Lutefisk is made from air-dried whitefish (normally cod, but ling is also used), prepared with lye, in a sequence of particular treatments. The first treatment is to soak the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish will swell during this soaking, regaining a size even bigger than the original (undried) fish, while the protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, causing its famous jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) has a pH value of 11–12, 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 amount of potassium carbonate and hydrocarbonate, giving the fish more mellow treatment than sodium hydroxide (lyestone). It is important not to 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).
After the preparation, the lutefisk is saturated with water and must therefore be cooked carefully so it does not fall into pieces.
It does not need any additional water for the cooking; it is enough to place it in a pan, salt it, seal the lid tightly, and let it steam cook under a very low heat for 20–25 minutes. It is also possible to do this in the oven. The fish is then put in an ovenproof dish, covered with aluminum foil, and baked at 225 °C (435 °F) for 40–50 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 8-10 minutes per whole fish (a package of two fish sides) at high power in a covered glass cooking dish, preferably made of Pyrex or Corningware. The cooking time will vary, depending upon the power of the microwave oven.
NOTE: When cooking and eating lutefisk, it is important to clean the lutefisk and residue off of pans, plates, and utensils right away. Lutefisk left overnight becomes nearly impossible to remove. Sterling silver should never be used in cooking or serving or eating lutefisk as will permanently ruin silver. Stainless steel cooking, serving and eating utensils are strongly recommended.
In the Nordic Countries, the "season" for lutefisk starts early in November and is typically served throughout Christmas. Lutefisk is also very popular in Nordic-American areas of the United States, particularly in the Upper Midwest.
Lutefisk is usually served with a variety of side dishes, including, but not limited to, bacon, green pea stew, potatoes, meatballs, gravy, mashed rutabaga, white sauce, melted or clarified butter, syrup, geitost (goat cheese), or "old" cheese (gammelost). Especially in the U.S., it is usually eaten with lefse. Even if the common denominator is lutefisk, side dishes vary greatly from family to family and region to region, and is a theme of recurring controversy when different "traditions" of lutefisk-eaters meet and eat together.
Nowadays, akvavit and beer often accompany the meal due to its use at festive and ceremonial occasions (and most eaters, regardless of side dish preferences, will argue that these beverages complement the meal perfectly). This is a recent invention however; due to its preservative qualities, lutefisk has traditionally been a common "every day" meal in wintertime.
The dish has sometimes subjected Nordic-Americans to jokes about the personality traits suggested by serving chemically-treated white fish with a white sauce. Lutefisk prepared from cod is somewhat notorious, even within Scandinavia, for its intense odor. Conversely, lutefisk prepared from pollock or haddock has almost no odor. But lutefisk has its fair share of devotees: during 2001 Norwegians alone ate a total of 2,055 tons of lutefisk in their homes and approximately 560 tons in restaurants. (To put this quantity in perspective, 2400 tons would fill approximately 80 full size semi trucks or a medium length goods train). Annual sales of lutefisk in North America exceed those in Norway.
The taste of well prepared lutefisk is extremely mild and mellow, and often the white sauce is spiced with pepper or other strong tasting spices to bring out the flavor.
Traces in literature
When people first started eating lutefisk is also controversial. Some enthusiasts claim the tradition goes back to the age of Vikings, other and contrasting views claim that the meal has 16th century Dutch origins. Despite this, it is somewhat commonly agreed that the first written mention of the phenomenon "lutefisk" traces back to a letter from Swedish king Gustav I in 1540, and the first written description of the preparation process is in Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus's (1490–1557) personal writings from 1555. When it comes to Norwegian traces, author Henry Notaker (in the encyclopedia "Apetittleksikon") claims that the first written traces in Norway dates to the south-eastern parts of Norway in the late 18th century. Additionally, a classic Norwegian cookbook ("Hanna Winsnes") from 1845 tells about how to make lye for lutefisk from a combination of birch ash, limestone, and water.
A folk tale about the origin of lutefisk says when the Vikings were pillaging Ireland, St. Patrick sent men to pour lye on the store of dried fish on the longships with the hope of poisoning the Vikings and thereby ridding Ireland of these intruders. However, rather than dying of poisoning or starvation, the Vikings declared lutefisk a delicacy. Some Scandinavian descendants claim their strength and longevity are derived from eating lutefisk at least once a year.
Misconception of Norwegians and lutefisk
A misconception originating in the United States is that most Norwegians eat and enjoy lutefisk. In real life lutefisk is more common in the Norwegian-American community than it is among actual modern day Norwegians. For example both Glenwood, Minnesota, and Madison, Minnesota, claim to be the "lutefisk capital of the world." A survey performed by the National Information Office for Meat in Norway claimed that as few as only 2 percent of Norwegians have lutefisk on Christmas Eve (compared to 52 percent who eat rib roast, the most popular Christmas dinner in Norway), while 20 percent eat lutefisk before Christmas.
"Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot."
- Interview with Jeffrey Steingarten, author of The Man Who Ate Everything (translated quote from a 1999 article in Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet:)
"Lutefisk is not food, it is a weapon of mass destruction. It is currently the only exception for the man who ate everything. Otherwise, I am fairly liberal, I gladly eat worms and insects, but I draw the line on lutefisk."
"What is special with lutefisk?"
"Lutefisk is the Norwegians' attempt at conquering the world. When they discovered that Viking raids didn't give world supremacy, they invented a meal so terrifying, so cruel, that they could scare people to become one's subordinates. And if I'm not terribly wrong, you will be able to do it as well."
"But some people say that they like lutefisk. Do you think they tell the truth?"
"I do not know. Of all food, lutefisk is the only one that I don't take any stand on. I simply cannot decide whether it is nice or disgusting, if the taste is interesting or commonplace. The only thing I know, is that I like bacon, mustard and lefse. Lutefisk is an example of food that almost doesn't taste anything, but is so full of emotions that the taste buds get knocked out."
- The Ole and Lena joke books make frequent references to lutefisk, for example:
Well, we tried the lutefisk trick and the raccoons went away, but now we've got a family of Norwegians living under our house!
- Or this variation of O Tannenbaum:
O lutefisk, O lutefisk, how pungent your aroma / O lutefisk, O lutefisk, you put me in a coma
- Unattributed source(s):
It is better to give lutefisk than to receive lutefisk.
As the holidays are times of unbridled joy, the people of Scandinavian stock in Minnesota view the season with heartfelt suspicion - since uncontrolled joy is an emotion best avoided. The solution of their ancestors had always been Lutefisk - a sort of fish Jell-o smothered in cream sauce, the cream sauce's purpose is to disguise the stuff. The consumption of this concoction when in danger of reaching peaks of emotional well-being would suffcienctly damp it down to acceptably manageable levels, allowing the holiday to proceed with the socially correct levels of grim satisfaction.