A Basque Recipe: Bacalao al Pil-Pil

Having spent time in the Basque region made me realize how much the Basque love their cod- and hake. I learned about cuts of those fish that I didn’t know existed and had them served in various preparations. The favorite version is pil-pil.

Pil-Pil is a traditional dish from the Basque Region of Spain made with four basic ingredients:

Bacalao al Pil-Pil

Bacalao: For this recipe it is necessary to use fillets of bacalao with the skin on. This is because it’s the gelatin from the skin that helps create the rich base for the sauce.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil.: Use a good, smooth-tasting olive oil to create the sauce for this dish which will emulsify with the proteins in the fish. The basic rule is ‘more oil, more sauce’.

Garlic: to help emulsify the sauce.

Red chillies: for flavour.

The bacalao is traditionally cooked in a terracotta dish or ‘cazuela de barro’, in which it can later be served hot. The name ‘pil-pil’ originates from the stirring motion used to cook the sauce so that the oil mixes with the proteins in the fish. When cooking the bacalao it is important not to fry the fish in the oil but to cook it gently in oil at a temperature of about 95F degrees while moving the dish so as to mix the sauce into a smooth golden colour.

Ingredients: (serves 4)

  • 2 lbs of bacalao (use the thinnest section of the fillets)
  • 12 cloves of garlic
  • Extra virgin olive oil (good quality)
  • Guindillas (fresh red chilli peppers)
  • Parsley for decoration


  • De-salt the bacalao by soaking the cut pieces in water for at least 36 hours, changing the water at least 4 times per day. Before using, check that the fish has been sufficiently de-salted, and if so, wash, remove any bones and dry.
  • In a wide terracotta dish with plenty of oil, fry the finely chopped garlic, and the chillies. Remove and set aside.
  • In the same oil, which has cooled a little, add the pieces of bacalao with the skin facing down. Leave the bacalao to cook in the oil on a very low heat for about 15 minutes.
  • Remove the cooked bacalao from the oil and set aside.
  • To make the sauce:
    • With the oil still in the dish, use a small sieve or strainer (or a whisk, but this is not as good) to mix the olive oil with the gelatine from the fish. Do this by making a constant, circular motion with the sieve going to-and-fro. By continuing this gentle mixing the sauce should form a smooth, thick emulsion a bit like runny mayonnaise.
    • Add the bacalao back into the sauce and decorate the dish with the chopped garlic and chillies and serve hot in the dish. Garnish with parsley.

You can read all about our Basque food and wine tour in the articles below:

Author Vin Marottoli

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