the tray. I can fit 3 2-inch puddles on mine.
- Slide the tray into the air fryer and fry them on the first side for 5 minutes.
- Pull the tray out and carefully lift up the bacalaitos around the edges. Since they're thinner, they're the most cumbersome to lift up. Once the edges are up, flip the bacalaitos over.
- Return the tray to the air fryer and fry the bacalaitos for another 5 minutes.
Troubleshooting Your Bacalaito Batter:
- Too salty: thin the batter with more water.
- Too Bland: add a 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt to the batter.
- Bacalaitos are too thick: add 1 tablespoon of water a little a time until you achieve the desired consistency.
- Bacalaitos too thin: add a tablespoon of flour until you reach the desired thickness.
- Too soggy: the oil is too cool, increase the temperature to between 360°-370°F
- Browning too fast: the oil is too hot. Decrease the temperature.