My favorite apron says “Baking is science for hungry people” (an excellent find from a great webcomic called Questionable Content that sells some products through TopatoCo – not an affiliate link). I get a kick out of it every time I put it on. Sure, I cook and bake because I love eating and I like sharing food with other people. But some things I make just because I love watching the alchemy that takes place when you combine ingredients in a certain situation. Sugar plus heat to make golden brown and silky caramel? Magic. The way eggs puff up to amazing proportions when baked in the oven? Amazing. The work of salt, salmon, and time to create gravlax (an alternative to lox)? As delicious as it is simple.
Lox, or smoked salmon, was a staple for just about every Jewish holiday. That is, bagels were the staple of most religious celebrations and bagels meant piles of silky smoked salmon slices to layer on your bagel halves. But I can’t recreate smoked salmon at home, at least not the cold-smoked slices that I enjoy most with a bagel. Or at least not yet. What is within my, and your, culinary reach is gravlax.
Think jewel-like slices of salmon flavored with citrus or cracked pepper or dill. Think curing rather than smoking. Think original Scandinavian methods of food preservation. Ok, perhaps I’m the only one who gets excited about that last one. So instead, think luxurious breakfast that requires about 20 minutes plus a few days in the fridge to cure.
I started making gravlax years ago, when I was still in college and so had lots of time to try cooking projects that sounded involved and complicated. But I kept making it for years because the transformation of fat orange salmon fillets to delicate dark pink slices was just too intoxicating to give up. It doesn’t hurt that the work is fairly minimal. And the impact? Let’s just say this is one dish where the compliments far outweigh the effort.
Makes 2-3 servings (but is easily scaled up)
Before we begin, there are a few pointers that will make this process easier. One, buy the freshest salmon you can. The curing process will inhibit the growth of anything nasty but because the final product isn’t ever introduced to heat, some things could survive so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Also try to buy fillets that are equally thick on all sides. A tail piece can be problematic since it’s generally thinner on one end which means that portion will cure faster and may be too tough and salty by the time the rest of the fish is just perfect.
In terms of flavor, dill is traditional but citrus is my favorite and freshly cracked black pepper is also a winner. Be sure to put the flavoring on first so that you can taste it in the final slices.
1/2 pound fillet of salmon (skin-on pieces are easier to slice later)
1/2 cup salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbs lemon zest (or 2 tbs of whatever flavoring you prefer)
Take the fresh piece of salmon and rinse and dry it before you begin. Ideally you would start this recipe as soon as you got back from shopping but since this isn’t an ideal world, just make sure you don’t leave the fish sitting in the fridge for more than a day before you start. You can pick out any little pin bones now if you want but it’s tiresome work and they come out much easier after the fish is cured. If you leave them in, be on the lookout for them later.
In a medium bowl, combine the salt and sugar and stir well to evenly distribute them. Create a double layer of plastic wrap, about 12 inches long and put a quarter of the salt mixture in the middle of the plastic. Place the fish on the bed of salt, skin side down.* Sprinkle the lemon zest on the top and sides of the fish and press it down so it sticks to the fillet. Then cover it with the rest of the salt, making sure that it covers the top and sides of the fish. Wrap the fillet up in the plastic wrap – it may help to use a third piece to ensure it’s fully wrapped up – and put it in a high-sided container to contain any juices that leak out. Weight the fish with a large can and then put it in the fridge.
The salt will slowly draw liquid out of the fish, making it firmer and more like lox, so the container will slowly collect liquid over the next few days. You can discard it or leave it, just be sure to flip the fish at least once a day so everything is evenly distributed. Let it cure for 2-3 days – check it after 2 days to see if the fish looks darker in color and feels more “cooked” in terms of texture when you touch it. The longer it cures, the drier and saltier the fish will get. I prefer about 48 hours of cure and find that gives a well-cured but not too firm gravlax. But if after 2 days it’s still too soft for you, let it go an extra 24 hours.
When it comes to slicing the gravlax, use a sharp knife and make your slices as thin as possible. It helps to cut on a heavy bias, cutting off the top edge of one side of the salmon and then continuing cuts from there at a 45 degree angle from the skin, sort of like cutting slices of flank steak. Don’t worry if the effort to thinly slice creates lots of little half slices and bits and pieces – it’s better to have thin and delicate bites than too-thick pieces.
* If you use a skinless piece of fish, coat it with zest first, then place it on the bed of salt.