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Lutefisk

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Lutefisk (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 hominy).

Left: Norwegian Constitution Day dinner in the United States, with lutefisk, lefse, and meatballs.

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.

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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 1112, 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.

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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 Norwegian market.

After the 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 2025 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 4050 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 810 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 microwave oven.

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.

Today, 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.

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