Maybe lutefisk isn’t what you think it is

Small tomte girl holding a heart sign that says, "I love lutefisk."
Tomte Lutefisk Affirmations for the Hesitant

This is a blog post about lutefisk without a single lutefisk joke. That’s because I feel sad for a perfectly respectable piece of cod that is continually defamed. It is also misunderstood, even within the community that brought it to the United States. This became clear to me when I overheard a person  at a Nordic holiday event  say, “ Lutefisk is served in lye! That same stuff as Drano!” Well, not exactly.

No lie. You are not being served sodium hydroxide.

True, lutefisk means “fish in lye.” But it’s not Drano and the lye isn’t served as a sauce.  A solution of water with food-grade lye (with lots more water than lye) is used to reconstitute the dried stockfish. This makes the process faster and the fish lighter and flakier when it is baked. Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Fish Company, who makes the lutefisk you find at our meat market, give a more in-depth explanation in a recent MPR interview.  There are also nutritional advantages to preparing the dried fish this way, making the protein digestible and easily utilized. The nutritional advantages aren’t as vital in this well nourished era, but it helps explain how the process evolved. Once the cod is softened, it is rinsed in cold water. Olsen Fish Company rinses lutefisk for 10 days before packaging it for sale. Sorry, no Drano for you.

Lye is used in making pretzels, bagels, olives, hominy, restaurant ramen noodles (not the dried ones), canned mandarin oranges, and commercial ice cream. We just don’t know about it. There is a truth-in-advertising quality to lutefisk’s name that I find honorable. Bagels might not have achieved their status as a breakfast standard  if they  were known as  lute-bagels with cream cheese.

Out of the rinsing pot and into the fire

Preparing the thoroughly rinsed lutefisk for one’s family and friends isn’t complicated. Watchful cooks can give their familes a piece of flaky cod that is a little softer than a piece of cooked fresh cod, but still intact. (Click here for directions from Ingebretsen’s on how to prepare lutefisk three different ways) Our grandparents had years of experience to tell them when the fish was ready.  We have food thermometers.

You can use the standard of “still firm and flakes easily with a fork.” Or you can grab a thermometer and heat the lutefisk to a minimum of 120 degrees Fahrenheit and a maximum of 145 degrees. Once the lutefisk is 145 degrees Fahrenheit, stop. The USDA recommends 145 degrees for any  fish product, but many cooks prefer to heat their fish to 120-140 degrees Fahrenheit, then remove it from the heat. It will continue to cook for a few minutes more from the internal heat.

Butcher in meat market weighing lutefisk for a customer.
A lovely piece of lutefisk, sans lye, being sold at the Meat Market.

Trimmings and toppings

Lutefisk is a lovely vehicle for conveying melted butter or white sauce. Well, that is if you are a Nordic-American. Online food forums often have Scandinavians telling their American cousins that they are missing out by not having bacon crumbles or little dollops of freshly grated horseradish on top of their lutefisk. Others suggest shaving some curls of gjetost onto their potatoes.  Dressing up a tradition is fun and the new variations are appealing.

Give lutefisk a chance

If you have been hesitant to try lutefisk for fear of being served a caustic substance, please just trust that your friends and family are not trying to poison you. You are partaking of a meal that has been used by generations of Nordic Americans to create a bond and remember their heritage. As with any fish dish, careful attention while cooking is necessary. Fortunately, many experienced lutefisk cooks, including some of the meat market staff, exist in the northern Midwest. Most would be pleased to coach a person willing to take the leap and try cooking a lutefisk dinner at home. And if you are a long-time lutefisk lover, try topping a serving with bacon and letting us know what you think.

Ok, I said I wouldn’t tell any lutefisk jokes. So I will leave you with this instead:


Where do sled dogs go if they lose their tails?

A re-tail store.

God Jul!


An illustration of a cod hearing a horned Viking helmet, being very stylish.

17 thoughts on “Maybe lutefisk isn’t what you think it is

  1. Thank you for the well written article. My mom served lutefisk every Christmas Eve. It was always accompanied with whole peeled potatoes, a colorful vegetable, and most importantly a rich bechamel (white) sauce seasoned with allspice. The suttle allspice seasoning is what puts this meal over the top. Without it I don’t think I’d enjoy the meal nearly as much. There was melted butter as an option but seems to me every one used the white sauce. Then of course we had Swedish flatbread with cold butter and for my son when younger Swedish meatballs and gravy. It was always a marvelous feast.

    1. Thank you for sharing such a lovely memory. I imagine that a touch of allspice would have really made the bechamel special and perfect for Christmas.

  2. Thank you for such a wonderful article. I last had lutefisk in Norway at Christmas just before the pandemic. Would love to post this article on Facebook.

    1. Lutefisk in Norway at Christmas – that sounds perfect! Please do post this article on Facebook. That’s a lovely compliment.

  3. Merry Christmas, I enjoyed the article. Unfortunately, I don’t have any lutefisk this year for Christmas. My favorite way to fix it is as lutefisk pudding. You prepare rice like you would for rice pudding just without the sugar or cinnamon. For my personal addition I finely dice an onion and cook with the rice. When rice is done fold in the already baked lutefisk, put in a casserole dish and you can top with buttered bread crumbs if you like. This is then baked. Serve with melted butter (bacon would be great crumbled on this, some people like dry mustard also). It is wonderful! I had a roommate once that got upset when he came home and found me making lutefisk. He thought that stuff was disgusting. I convinced him to taste the lutefisk pudding, I got one helping and he kept going back for more until it was all gone. He could not get over how tasty it was fixed like that. You should be able to find a recipe for this in any Norwegian cook book.

    1. Thank you for sharing the recipe. While I am a great fan of melted butter, the idea of dry mustard sounds very appealing.

  4. Thank You for the article.
    I grew up with 4 generations of Norwegians and on Christmas Eve we always had lutevisk, meatballs, either boiled or mashed potatoes, mashed rutebagas, lefse,and rice pudding. We always had plenty of melted butter for the lutefisk, potatoes and rutebagas with a milk gravy for the meatballs. I still try to make this at least once a year but sadly I’m the only one in my family that will eat the lifetime and rutebagas.

    1. It’s good that you keep the tradition alive, even if it is just for yourself. I believe those connections are vital. I will be writing about rutabagas later this year. They are an underappreciated vegetable and it’s time to give them some recognition.

  5. Hello…I am employee of the Olsen Fish Company (Sales…). One way we like to eat lutefisk here (when we test a batch of lutefisk…) is to warm a triangle of lefse and put a healthy portion of prepared lutefisk on the lefse. We then add a spoon full or two of mashed potatoes, top that with some melted butter (top with bacon bits if so desired!), wrap up the lefse and walla’…You have a Scandinavian taco! Delicious! This is one way to introduce younger generations to lutefisk that they will love!

    1. That sounds so good! You’ve also given me an idea for next November, when we have Lutefisk Day at the store.

  6. My Norwegian MIL loves a lutefisk dinner and I’ve resurrected the family tradition the past two years after discovering the lutefisk from Olson Fish Co. She taught me how to make the cream sauce with allspice that her mother made. It’s so good when served over the fish which is nice and flaky. I use our fish poacher to cook the lutefisk and find it really likes being gently poached in a poaching broth of sea salt, lemon and onion. Yum!

    1. Yes, the Olsen Fish Co. lutefisk is really good. I like the idea of the flavored poaching broth – that sounds delicious!

  7. I am well past 77 years of age and have eaten lutefisk as long as I can recall, especially at Christmas season here in SW Iowa. In the early years it was with two grandparent who loved it and often spoke Swedish over the table. My father used All Spice on his and it’s my preference too, although I sometimes like fresh grated nutmeg. I attend a local Swedish dinner that serves lutefisk and am amazed at how many pass on it. The past 25-30 years I have eaten lutefisk at least five times a year , alone, as a “nod” to my ancestors. I fix it for myself because I grew weary of lutefisk jokes. I always fix it over mashed potatoes with All Spice. Proud of my heritage and buying a big bag of lutefisk every November. Thanks for a wonderfully written “Ode to Lutefisk.” ❤️☕️

    1. What I have learned from your comment and from several others is that I need to add allspice to my cream sauce. Clearly, that is a winning touch! It is such a wonderful cold weather food, having it more often makes sense.

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