Basque Cod al Pil Pil
November 08, 2018 | Updated July 03, 2020
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Cod al pil pil (sounds like Al peel-peel) sounds exotic, and while it is from Basque Country, the only thing mystical about this recipe is how the sauce comes together in the pan.
Normally done with reconstituted salt cod, or bacalao, this dish is one of those simple masterpieces: Fish, olive oil, lots of garlic, a few chiles, maybe some parsley or dried oregano.
Why serve fish this way? It’s rich, garlicky and slightly spicy from the chile, although some people leave the chile out. And it comes together very quickly. You can use any white fish to do this. I used cod throats or collars because I happen to like them.
If you are using salt cod, you need to freshen it up for 24 to 48 hours before you make this recipe. You do that by soaking the block of salted fish in cold water, changing the water every eight hours or thereabouts. It’s just as good with fresh fish, though.
Serve this with potatoes or rice or crusty bread. You want something to sop up that sauce with.
A word on the sauce: It is an emulsion of olive oil, garlic and the juices from the fish, that, when taken all the way, actually makes a bright yellow mayonnaise looking thing. We took our pictures before I stirred the pot a bit more to get that consistency, which is traditional in Spain. I personally like it a bit thinner, as you see in the photo.
Here’s a short video of the process you need to do to emulsify the pil pil.
One other tip: I used the codfish collars because they have a lot of collagen in them, which helps emulsify the sauce. Cooks in Basque Country will often leave the skin on their salt cod for the same reason. Then, you can choose to eat it or leave it on the plate when dinner is ready.
Ready to give pil pil a go? Here’s how:
Basque Cod al Pil Pil
- 2 pounds cod or other white fish, skin on if possible
- 1 cup olive oil
- 6 to 8 cloves garlic, sliced thin
- 1 to 3 small hot, dried chiles, crushed (optional)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano or parsley, or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- Salt the fish well and set aside for 10 to 20 minutes. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, wide pan that can hold all the pieces of fish.
- Saute the garlic slices for a minute or two, until they just start turning golden. Remove them as best you can. It's OK if a few escape you.
- Put the fish skin side down in the pan and cook gently over medium-low heat for a minute or two. Turn the fish and cook for another 2 to 4 minutes, or until the fish is mostly cooked. Turn the heat off and remove the fish for now.
- Start swirling the pan. You want to gently agitate the olive oil and juices from the fish into an emulsion. This should take about 5 minutes and no more than 10 minutes. One way to help this along is to whisk it with a strainer, as you can see in the video. As the emulsion comes together, add back the garlic as well as the crushed chiles, if using. It will eventually look like a salad dressing, and if you keep stirring it while the whole thing cools, it will set up into a mayonnaise-like sauce. It's up to you if you want it this way.
- When you are ready, pour the sauce over the fish, sprinkle some dried herbs on there and serve.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
This is an excellent recipe that takes very culinary skill (which is great for me) and minimal ingredients. I used both fresh and salt cod for this and it was both excellent. Serve it up with a crusty baguette and you won’t regret it!
If I happen to only have skinless fillets, what’s a good way to get more colligan (or some other emulsifier) in there so the sauce sets up better?
Bradley: There isn’t one, sorry. This dish hinges on the collagen in the skin or collars or bones.
I have been looking for this recipe for quite a while! I can’t wait to make it. Thanks for posting this!
Hey Hank, saw your latest email blast re: comments and thought I’d respond to a recipe of yours I just tried. Was lucky enough to get a few pounds of true cod and some real basque-aise choriceros from the Ferry Bldg in SF and… how could I miss, right? Your cook technique on the cod came out perfect, thanks.
BUT i got too clever by half: read in Cooks how to do Peruvian ceviche leche de tigre emulsions using a bit of the fish+fish juice&oil whirred with a stick blender, and thought I’d pre-start the pan emulsion with some tail bits I’d trimmed and extra olive oil, then slowly drizzle in pan juices to preserve the emulsion rather than swirling a pan that long. Not an approach that’s gonna fly in traditional San Sebastian but for a weeknight speedup… anyway total fail, just a broken mess of oil and nasty teensy fish bits.
So I redid it (sans choriceros) a few weeks later the way you recommend and voila. Great result. I’d be totally curious if you ever run across food scientists why a starter emulsion for fish doesnt work like a butter or oil-based on usually does, but in-the-pan does; guessing it must be something about the temps? Anyway for now I’ll stick with your recipe.
Thanks for all the great writing!
Can I use halibut to make this recipe?
Veronica: Yes you can.
Could the chilis be replaced with chili powder? If so, how?
Jon: No. Chili powder is not just chilis, it’s a bunch of spices. You could add a pinch of cayenne though.
I can’t wait to try this Pil Pil recipe. If I could, I would join you on your exploits both hunting and fishing. It would be a taste of heaven… keep up your pursuits, you’ve been blessed. You make a lot of folks very much in favor of your existence.