Cod: Species Spotlight

Atlantic cod Noaa trawl gear

Atlantic (Gadus morhua), Greenland, (Gadus ogac) and Pacific Cod (Gadus macrocephalus) are robust, meaty fish that inhabit cold waters near the bottom and are voracious eaters of anything that can fit in their large mouths. The three “true” cods as well as the other related fish in the genus Gadus all share similar characteristics, but the Atlantic species is historically the largest and easily recognized by its large head, three dorsal fins and prominent lateral line.

small atlantic cod
Atlantic Cod

The Pacific cod prefer deeper water and have a more brown or gray coloring, with less variation than the Atlantic. Pacific codfish typically top out around 10 pounds, but Atlantic can to nearly 100 pounds. The Greenland variety also known as the ogac, is of only minor commercial importance, but is more similar to Pacific cod than Atlantic.

How They are Caught

Pacific cod
Pacific Cod

Atlantic cod are mostly harvested with otter trawls, gillnets and longlines. Pacific are caught trawlers, longliners and also by fish trap – “pots.” At the dock, the fish is graded by size with scrod being the smallest at under 3 pounds, markets go up to 10 pounds, then large, and anything over 25 pounds are known as jumbo or “whale” cod.

There has been some press about the collapse of the Atlantic cod industry, and there is certainly disagreements between fishermen and scientists as to what is really going on out on the banks. What is true is that quotas are set very low for the fish and New England fishermen often find it difficult to avoid catching too much. Even when they fish on grounds to target other species, they are still finding more than is claimed by National Marine Fisheries Service.

Buying Cod

salt cod gloucester

Codfish has been a valuable trade item since the early Middle Ages. This large, easy to catch fish is prized for its mild, but not bland flavor and its flaky white flesh. The body of the fish lends itself to salting, making a foodstuff that is virtually imperishable, but is equally delicious served fresh. The fish is also amazingly versatile, nearly every part can be consumed. The head, including the meaty cheeks, the tongues, the swim bladder known as a sound, the liver, the roe, even the skin and bones have been traditionally consumed in some way. Tinned fish enthusiasts will be happy to know you can find Spanish conservas made from the liver.

You may even find that cod, even Atlantic, is readily available at your local fish market. However much of this fish is imported from Iceland and Norway. Meanwhile, domestic fishermen are harvesting the Atlantic species at sustainable levels but still have to compete on the market with imports. If you care about the origin of your fish, ask your dealer for domestically caught over imports.

Codfish in the market may not be labeled “Atlantic” or “Pacific” but the differences in taste are very slight. Like all fresh fish, it should not smell “fishy” when choosing a whole fish or fillets. Cod should not look dried out or off-colored and skinless fillets should look firm, not flimsy. Fresh fillets should be firm and intact, not “shaggy” from broken muscle fibers. If you are lucky enough to get it fresh caught, many old New Englanders will tell you it tastes better a day later.

frozen cod fillets whole foods

If buying frozen fillets choose packages with bigger pieces with no signs of freezer-burn. The smaller portions can dry out faster sitting in cold storage, and can give an “off” taste. In recent years the packaging for frozen fish fillets has greatly improved and you can see it in the quality of the product. Don’t shy away from frozen seafood, it can often be better quality than what is available fresh.

Icelandic cod whole foods

Cod Alternatives

Besides the Atlantic, Pacific, and Greenland species, there are several cod-like fish, like haddock, hake, and pollock, that can be used as substitutes. These fish are similar but have slightly different textures or a stronger taste. If fresh or frozen haddock is more available, it makes an excellent alternative.

Historic Recipe: Cod’s Head and Rice (1874 )

Take half a cod’s head and shoulders, and put in a saucepan with one quart of water to boil for fifteen minutes; fry, in four ounces of butter, one onion and two tomatoes, sliced, some chopped parsley, pepper, salt, and two cloves; when nicely fried, put it all into the saucepan, with the fish, add half a pound of rice, and boil until it is all well cooked; let it stand away from the fire for ten minutes, and serve up.

Source: From Head to Tale