Lutefisk

Lutefisk, cooked

by Cat, Sept 2007 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)

This is a staple for my annual Christmas Eve dinner, but for me, lutefisk season begins earlier in the fall, on the Saturday closest to Armistice Day (Nov 11), in the basement of Bethany Lutheran Church, Bigfork MT, for their annual Lutefisk dinner. The original founders of the church were of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish stock, so the dinner includes Norwegian-style lutefisk, Swedish meatballs, and Danish ham, along with plenty of side dishes, condiments, and Scandinavian cookies.

My friend Terry calls this dish “Ludicrous,” in jest.  And if you ever had this back in the 50s, you probably thought it was ludicrous too.  But ancient Norwegian methods have been revived for some brands (as opposed to Minnesota brands that use real lye – sodium hydroxide – for the curing brine).  The name means “lye fish” in Norwegian and Swedish.

See also: 1. Mustard Cream Sauce2. Lefse 3. Cat’s Christmas Menu and Preparation Schedule

Lutefisk: Ancient history

In ancient times, the Nordic fishermen spent most of the year at sea. Before heading out, they built big fires near the shoreline to generate wood ash. They washed this with sea water to produce an alkaline brine commonly called “lye.” They put barrels of this on the ship, and tossed their catch into the brine to cure.  When they returned to shore, they soaked the fish in several changes of plain water to remove the lye, before laying out the fillets to dry. The dried fish would keep well through the warm season without fear of spoilage.

However, the lye cure can be quite destructive to the protein in the fish, which is what accounts for its gelatinous texture, especially after cooking.

When it was time to prepare the fish for eating, they reconstituted the dried fillets by soaking in several baths of fresh water. Then huge pots of salted water were heated to boiling.  The cured  fillets were put into bags made of loosely woven cloth, and submerged in the boiling salted water for just a few minutes.  It didn’t take long to cook, because the lye had more or less pre-cooked it.  And, if cured a bit too long in the lye, or accidentally overcooked, it turned to jellied goo.  If cooked just right, it was somewhat flakey, but still jello-like in texture.

It is worth noting that the Finns cure the fish in birch ash, which contains high amounts of potassium carbonate and bicarbonate that is far more gentle on the proteins in the fish than true lye (pure sodium hydroxide). The resulting cooked lutefisk is not as gelatinous and slippery as lye-cured fish, but rather is quite flakey and hard to tell from untreated cod. Birch-lye cured fish can either be cooked in the traditional way (in boiling water), or baked in the oven.

You can still buy the old Minnesota-style cured in real lye, frozen, in many grocery stores, but it just is not as good (and easily overcooks). The most well-known brand is Olsen’s, from Minneapolis MN (4).

Norskstar Seafood in Whitefish MT (2), won’t share what they use to cure the fish, other than to say “it isn’t lye or lime.” It has to be some type of alkaline salt, but not as alkaline as lye, because it doesn’t turn the fish into jellied goo (the result of lye reacting on the proteins in the fish). Unfortunately, they are no longer in business, so I now buy Poulsbo Lutefisk from Port Townsend’s New Day Fisheries (3), which is similar to Norskstar’s lutefisk.

Some cultures serve lutefisk with melted butter or bacon grease; others with a white mustard sauce.  A flatbread called lefse is often served with the fish, as well as boiled potatoes.

Boiled Norskstar Lutefisk

Ingredients & Equipment:

  • 5 pounds of lutefisk
  • stock pot
  • fresh filtered water

Boiling Method:

  1. Norskstar method: Pour cold filtered water into stock pot.  Add pieces of lutefisk; they may sink to the bottom.
  2. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat to a low boil and cook 5 – 10 minutes until the fish is done – it will rise off the bottom and flake easily.
  3. Cat’s method: Bring a pot of water to a boil.
  4. Add pieces of lutefisk to the boiling water (you don’t need to put the Norskstar lutefisk into cheesecloth bags); the pieces will sink and the water will stop boiling temporarily. When the fish is done, the pieces will rise to the top of the boiling water in the pot, about 10 minutes
  5. See below for serving suggestions.

Baked Norskstar Lutefisk

I used to use this method as it is less messy. However, the broiling pan is very hard to clean after using it to cook lutefisk, so I use the ‘Cat’s boiling water method’ above.

This method doesn’t work well with Olsen’s brand lutefisk.

Ingredients & Equipment:

  • 5 pounds of lutefisk
  • aluminum foil
  • broiling pan (the top part should be stainless steel or ceramic, not aluminum).

Baking Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 4000 F
  2. Line the bottom part of a broiling pan with aluminum foil, then set the top part over.  Arrange fish on broiling rack and place in hot oven.
  3. Bake 20 minutes, then test with a fork. The translucence of the meat should have turned white, and the flesh should be flakey.  Thicker pieces may need an additional 5 minutes.
  4. Serve!  See below for serving suggestions.

[NOTE:  It can be a bit difficult to clean the broiling pan after cooking the fish.  I toss the soiled foil, rinse loose pieces from the rack and the pan, then put to soak overnight in very hot soapy water.]

Boiled Olsen’s Lutefisk

This recipe is for the old-fashioned, lye-cured fish, such as that from Olsen Fish Co. in Minnesota (4). This is the stuff I grew up with, the kind that easily  turns into jellied goo.

For the cheesecloth, be sure to get the real thing, not the cheap flimsy variety found in hardware stores.  If you can’t find the real thing, you can use well-worn old-fashioned cotton dish towel, or drapery scrim, washed and dried before using.  Or order real cheesecloth from cheesemaking.com (5).

Ingredients & Equipment:

  • 5 pounds of lutefisk
  • Celtic sea salt or table salt
  • real cheesecloth
  • stock pot
  • fresh filtered water

Boiling Method:

  1. Enclose fish in tied-up cheesecloth.  Best if you divide the fish between two ‘bags’.
  2. Bring water to a boil in the stockpot, then add plenty (several tablespoons) sea salt. Return to boil, and then add the bag(s) of fish.  They will drop to the bottom of the pot.
  3. When it rises in the pot, the fish is done.  Be careful not to overcook.
  4. See below for serving suggestions.

Serving Suggestions (for any of the lutefisk cooking versions)

Serve with:

  • A pitcher of fresh melted butter (or bacon grease) and a shaker of salt
  • A creamy white mustard sauce
  • Boiled potatoes and butter, creamed peas, baked winter squash, sides of pickled beets, lingonberry or cranberry sauce.
  • And, of course, serve plenty of lefse with butter (and sugar, if you like it that way)!

See also Cat’s Christmas Menu and Preparation Schedule

References:

  1. Anne Haug recipe collection
  2. Norskstar Seafood, Whitefish Montana
  3. Poulsbo Lutefisk from New Day Fisheries: (360) 385-4600, Port Townsend WA
  4. Olsen Fish Co.:  olsenfish.com,  (612) 287-0838
  5. Cheesecloth source: cheesemaking.com/store/p/69-Cheese-Cloth-for-Lining-Molds.html

When ready to use, they soaked the dried fillets in more plain water to reconstitute them.  so as they caught the cod or ling fish, they laid it out to air dry so that it would not spoil. Once they returned to the shore, they preserved it further to avoid spoilage during the warm months.  Big fires were built along the shoreline.  When the wood had burned to ash, it was washed with sea water, producing an alkaline brine commonly called “lye.”

When ready to use, they soaked the dried fillets in more plain water to reconstitute them.  so as they caught the cod or ling fish, they laid it out to air dry so that it would not spoil. Once they returned to the shore, they preserved it further to avoid spoilage during the warm months.  Big fires were built along the shoreline.  When the wood had burned to ash, it was washed with sea water, producing an alkaline brine commonly called “lye.”

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