by Peter Moore
Lox, nova, smoked salmon, gravlax. Preserved salmon goes by many names. And people seem to use these names pretty much interchangeably to describe this delicious treat that works for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
In the interest of clarity, here’s a brief rundown of the distinctions: Lox is salted and then brined; Nova is lox that is cold smoked after brining; Smoked salmon is usually hot smoked; and gravlax is most like lox but is cured with salt, sugar, and dill. Gravlax is also the most easily prepared at home.
Gravlax gets it name from Scandinavian words for “grave” and “salmon”. It was literally buried on the beach above the high-tide line. Nowadays, we make it in the fridge in a short time.
There are a zillion recipes for gravlax (or, more precisely, 133,000 results on Google for “gravlax recipe”) and they vary widely. Some add vodka, gin, or aquavit; others add juniper berries and other spices; and the amounts of sugar and salt are all over the place. A Scandinavian recipe online calls for a meager 3 tablespoons of sugar and only 1 tablespoon of salt for a pound and a half of salmon. On the other end of the scale, Seattle chef Tom Douglas uses 2/3 of a cup of salt, 2/3 of a cup of white sugar, AND ¼ cup of brown sugar for 1¼ pounds of fish. Alice Waters is in the middle with her recipe in the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook using a 1/3 of a cup of each. Mark Bittman uses two parts sugar to one part salt, though between How to Cook Everything and The Best Recipes in the World, he goes from brown sugar to white. Hmm….
I’m somewhere in the middle too, though, as is my wont, I’ve made some changes. I went for fennel instead of dill, and I switched out some of the salt for alderwood smoked sea salt from the Oaktown Spice Shop. I found that this gives me a little smoky flavor.
1 to 1¼ pounds really fresh Wild King salmon filet with skin on
½ cup brown sugar
2 tbsp sea salt
2 tbsp alderwood smoked sea salt
2 tsp fennel pollen
2 tsp smoked paprika
5 juniper berries, crushed
1 or 2 sprigs or fresh fennel
Mix together the sugar, salt, fennel pollen, paprika, and crushed juniper berries in a bowl.
Remove the pin bones from the salmon using needle-nosed pliers or the special Japanese tool for doing this that you can get at Soku Hardware in Japantown.
Place a sheet of plastic wrap in a pyrex baking pan leaving lots over the sides. Put some of the spice mix on the bottom and then place the salmon, skin side down on top. Cover the salmon with the rest of the mix, top with the fennel sprigs and wrap it all up with the plastic wrap.
Place another pan on top of the wrapped salmon and put something heavy in the pan. Put it in the refrigerator for, say, 30 to 36 hours.
Slice into thin slices and serve with crackers, bagels, or just by itself. A traditional accompaniment is mustard sauce.
This stuff is super tasty but if you do have leftovers, it will keep wrapped in the fridge for a week.
Ideally you want to make this as soon as you get home with the salmon. Fresher is better. I made this with fresh salmon from Monterey Fish. If your only fresh option is farmed that’ll work too.
I used fennel instead of dill here because the wild fennel is really at its peak now. See my recipe for Chocolate and Fennel Pollen Brownies for tips on harvesting.
Recommendations about how long to cure the gravlax are as varied as the recipes. I’ve found about a day and a half works good for me. I made this Friday night and it was ready Sunday morning. Your mileage may vary. The filet I used was about ¾ inch thick, if you have a thinner piece of salmon pull it out a little sooner. The longer you leave it in the cure the more, shall we say, assertive, it becomes.
Peter Moore lives, shops, and cooks in Berkeley, California. A co-founder of San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema, he worked in the film world for many years until the lure of food drew him into the world of professional cooking. Shortly thereafter, the lure of day shifts and a medical plan drew him out of restaurants, but his love of cooking remained. He is currently an intern at The Crucible in Oakland and an Operations and Development Associate for the SF Silent Film Festival.