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.
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.