Preserved cod


Lutfisk served with Béchamel sauce, crispy pancetta and peas

American author Garrison Keillor, in his novel Pontoon, famously described lutfisk as "Not edible by normal people. It is reminiscent of the afterbirth of a dog or the world's largest chunk of phlegm." I think that is an exaggeration, but I can't say it is my favourite dish.

Lutfisk is traditionally served on Christmas Eve, but its infamous reputation means that it is becoming less popular in Sweden. In fact there is more lutfisk eaten in America than in Scandinavia. Indeed many cities in the States have annual lutfisk dinners.

Essentially, lutfisk is dried fish which has been rehydrated using lye. Yes, lye is the alkaline stuff used to clean drains, but it is also used in other foods such as pretzels to make them shiny. Nonetheless, the toxicity level is so high that Wisconsin specifically exempts lutfisk from classification as a toxic substance. The fish ends up a bit flaky, slightly translucent, firm in places, but also a bit jelly-like.

In 2014 we carried out an online survey to gather views about lutfisk. Responses were very polarised with 55% of those taking part hating it, but 45% loving it! Comments included:

• Susan Black Chiapella: Any food prepared with lye is not edible. Takes lots of Akvavit to wash the Lutefisk down.
• Olga Arango- Kulkarni: Cod fish and peas. Comfort food. Holiday food. Delicious!
• Steffanie Suzette: Horrid!
• Janet Nelson: This is one food I do not like.
• Christina Nilsson: Super gott med senaps sås mmmmmm!
• Chad Thorson: It hardly has any taste at all if you take the gravy away. It's okay!
• Nancy Hallstrom: Love it!

Lutfisk was an important method of preserving fish in the past and has now become an important part of Swedish culture, so it is worth trying once. You might like it! John Duxbury


Recipe summary for lutfisk


• Lutfisk can be bought at specialist shops or online.
Lutfisk is sometimes labelled according to its Norwegian spelling: lutefisk.
• 1 kg of lutfisk is only likely to serve 4 people as a main course because when it is cooked it will release a lot of liquid which will be discarded.
• If serving lutfisk as part of a julbord (Christmas buffet) I recommend serving very small portions as a separate course. Better still, give yourself less work and serve it on another occasion!
• The traditional accompaniments are boiled potatoes, peas, a Béchamel or mustard sauce, a light sprinkling of finely ground allspice, white pepper, black pepper and occasionally fried bacon.
• I recommend serving lutfisk surrounded by peas and a side dish of boiled potatoes tossed in butter. Fry some tiny frozen peas in butter with finely chopped shallots and then adding some chopped herbs (dill, mint or parsley) just before serving.
• I find that when I serve it with crispy pancetta that everyone wants more, so cook plenty of pancetta!


1 kg (2 lb) packet of lutfisk
2 tsp   salt
20 g (1½ tbsp) butter, plus extra to taste
1½ tbsp   flour, such as cornflour (cornstarch)
180 ml (¾ cup) milk, preferably whole milk
120 ml (½ cup) whipping cream
3   allspice berries
6   white peppercorns
6   black peppercorns
4   whole cloves
100 g (4 oz) sliced pancetta or streaky bacon


1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F, gas 6, fan 180°C).

2. Place the lutfisk in a deep roasting tray. Sprinkle over the salt and cover with aluminium foil. Bake for 45 minutes.

3. After 25 minutes or so, melt the butter in a saucepan.

4. When melted, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour and mix to form a roux. Gradually add the milk and cream stirring carefully after each addition.

5. Add the allspice berries, peppercorns and cloves. Heat until boiling, stirring constantly. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

6. Sieve the mixture and keep warm.

7. Cut the pancetta into small pieces and then fry them until golden brown. Dry on kitchen paper and keep warm but uncovered so they remain crisp.

8. When the fish is cooked, remove 2 tablespoons of the fish stock and add to the cream sauce and then stir in some butter to taste.

9. Place a portion of lutfisk in the centre of a plate, coat with the sauce and garnish with lightly fried peas and crispy pancetta pieces. Serve with a side dish of boiled potatoes tossed in butter and a small dish of finely ground allspice, white peppar and black peppar.

Mustard sauce

Sometimes lutfisk is served with senapsås (mustard sauce) instead of the béchemel sauce used in the recipe above. If you prefer mustard sauce, simply add 2-3 teaspoons of a sweet strong mustard to the sauce in step 5 above. Alternatively, crush 2-3 teaspoons of brown or black mustard seeds using a pestle and mortar and the mix with a little water before adding to the sauce in step 5 above.


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