What Is Lutefisk And What Does It Taste Like?

Everyone who has ever been near fish knows that the food has a distinct smell, but once you've gotten a whiff of lutefisk, all other fish will smell like a rose garden. It's distinctive odor and gelatinous texture make it definitely an acquired taste. Unlike salmon and tuna, you can't actually go out fishing for lutefisk, because it's not a specific fish itself; rather, it's a form of whitefish (traditionally cod) that is air dried until hard. Then, the fish is softened by soaking it in water and lye.

Lutefisk itself translates roughly to "lye fish," says Smithsonian Magazine. And while it originated in Scandinavia (particularly Sweden and Norway) it's fallen out of favor there and is not considered especially popular in the "old country." However, Scandinavian Americans eat it regularly, and more is eaten in the United States than in all of Scandinavia combined.

Originally a food for the poor, any leftover fish that wasn't sold or cooked was dried to preserve it, then soaked in lye to bring it back to an edible state. While some according to The Canora Courier, claim lutefisk originated when Vikings burned down villages with racks of drying fish, others claim it was invented when someone dropped a fish in the ashes of a fire and were too poor to throw it away, so they ate it anyway. Both stories seem a little, well, fishy.

Lutefisk has a unique texture

Lutefisk's gelatinous texture is a result of the fish breaking down during the preparation process. First, the fish are cleaned and then hung to dry, which An Off Grid Life notes takes approximately nine to 10 days. When fully dried, the cod will be tough and leathery. The process of rehydrating the fish takes over a week, notes CDKitchen. For five to six days it's soaked in cold water, with the water being changed every day. Next, it's soaked in a combination of lye and water for another week, and then soaked in cool water, changed daily, again for another few days. This soaking and rinsing breaks down the protein in the fish, giving lutefisk its notorious jelly-like consistency.

Traditionally, the fish is then steamed or baked, and served with butter or cream sauce. Sometimes, it is served with bacon fat on top and eaten with other traditional Scandinavian fare like boiled potatoes, peas, meatballs, or lefse, a soft Norwegian potato flatbread.

If lutefisk is cooked correctly, it can be flaky and tasty. But in the wrong hands, it turns to mush, with some people saying it resembles "snot" or a fishy Jell-O. One person on Quora who shared they regularly ate it at Christmas growing up, described it as, "Very mild but its texture is a bit unattractive in the modern taste. It's like jelly."

Lutefisk has a distinct smell

Perhaps the greatest offense of the lutefisk isn't necessarily its texture, but the smell associated with it. Most people describe it as a very pungent, fishy smell that can't be easily forgotten. Simply put, lutefisk smells strongly of fish, with notes of sourness and ammonia. The smell does tend to recede after the lutefisk has been cooked, though some don't make it that far.

Lutefisk's smell is so strong it has a lot of detractors. Poke around the internet and you'll also find plenty of jokes referring to the incredibly strong and fishy smell of lutefisk. Sun Sentinel shares: "'What's this fly doing in my lutefisk?' 'Gagging,' said the waiter."

Author Garrison Keillor summed up its odor as powerful enough to "gag a goat" (via NPR), and the TV comedy "King of the Hill" noted, eat enough of it and you may soon be known as "the man with the terrible smell" (via YouTube). The Canora Courier shares that acclaimed food writer Jeffrey Steingarten (known as "the man who ate everything") once called lutefisk, "A weapon of mass destruction," opining that, "Lutefisk is the Norwegians' attempt at conquering the world. When they discovered that Viking raids didn't produce world supremacy, they invented a meal so terrifying, so cruel, that they could scare people to become one's subordinates."

The real bonus that comes from the smell? As one person told AP News, "One thing about eating lutefisk. You can wear dirty socks and nobody'll even notice.″

Lutefisk's taste is definitely something else

While generally speaking, people say lutefisk tastes mildly fishy, with a soapy aftertaste and a hint of ammonia on the palate, though there seems to be a lot of variation of its description based on whether people are fans of the stuff or not. A few different factors can affect lutefisk's taste as well, including what fish was used — Norwegian cod has a stronger smell and taste compared to other whitefish — and whether it was made with lye or with birch ash, which can give it a milder flavor. Many makers have also switched from lye to caustic soda, the Sun Sentinel reports, which is just another form of sodium hydroxide.

Wisconsin Lutefisk-eating champion, Jerry Osteraas — who once consumed over eight pounds of the stuff during one contest — told The Post Bulletin, "I've always said it tastes like lobster when you put a little butter on it, but there isn't any sweetness to it.” Clearly, Osteraas can be considered a lutefisk fan.

But to many, it's just a vehicle for what it's served with. One fan who organizes a lutefisk dinner at their church told Twin Cities Pioneer Press, "It's kind of a fishy taste, but for me, it's the butter and the cream sauce I eat it with."

Want to try lutefisk?

If after all that it's still appealing to you, lutefisk can usually be found in church dinners and Scandinavian heritage events throughout the country, particularly in the upper Midwest, which is sometimes referred to colloquially as the "Lutefisk Belt" (via NPR). In Madison, Minnesota (the self titled "Lutefisk capital of the world," as Atlas Obscura reports) there is a huge fiberglass statue of "Lou T. Fisk" that greets visitors as they enter the town. The city's annual Norsefest includes a lutefisk-eating contest, shares Explore Minnesota. In the Pacific Northwest, local Scandinavian organizations offer lutefisk-eating events throughout the year.

You'll also usually be able to find lutefisk in towns nationwide where there are high populations of Scandinavian Americans — like Poulsbo, Washington, where the Slippery Pig Brewery holds an annual Lutefisk dinner and even offers lutefisk tacos on their regular menu (via Slippery Pig Brewery), as well as the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard — originally heavily Norwegian — which holds a festival every year with a lutefisk-eating contest (via SeafoodFest).

National organizations like the Daughters of Norway and Sons of Norway often share details of various lutefisk events in the U.S. as well.

The Olsen Fish Company boasts to be one of the primary suppliers of lutefisk in the United States, but specialty stores like Walleye Direct and Willy's Products Scandinavian Food Store also offer frozen lutefisk for sale, shipped directly to you.

Is lutefisk nutritious?

Along with preserving the leftover fish for the long Norwegian winters, there are other benefits to lutefisk's drying process, Norwegian American notes. Because it's dried there's no longer any moisture that would allow bacteria or mold to grow and ruin the fish. The lye used also breaks down the fish's protein, turning it into amino acids, a process that the stomach usually has to do, making lutefisk easily digestible.

Dried fish is known to be a good source of nutrients like iodine, zinc, copper, selenium, and calcium, shares Food Reviews International, and contains healthy fats. 

However, it's not all good. As Post Bulletin reports, when you preserve fish, whether by drying or salting, it decreases the nutritional value. Science Daily notes that drying fish specifically decreases the amount of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids when compared to baked or boiled.

From a purely caloric perspective, lutefisk is relatively lean, with approximately 50 calories in each 100 gram portion (via How Many Carbs). Of course that depends on what you eat with your lutefisk, as some of the recipes mentioned above wouldn't exactly be what you would consider health food.