Constitution Day dinner in the United States, with lutefisk, lefse, and
(lutfisk) is a traditional dish of the Nordic countries and parts of the
midwest United States. It is made from stockfish (air-dried whitefish) or
dried/salted whitefish (klippfisk) and soda lye (lut). Its name literally means
"lye fish", because it is made using caustic lye soda derived from potash
minerals. The use of lye to soften a hard, indigestible base
is actually a fairly common practice with many kinds of food (such as
Lutefisk is very popular in Nordic-North American areas of Canada,
especially the prairie regions and the large Finnish community at Sointula on
Malcolm Island in the province of British Columbia, and the United States,
particularly in the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. From October to
February, there are numerous lutefisk feeds in cities and towns around Puget
Sound. In the Nordic Countries, the "season" for lutefisk starts early in
November and typically continues through Christmas.
Lutefisk is made from dried whitefish (normally ling, but cod
is also used), prepared with lye, in a sequence of particular treatments. The
watering steps of these treatments differ slightly for salted/dried whitefish
because of its high salt content.
Left: Lutefisk with melted butter.
The first treatment is to soak the stockfish in cold water for five to six days
(with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an
unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish
swells during this soaking and its protein content decreases by more than 50
percent, producing its famous jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is
finished, the fish (saturated with lye) has a pH value of 11Ц12, and is
therefore caustic. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another
four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed.
Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be cooked.
In Finland, the traditional reagent used is birch ash. It contains high amounts
of potassium carbonate and hydrocarbonate, giving the fish a more mellow
treatment than would sodium hydroxide (lyestone). It is important to not
incubate the fish too long in the lye, because saponification of the fish fats
may occur, effectively rendering the fish fats into soap. The term for such
spoiled fish in Finnish is saippuakala (soap fish).
Left: Lutefisk in a
preparation, the lutefisk is saturated with water and must therefore be cooked
carefully so that it does not fall into pieces.
Lutefisk does not need any additional water for the cooking; it is sufficient to
place it in a pan, salt it, seal the lid tightly, and let it steam cook under a
very low heat for 20Ц25 minutes. It is also possible to do this in an oven.
There, the fish is put in an ovenproof dish, covered with aluminium foil, and
baked at 225 ∞C (435 ∞F) for 40Ц50 minutes.
Another option is to parboil lutefisk; wrap the lutefisk in cheesecloth and
gently boil until tender. This usually takes a very short time, so care must be
taken to watch the fish and remove it before it is ready to fall apart. Prepare
a white sauce to serve over the lutefisk.
Lutefisk sold in North America may also be cooked in a microwave oven. The
average cooking time is 8Ц10 minutes per whole fish (a package of two fish
sides) at high power in a covered glass cooking dish, preferably made of heat
resistant glass. The cooking time will vary, depending upon the power of the
Lutefisk is usually served with a variety of side dishes, including, but not
limited to, bacon, green peas, green pea stew, potatoes, lefse, gravy, mashed
rutabaga, white sauce, melted or clarified butter, syrup, geitost (goat cheese),
or "old" cheese (gammelost). In the United States in particular it is
sometimes eaten together with meatballs.
akvavit and beer often accompany the meal
due to its use at festive and ceremonial occasions. This
is a recent innovation, however; due to its preservative qualities, lutefisk has
traditionally been a common "everyday" meal in wintertime.
Lutefisk prepared from cod is somewhat notorious, even in Scandinavia, for its
intense (and to those unacquainted with the dish, offensive) odor. Conversely,
lutefisk prepared from pollock or haddock emits almost no odor.
The taste of well-prepared lutefisk is very mild, and often the white sauce is
spiced with pepper or other strong tasting spices to bring out the flavor.
When cooking and eating lutefisk, it is important to clean the lutefisk and its
residue off pans, plates, and utensils immediately. Lutefisk left overnight
becomes nearly impossible to remove. Sterling silver should never be used in the
cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk, which will permanently ruin silver.
Stainless steel utensils are recommended instead.