I am a big fan of smoked, cured, sushi-ed, poached, baked or seared salmon. Anything salmon really. But if you had to ask me what my favorite way to eat salmon is, I will, without hesitation, report “sliced-thin-atop-of-cream-cheese-slathered-chewy-bagel-with-capers-onions-and-tomato”. Yes, I am like Ralphie from the Christmas Story, who knew what his dream toy was and could say its whole long name without catching a breath at any time of day and night.
My relationship with store-bought smoked or cured salmon is rocky. For starters, it’s hellishly expensive and in most cases, farm raised. We gave up on a farm-raised fish a while ago for variety of reasons. With salmon in particular, it was an orange dye that’s fed to the farm-raised fish to give it its famous salmony color. You see, farm-raised salmon never gets to eat what it likes. And it likes shrimp and krill. And it’s precisely its food that gives salmon it’s gorgeous fiery orange color. When salmon is fed … err… whatever they feed them on a farm, it loses its gorgeousness, among other things, so the entrepreneurial farm keepers just add food coloring to the feed. There are of course other reasons, which I am not going to list here. Suffice it to say that all of those things are good enough reason to buy wild caught, and make your favorite treats at home. Especially if they are so so so easy to make.
If you are like me in the salmon department, you might be surprised to find that making a beautiful slab of cured salmon at home is very easy. All you need is salmon, sugar, salt, and herbs. And a sharp thin blade knife. If you like to be authentic in Gravlax making business, it has to be dill. But not mandatory.
Gravlax is a word that came to us from Scandinavia. It varies by country, but means the same thing – buried salmon. Fisherman used to bury the fresh caught fish in the sand above the tide line and let is naturally ferment in salt water for days. Since not all of us have access to the sandy beaches of the North, we have to replicate the burying and fermenting process by coating the fish with a mix of salt and sugar and tightly wrapping it. With time (quite short time, actually), salmon’s juices drawn from the fish by salt will create a natural highly concentrated brine, in which the slab of fish will naturally ferment and finish curing process. We add herbs and cracked spice seeds for flavors, and we wait. We wait at least three days.
And then we take that sharp thin bladed knife and we slice the beautiful thing crosswise and at a sharp angle to the board, and then…. and then… and then we just do whatever the heck we want with it. Let your imagination go.
Well, I think it’s ridiculous to even write a recipe after the explanation above. There is no exact measure for anything.
- slab of wild-caught salmon fillet, preferably skin on, variety doesn’t matter
- coarse unrefined salt, white sugar
- bunch of fresh dill weed, coarsely chopped, or if you don’t like to eat dill, use whole sprigs, which can be easily removed later
- coarsely ground black pepper (optional)
- cracked herb seeds, such as dill weed, fennel, coriander, cumin, caraway (optional)
- plastic wrap and an air tight container
If you are using just one slab of salmon, I suggest cutting it in half crosswise, so that the halves can fit on top of one another, skins outward. I usually buy two slabs of salmon, use larger and thicker portions for cooking dinner, and then save the thinner narrower portions for curing.
I wouldn’t worry about the parasites. Most of the quality wild-caught fish is frozen at sea as soon as it’s caught. By the time it makes it to the store, anything bad is gone. If you are concerned, freeze the slabs for 14 days in a regular freezer, and then thaw in the fridge.
Mix salt and sugar in 2:1 proportion, i.e. for 2 tbsp salt 1 tbsp sugar. You will need enough curing agent to coat your slabs (non-skin side) completely — both top and sides. We are not talking sprinkle, we are talking a layer, a visible coat of salt and sugar. Lay the fish skin side down on a chopping block. Coat the fillets with sugar and salt mix. Add cracked pepper and spices (optional) to coat the slabs evenly. Put whole sprigs or chopped dill on one of the slabs in a nice even layer. Pop non-dilled slab on top of the dilled slab. Skin sides should end up facing outward. Wrap both slabs together nicely in plastic film. If you are against plastic, parchment paper will do just as well, but you will need to tie it with a butcher twine to keep the fish snugly pressed against each other.
Place the wrapped fish in an air tight container that will allow some fluid accumulate with time. Put container in the back of the fridge for a few days. In a day or so, turn the fish slabs upside down to let brine penetrate throughout.
Gravlax should be ready in at least 3-4 days. Keeping it in brine longer will produce more flavor, more transparency, and more awesomeness. When you are ready to enjoy it, unwrap the gravlax carefully, discard the brine and plastic, and briefly rinse the fish in running cold water to get rid of extra salt. If you like dill, take care not to wash it off.
Pat the gravlax dry with a paper towel. Lay skin side down on a board, and using the sharp thin blade knife slice thinly at a very sharp angle towards the board.