Making Salt Fish: One of the Oldest Survival Foods

Jack Pendergast
Making Salt Fish, One of the Oldest Survival Foods

We humans can survive in a wide variety of situations. This is partly because we are omnivores: able to eat both plants and animals for our nutrition. So it is unlikely that we will find ourselves in a part of the world where we can’t find food to eat. But it’s not all due to that. Humans are very adaptable to a wide variety of environments, and what we can’t adapt to we can protect ourselves from.

It is this ability to make tools and use the things around us which gives us a great advantage over any other species on the Earth. While there are environments in which we can’t survive, those are places without enough natural resources to work with. There are few resources in the middle of a desert, and while there is plenty of water in the middle of the ocean, we can die of dehydration there just as fast as we can in the desert.

Our ability to eat and digest a wide range of foods is probably one of the biggest factors that help us to survive. It is possible for humans to survive on an all-plant diet or an all-meat diet. But we are at our best when we eat a combination of meat and plants as we receive different nutrients from each.

Balancing meat and plants ensures we get all the nutrients we need

Animal protein is an important part of our diet. Surprisingly to me, the most common source of animal protein in the world is fish; I would have expected chicken. But more fish is consumed per year than any other type of animal protein. With so much being consumed, it’s not surprising that our ancestors discovered means of preserving it.

While preserved fish is not as common as many types of preserved food or even preserved meats, it is done. The most common method of preserving fish is the creation of salt fish. Although made primarily in cold countries, such as Scandinavian countries, salt fish is also common in the Caribbean and other warm climates. In colder climates it is essential for survival as it is difficult to fish in the cold winter months, but in warmer climates it is done more for flavor than for the need to avoid starving in the winter.

The most common source of animal protein in the world is fish

For those who are not accustomed to salt fish, it is essentially the equivalent of jerky. However, it is not eaten as is but rather soaked in water to rehydrate it and then cooked into a variety of dishes.

Salt & Dehydration – the Secrets to Preservation

Salt draws water out of the meat’s cells

As with jerky, salt fish depends on two separate but interrelated methods of preservation: salt and dehydration.

Salt is nature’s preservative. Place a piece of meat on a plate, cover it with salt, and let it sit. Within a short while, the salt will become wet, having drawn water out of the meat’s cells through a principle known as osmosis. This same process draws water out of bacteria. When the water level within the bacteria reaches a point that is too low, the bacteria die.

Dehydration creates an environment that is inhospitable for bacteria, which requires a moist environment. So, any bacteria that find their way to the surface of the salt fish after it has been dehydrated will die because of the same process of osmosis.

Salting the Fish

Fish gets coated in a salt crust to begin with – Author: Alberto – CC BY 2.0

The first part of the process of making salt fish is salting it. Any meaty white fish can be used, but Cod is the most common. The fish needs to be cleaned and prepared. Depending on the size of the fish, it can be prepared whole, made into fillets, butterflied, or cut into steaks. It is faster to make salt fish if the skins are removed, except if the skins are needed to keep the meat from falling apart.

A large crock or plastic bin is needed for this first stage of the process. In ancient times, wood crates might have been used as well if they were well sealed. But crocks were much more common due to being waterproof. Larger, grainy salt, such as salt for ice cream makers, is better for this process than table salt.

Place a liberal layer of salt on the bottom of the container, covering it completely. Then put a layer of fish on it (skin side down if the skin is still on the fish). No part of the fish should overlap another piece, but it should be in one single layer.

This salt fish dip at Jakarta shows one stage in the process  – Author: Wie146 – CC BY-SA 3.0

With the fish in place, another liberal layer of salt is added to totally cover the fish. Keep going this way, alternating layers of salt and fish, until the container is filled. Top it all off with one final layer of salt that covers everything.

As we discussed earlier, the salt will draw the water out of the fish and create a brine. Different people’s opinions vary on how long the fish should be left in the brine, but apparently, it is impossible to leave it too long. I’ve seen information showing that traditionally it was left as long as 21 days. With the salt acting as a preservative, there is no risk of it going bad.

Once removed from the brine, the fish is rinsed in fresh water. Some people also press the fish at this point to remove excess brine. This can help reduce the drying time.

Drying the Fish

Drying the salted fish properly is essential to preservation.

Now that the fish is fully salted and has soaked in the brine, it is time to dry it. This is either done in flat baskets or by hanging the fish over sticks – much like how the American Indians used to hang jerky to dry. The fish is left on the racks or in the baskets, which were usually put on the roof to dry.

Timing is important here because a good combination of sunlight and a warm breeze are necessary for the fish to dry fully. You don’t want really hot weather as the hot sun could actually cook the fish rather than dry it. Warm weather, rather than hot weather, is ideal. On the flip side of that, it has to be warm enough to dry the fish. If it is too cool, bacteria could form on it before it dries.

Once dry, the fish can be moved to storage. When stored in cool temperatures, it can store for over a year without a problem. I am unsure how much longer than a year it would keep, but I would suspect that if it is kept cool and dry, salt fish could be stored for a number of years.