How to make cod in pil-pil sauce like a Basque

Pil-pil is the name of a popular yellow sauce to accompany fish in Basque gastronomy, and the most common recipe is cod in pil-pil sauce. In this case the sauce is created as a combination of the cod’s juices and the oil when the fish is cooked. How’s it made? Cod in pil-pil sauce is one of the most traditional recipes in Basque cookery. It’s simple, but it needs some practice.

Ingredients for 4:

5 cloves of garlic
300 ml of extra virgin olive oil
4 wedges of salted cod
½ dry red pepper

The traditional recipe says to use an earthenware casserole dish, and salted cod we will desalt in a couple of days, changing the water every 12 hours, and that the sauce is thickened by moving the receptacle constantly around in circles. One essential in Basque cooking (and any cooking) is the quality of the ingredients. So, if we want a proper cod in pil-pil sauce, the wedges of fish must be of good quality.

Casserole dishes and recipes have evolved over time, and there are a number of ways to cook this recipe. In the recipe I’m suggesting, you put the oil into a wide shallow dish. Then you brown the peeled and sliced garlic and the pepper, open and clean, on a medium-low heat. Remove them when they’ve browned.

Then, in the same oil, fry (or rather broil, without actually frying) the pieces of cod for a few minutes on each side, also on a low heat. First with the skin side up, and then with the skin in the oil, and then take the wedges out and put them on a plate. You have to wait until the oil cools a little, because the sauce won’t thicken if it’s hot.

And here’s the high point of the recipe: on a low heat, use a small sieve to move the oil around vigorously in circles. When we have created the sauce, we add the pieces of cod. If the pil-pil has become too thick, we can thin it out by adding a little water and moving it around some more.

The expression “pil-pil” is onomatopoeic, and comes from the sound made by the sauce as it bubbles in the heat. But remember that it can’t be allowed to boil at any time because that would ruin the sauce. In Euskera, “pil-pil” is also used in a non-gastronomic sense to refer to highly topical issues.

Turning to the origins of cod in pil-pil sauce, all versions coincide in that it is the typical Bilbao dish. Legend has it that in 1836 a Bilbao trader called Simón Gurtubay ordered 100 or 120 full pieces of cod. Since the letter O (meaning “or” in Spanish) was mistaken for a zero, he ended up with 1,000,120 pieces.

Do you know Bilbao?

But the initial misfortune of being landed with so much fish earned him a fortune, because at the time Bilbao was under siege during the First Carlist War, and so the local people bought up all his cod. The shortage of ingredients also led them to make a sauce with what they had to hand: oil, garlic and peppers. And that’s the story of how over time this became a Basque cookery classic.