The savory salt cod fritters called bacalaítos are one of Puerto Rico’s most popular street food specialties. Though also available at restaurants and regularly made at home, the best versions of the savory and crispy pancake-sized disks are best eaten hot out of the fryer from one of the hundreds of road and beachside food shacks and kiosks found throughout the island. With a crisp exterior, soft and fluffy inside and an explosion of salty savory flavor in every bite, they’re the perfect treat after a long day at the beach. Bacalaítos are easy to make, but do require a little patience and planning because the salt cod needs at least 8 hours of soaking and a quick 20-minute boil before it’s ready to be used. I know it might be tempting to try to skip the soak, but doing so will leave you with an unpalatably salty dish. Fortunately, once the cod is ready, it only takes about 15 or so minutes before you’ll be able to taste that first crispy bite.
Prepare the fish: Rinse the salt cod under cold running water for 1 minute to remove any loose salt, then place in a large bowl or container and submerge completely in cold water. Cover and let soak in the refrigerator 8 hours or overnight.
After soaking, drain, rinse again under cold running water then place in a large pot and cover with water. Boil for 20 minutes. Drain, place in a large mixing bowl and use two forks to shred the fish.
Add the garlic, onions, red peppers, cilantro, oregano, cumin and 1 teaspoon pepper. Toss until evenly combined. Taste the mixture and adjust seasoning with salt if needed (as salt cod brands vary, some may retain more salt after soaking than others; be sure to taste until the mixture is pleasantly salty).
Pour 1 inch of oil into a heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven and set over high heat until the oil shimmers and a deep-fry thermometer reaches 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or paper towels and top with a wire cooling rack if desired.
While the oil heats, add the flour and baking powder to the cod mixture and stir until evenly combined. Add water, about 1/2 cup at a time, until the batter resembles a pancake batter (usually about 1 1/2 to 2 cups total).
Working in batches, spoon about 1/3 cup batter into the hot oil, spreading it out as you pour to create a 3- to 4-inch round disk. Repeat with 1 to 2 more scoops of batter per batch, leaving about 2 inches between each bacalaíto. Fry 2 minutes on one side, then use tongs to turn and fry until the fritters are cooked through and golden, about 1 minute more. Use tongs to transfer the bacalaítos to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with rest of batter, adding more oil as needed. Serve immediately.