Of all the recipes out there, one of the easiest and most impressive is cured salmon. Mix some salt and sugar, maybe additional spices and/or herbs, rub a piece of fish (typically salmon) and refrigerate for 1-3 days depending on the size of your fish. It’s unbelieavably simple and incredibly elegant. For the easiest bang with the smallest amount of effort, gravlax is the one for you.
I have always liked salmon; cured, smoked, grilled, sashimi’d or any way you can think of. Except maybe “a la Edmund” which was my dad’s so-called secret recipe when I was a kid. It didn’t take long to figure out it was grilled salmon rubbed with every spice from the cabinet. Sometimes it was good; sometimes it wasn’t it. He tried. He also fished a great deal and went to Alaska every August to hit the salmon runs with his buddies, ensuring a steady supply in the freezer. Many years ago, he decided it would be a great idea to take his two adult daughters on one of these long-established fishing trips. We agreed, though neither of us considered ourselves big fishers, it sounded like fun and it was a trip to Alaska. We’re always up for an adventure.
We flew in from three different cities and headed to the Kenai Peninsula to start the week. It was a hilarious and great trip, full of laughter, ridiculous experiences and good food. In that week, I learned more about salmon than I even thought possible. The first day, we hit the river for pink salmon, a fish primarily used in the canning industry and one that’s easy to catch. And boy did we ever catch a bunch of them! We would primarily eat these for the rest of the week, saving the prime coho and sockeye to send home. Right off, I decided I would take one of our abundant pink salmon filets and cure it for gravlax. It was easy, something different and would be ready to eat in just a few days. What a wonderful breakfast we’d have later in the week!
Right off, my father scoffed and grumbled about it. He does that sometimes. He was used to boys trips that involved a week of 16 hour fishing days and Subway sandwich meals. My sister and I were having none of that. We took those gorgeous fillets and smoked a few, made a pot pie, some tacos, grilled several and even though I’d never done it before, I made that gravlax anyway and told my Dad that because of all his grousing, he couldn’t have any. So there. Later in the week, my sister and I piled cream cheese laden bagels high with thin, silky slices of cured fish with mischief in our eyes. I purposely put a bowl and box of cereal in his place setting. No gravlax for the crabby! We eventually relented, of course. It was delicious, how could we not share with his sad puppy eyes? I think he learned his lesson.
After that first adventure, I’ve made gravlax numerous times. It’s easy, elegant and delicious with none of the fuss or careful temperature controls of a hot smoked salmon. The single most important thing is to get a good, fat piece of quality fish. Seriously, make an effort here as it will make a difference and make sure it can be consumed raw because while gravlax is cured, it is not preserved. Make sure to discuss with your intentions with the fish monger. I prefer a wild caught fish but a sustainably farm-raised fillet will work too. Here’s where I’m going to put forward an unpopular opinion: avoid the Costco salmon. I know it’s cheap, and that’s part of the problem. Good fish shouldn’t be cheap. It’s not sustainably farm raised and read the label; it has added color to make it pinker (usually in the form of genetically modified strawberries in the feed. YUM.) Though I must point out that Costco made an announcement in November to no longer carry generically modified salmon, which is a step in the right direction. Read the label and make the decision that’s right for you. I prefer to avoid it.
As for the type of salmon, that’s up to you. I found some nice pieces of coho at Whole Foods on sale, which made a nice deep red gravlax. I also tested a piece of sustainably farm-raised Icelandic salmon that made a lovely, and more typical orange-pink, silky gravlax. In the above photo, the pile on the far right is the farmed salmon (cured for 2 days), while the center (cured for 1 day) and left (cured for 3 days) are the wild caught coho.
Once you’ve got a nice, fat fillet all you need is kosher salt, sugar, dill and time, and only a few days at that. If you like you can add other spices like coriander, caraway and even citrus zest to the cure. So how long to cure? That depends on two things: the thickness of the fillet(s) are and how cured you like it. I did 3 days on some thinner coho filets and think they over-cured. The salmon was firmer, drier and a bit saltier than I like. Still good but not exactly my ideal. For my second batch, I cured a thinner piece of coho for just 1 day and it was perfect if difficult to slice because of the small piece. The farm raised fillet was a bit thicker and cured for 2 days to a silky, beautiful texture. You can cure whole fillets, which look fantastic for a party, but I generally cut them in half and stack the fillets to save space and make flipping a bit easier. Once cured the gravlax will keep refrigerated for a few days but not forever; it will go bad. If it starts to smell overly fishy, ditch it.
Confused as to what gravlax is versus a nova lox or a smoked salmon? This article gives a great explanation of the different types and is immensely helpful. I should also mention that you can cure other types of fish besides salmon. I had some lovely trout gravlax at a new restaurant the other day. I’ll have to try that. This is also a great primer into the world of smoked fish from the venerable Russ & Daughters in NYC, the mecca of all that is smoked fish.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: SIMPLE LUXURY. Have I mentioned this is easy? Only 47 times, right? Fish, salt, time. Done. Say you start this on a Friday. By the weekend you will have the fixings for a really wonderful brunch that will impress absolutely everyone you know. “You made this?”, they will exclaim in wonder as they stuff brown bread topped with your silky gravlax and a sweet-tart mustard sauce in their mouths. You will nod shyly and bask in their adoring gazes. That’s just how you roll, right? Now your next challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to find some good bagels. Unless you live in New York, this is a helluva lot more challenging for the rest of us. Good bagels are extremely hard to find. But stick around. I might be able to help you with that.
Seven years ago: Khachpuri, a cheesy Georgian flatbread
Six years ago: Wedding Cake Stories
Five years ago: Fresh Homemade Paczki
Four years ago: Barley Marmalade Scones, Irish Oatmeal Pudding
Three years ago: Peanut Butter Swirl Brownies, Whiskey Cakes
Two years ago: Chocolate Crème Filled Cupcakes
Last year: Flourless Chocolate Cookies
GRAVLAX – adapted slightly from Michael Ruhlman’s recipe
Makes about 1 pound
Don’t mess around. Get good salmon and by good I mean wild caught or sustainably farm raised natural salmon with no added colors that is a high enough quality to be consumed raw. The recipe/technique is easily scalable; if you want to make less with a smaller piece of fish, do it.
1 pound fresh skin-on high-quality salmon, pin bones removed
½ cup kosher salt
½ cup sugar
2 Tablespoons ground black pepper
big handful fresh dill sprigs
- To remove any pin bones, place the salmon skin side down over a bowl. Run your fingers over the fish and feel for hard little bones. Carefully remove with a pair of tweezers. If you press down on the fish with your other hand, the bones will remove cleanly without tearing into the flesh. Discard the bones.
- Rinse and pat dry salmon. Cut into two equal pieces if large if desired.
- In a small bowl, mix the sugar, salt, and black pepper for the cure (plus any other spices you may like – coriander, caraway, citrus zest.)
- On a large piece of parchment paper place both pieces of salmon, skin side up.
- Rub ½ of the cure into the skin side of the fish. Not much will stick but do your best.
- On a piece of plastic wrap, place a handful of dill and top with one of the filets, skin side down.
- Rub remaining ½ of the cure into the flesh side of both pieces of salmon.
- Top the piece of salmon on the plastic wrap with a good handful of dill and top with the other piece of salmon, skin side up. You’re making a sort of salmon sandwich. Top with another handful of dill. (If you’re working with one piece of salmon, skip this “sandwich” part.)
- Pour any excess cure over the top of the salmon.
- Tightly wrap the “sandwich” in plastic wrap. Wrap tightly two or three times for a nice, tight package.
- Place in a glass or plastic container, top with a small plate and a weight of some sort, like a can of beans.
- Refrigerate for 1-3 days, turning the package every day. How long to cure depends upon the size of your fish and how cured you like it.
- After the first day, the salmon will start be firm to the touch. The longer you cure the salmon, the firmer and saltier it becomes. It just really depends on how you like it.
- Gently rinse the filets to remove any extra cure and pat dry.
- Slice thinly on the bias with a very sharp knife and serve. Some ideas:
- on a bagel with cream cheese, sliced red onion, tomatoes, capers and a squeeze of lemon juice
- on a buckwheat blini with crème frâiche, chives and a flute of champagne
- with a light vinaigrette
- with a tarragon mustard sauce
- fold bits into an omelet and top with crème frâiche or sour cream and chives
- Cured salmon will keep, wrapped, for about a week keeping in mind that it is cured, not preserved