recipe: bacalhau espiritual

recipe, Portugal, cod, bacalhau espiritual

Surprisingly versatile, bacalhau deserves its spotlight in Portuguese cuisine… although I’ve grown tired of the cliché that there are 365 salt cod recipes, one for each day of the year. Why be so trite about such an amazing & versatile ingredient? This cod recipe has a more dignified beginning than most: a royal crowdpleaser based on the French brandade de morue spread. A rich, creamy bechamel combined with the sweetness of onions & carrots tastes divine, so the dish lives up to its heavenly name.

  • 50 g butter
  • 50 g flour
  • 350 ml milk
  • 2 egg yolks
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • nutmeg, if desired

First step: Make a bechamel sauce. Take my word for it, bechamel is much easier than most people think & serves as a basis for many Iberian recipes… a great basic to master. Standard practice mixes equal parts of flour & butter, generally to one liter of milk. The more solids you add, the thicker the sauce will be. For example, something light & creamy to pour over cannelloni would be 45 g of each solid, but for deep-fried Spanish croquetas I’ve seen recipes that use almost double that amount.

recipe, Portugal, cod, bacalhau espiritual

The measurements here give a slightly thicker bechamel but not in great quantity. Notice there’s only 350 ml of liquid. I love the sauce, but it can easily turn into too much of a good thing for my taste. Egg yolks add sheen, a bit of color & a richer texture. Ramp up the spices as much as you like because bechamel by itself can be a bit bland. Some people say adding cold milk will prevent lumps from forming, some people say hot milk does the same. My suggestion? Have milk at room temp. Always works for me.

Let’s get started. Melt butter to slightly bubblying in a small saucepan on medium heat. Add flour & mix well until incorporated. Keep stirring & cook for under 60 seconds. Add milk bit by bit, stir to mix, add more milk & repeat until all liquid is added. Remove from heat & continue to stir. When sauce temperature drops a bit, add in yolks one by one. Season, taste & set aside.


Step 2: Soak 4-5 slices of plain white bread (crusts removed) in a small quantity of milk. Bread must be moist, but excess milk isn’t used… so don’t add it in the first place & there’s no waste.


recipe, Portugal, cod, bacalhau espiritual
  • 400 g cod, desalted & chopped
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 large carrots, grated
  • 3-5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • Olive oil, as needed
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Milk-soaked bread, made previously
  • Bechamel sauce, made previously

Step 3: Make the filling. This dish can be made with fresh or salted cod. If using fresh, poach cod in water with a bay leaf until done then chop into small pieces. I’m partial to preserved cod, so remember to soak it for at least 24 hours with several changes of water. Add a decent amount of olive oil to a skillet, & sauté onions on medium-low heat with salt, pepper & bay leaves until translucent. This is a confit to bring out the sweetness of the onion & not about browning. Patience, please! Add carrots & garlic; cook for a few minutes. Next, add cod & continue to cook until the water/gelatin is released. I always keep a decent amount of this liquid… just make sure not to cook it all off. Stir in soaked bread along with half of the bechamel, mix together & set aside.


recipe, Portugal, cod, bacalhau espiritual
  • Bread crumbs, as needed
  • Parmesan cheese, as needed

Step 4: Assemble. Preheat oven to 200ºC. Place all the onion/cod mix in a casserole dish, top evenly with remaining bechamel, & sprinkle with breadcrumbs & parmesan. No need to go crazy here, just add enough to get a crispy topping. Bake for 25 minutes. If not brown enough, switch heat to broiler & leave for a couple more minutes.

recipe, Portugal, cod, bacalhau espiritual
recipe, Portugal, cod, bacalhau espiritual

Time to enjoy this “spiritual cod” creation! In spite of being a staple on Portuguese tables throughout the year, bacalhau has a special place for many families on either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve… all the more reason to try this recipe at home during the holidays. The sweet, creamy texture will likely make this dish a tradition in your household as well. Bom apetite!

recipe, Portugal, cod, bacalhau espiritual

If you enjoyed this post, check out my upscale version of bacalhau à Bras… another cod classic from Portugal.

2 thoughts on “recipe: bacalhau espiritual”

  1. This sounds fabulous but of course I’d rather be enjoying it in Portugal😄. Thank you, Robert. I can’t wait to try it!

    1. Hi Andi – Hope you & George are doing well!! Believe me, even I would rather be enjoying it in Portugal & I’m just next door :-) Take care!

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