A few months ago we welcomed a meat curing fridge to our small family of appliances. We may not own a fridge, washer, or dryer, but we now have a mini fridge set aside specifically for the preservation of meats. Comforting, I know.
Of all the homemade bacon and duck prosciutto that’s been (literally) hanging out in the corner, this cured salmon was the only project I truly participated in. And it was I who reaped the majority of the benefits: In salads, arranged neatly on toast, and eaten with my fingers—tender, fall-apart layer by tender, fall-apart layer.
Cured salmon goes by many names: Gravlax, lox, smoked salmon, Nova lox, and more. ( If you care to do more digging, I recommend these posts on the topic from Huff Po and theKitchn.) I’m really only here to tell you that even if you don’t have a culinary bone in your body, you can make this. It doesn’t even require heat. It’s frugal, full of Omega-3’s, and convenient to have on hand when you’re craving salt and protein after a hard workout.
What we made is pretty well agreed upon as gravlax. The word comes from the Scandinavian word grav, which literally means “grave” in Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, and and or laks, which means “salmon.” Thus, “buried salmon.” Man, I love etymology.
As instructed by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, authors of our household bible Charcuterie, simply procure a piece of “very fresh, preferably wild salmon with brightly colored, firm flesh that smells clean and appealing,” bury it in your choice of “optional flavors and seasonings,” wait a few days, and voila. Seriously people, that’s it.
Easier than I ever imagined, I’ll definitely be doing this on a regular basis. Below is the recipe for a fennel-cured fish, but as the authors suggest, you can let your imagination and tastes run wild.*
4 ounces/125 grams sugar (about ½ cup)
6 ounces/180 grams light brown sugar (about 1 packed cup)
6 ounces/175 grams kosher salt (about 3/4 cup)
One 2- to 3-pound/1- to 1.5 kilogram salmon fillet in one piece, no thicker than 1½ inches/3.5 centimeters, skin on, pinbones removed
1/4 cup/60 milliliters Pernod
1 fennel bulb, with stalks and leaves, thinly sliced
½ cup/65 grams fennel seeds, toasted
2 Tbsp/20 grams white peppercorns, toasted (heat gently in a small, dry skillet until they begin to release their fragrance, a few minutes) and cracked
- Mix the sugars and salt well. Sprinkle half of the mixture over the bottom of a nonreactive pan or baking dish just large enough to hold the salmon. Pan size is important, because the fish will release a lot of liquid, forming a highly seasoned brine in which it will cure, and you want the brine to cover as much of the fish as possible. (If you don’t have a pan the right size, you can use aluminum foil to wrap the fillet in an enclosed package. The salt won’t have enough time to react with the foil.)
- Place the salmon on the salt mixture. Sprinkle both sides of the fish with the Pernod, then cover with the remaining salt mixture. Layer the sliced fennel over the top, followed by the fennel seeds and white peppercorns. Cover with plastic wrap (or enclose completely in the foil.)
- Place a pan on top of the salmon and weight it: A few canned goods will do the trick, as will a brick–try to use 4 to 8 pounds/2 to 5 kilograms. (The idea is to speed up water loss from the salmon by pressing it out, so the more evenly the fish is pressed, the better.) Refrigerate for 48 hours, redistributing the cure ingredients as necessary over the salmon once about midway through the curing. The salmon should be firm to the touch at the thickest part when fully cured. If it still feels raw and squishy, cover and leave in the cure for 24 more hours.
- When the salmon is fully cured, discard the fennel and spices, rinse it well under cool water, and pat it dry. To store it, wrap in butcher’s paper or parchment paper and refrigerate. The salmon will keep for 3 weeks in the refrigerator. Rewrap in fresh paper if the paper becomes too wet.
- There are many ways to serve the cured salmon, but it’s commonly sliced translucently thin. This requires a good slicing knife and some practice, but it makes a big difference in flavor and texture.
*Citrus flavors make for a very bright, fresh cure, and you can try pastrami spices (black pepper and coriander), dill, or horseradish. General guidelines would be the zest of two lemons and two oranges and a squeeze of juice from each; an even coating of pepper and coriander; a generous bunch of dill; or a half cup or so of grated fresh horseradish.