Bagels and Lox anyone? Gravlax is a Scandinavian specialty. Just to clarify, it is not smoked salmon, and I will explain why. Salmon gravlax are cold-cured in sugar, salt and plenty of dill. I like to add about two shots of vodka, for good measure you know!
The name gravlax comes from two Scandinavian words gravad meaning “to bury” and lax meaning salmon. The name stems from the medieval practice of fishermen to bury their catch above the high tide line. This would accomplish two things: it would ferment the fish and thus preserve it. Although this practice is no longer employed, the name stuck. Although traditionally considered Swedish, gravlax is also enjoyed in Finland, Iceland and Norway. Smoked salmon is first cured and then cold or hot smoked.
Every Fall, my husband heads to the streams near our house to test his luck at one of his favorite past times: Fly fishing. Yes, the practice of artfully casting the fishing line into the stream over and over again. The grand prize if he is successful: a nice big steelhead (a cousin of the salmon) which will eventually become gravlax. The cold-curing process takes 3 days and involves a brick. Yup, a brick!!! Why you might ask? No, we’re not throwing bricks at each other.
The curing process
The brick weighs down the fish and allows the moisture to be squeezed out. Moisture is the enemy! The proportions of salt to sugar is key for the curing process to be a success. Around my house we await the arrival of the steelhead with great anticipation. I think this is a good time to confess that as soon as the steelhead hits the counter-top I am out of that kitchen faster than you can say gravlax. Yup, I am squeamish and I am not afraid to admit it! Curing fish using this method has been around for thousands of years. The basic process is that the salt destroys any and all microbes. It also removes the water that microbes need to multiply. You can read more about this topic in a great book by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn: Charcuterie, The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing
Seasoning your salmon gravlax
When we make gravlax at home we use the proportions of one part sugar to one part salt. We also add a little bit of pepper, cracked coriander seeds, and a full head of dill, stems removed. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the vodka, right? Some chefs like to add different spices (caraway seeds for example) to the salt and sugar cure to achieve a specific flavor. One thing that remains constant is: keep the working surface as clean as humanly possible to avoid contamination.
The salmon should also be as fresh as possible. In our case, with an experienced fisherman in the family, the salmon or steelhead comes from the stream to our table. It doesn’t get any fresher than that! BTW… if you don’t have a stream nearby or just don’t fish, don’t fear, most good grocery stores have fresh salmon. If you are making gravlax from store bought salmon, make sure the skin is on; it will make slicing a lot easier.
Gravlax is traditionally served with a mustard sauce and pumpernickel bread. Any other brown or whole grain bread will also work well. It is also common to find gravlax served with cream cheese, chopped red onions, and a squeeze of lemon. Feel free to add capers too.
Step by step photos:
- Place a couple sheets of plastic wrap slightly overlapping to make an extra wide sheet. Lay the salmon fillets on the plastic wrap with the skin side down.
- Coat the flesh evenly with the salt, sugar, coriander and black pepper mixture.
- Take the fresh dill that has been roughly chopped with the stems removed, rinsed and dried then pack onto the salt mixture. Optional: Pour 2 ounces of vodka over the fish.
- Wrap the fillets tightly with the flesh sides facing each other.
- Place the fish in a large container. I have a fish poaching dish that works well for this. A glass baking dish will work well also.
- I place the bottom tray of the poaching dish over the fish with a foil wrapped brick on top. You can use some canned goods but wrap them with foil to use as weights. This will help expel the water from the flesh. Place in the refrigerator.
- After 24 hours remove from the refrigerator, tip to drain off the liquid into the sink then flip the fish over. Repeat for the next 2 days by draining and flipping. After 3 days the fish will be firm. Some thicker salmon fillets may take a bit more time for them firm up. Give it a poke with your finger. If it is still very soft, it needs more time.
- Once the fillets are firm, remove from the plastic, rinse off all the salt-dill mixture until clean. Pat dry with paper towel.
- Depending on the fillets you are using, you may need to remove the pin bones with small pliers. Run your fingers over the fillets to find them and pluck them out.
- Take a very sharp, thin bladed knife and slice on a bias to serve.
Frequently asked questions:
- How long can I store the gravlax in the refrigerator? Wrap the salmon as tightly as possible and it will keep nicely for 5-8 days unsliced and 2-3 days if it has been sliced.
- Can I freeze the cured salmon? Yes, I like to vacuum pack mine and it stores nicely for 2 months. Be sure to take it out the day before to thaw in the refrigerator while still sealed. Break the vacuum seal just before slicing for best results.
- Can I use other types of salmon? Sure, I have used wild caught Atlantic salmon and well as farm raised. Those fillets tend to be thicker and may need a little more curing time until they are firm.
- Are there other ways to serve the slice cured gravlax? Sure, you can dice the salmon and serve with sour cream, diced red onion on toast points. Another way is to incorporate into a salad of mixed greens, red onion, Parmesan cheese and lemon based dressing.
*This gravlax recipe was adapted from Food Network.
Here is our family Gravlax recipe we make each fall when the steelhead salmon are running up stream near our home. This is a very simple recipe for home cured salmon.
- Chop off stems of dill bunch and discard. Rinse.
- Finely chop the dill.
- Once the salmon/steelhead is dressed, you will end up with about 4 lbs. (2 fillets)
- Grind the coriander seeds and black peppercorns in a spice mill or coffee grinder.
- Combine the sugar, salt, black pepper and coriander in a bowl.
On 2 plastic wrap sheets lay the fillets, skin side down, side by side and sprinkle with the vodka. (Vodka is optional but traditional.)
- Cover them in the salt/sugar/spice cure. Place the chopped dill in the middle and make a "sandwich". Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and place in a rectangular container. Weigh down with a small foil covered brick, or large cans.
Turn every day for three days. Drain off the liquid each day when turning. On the third day unwrap and rinse off the dill and salt cure.
- Pat dry with paper towels. Remove pin bones carefully with a pair of needle nose pliers.
When ready to serve slice thinly on a bias.
Serve with pumpernickel bread, cream cheese,capers and chopped red onions.
- Fresh is best. If you don't fish, go for the freshest your grocery store has to offer.
- Keep your surface CLEAN.
- Feel free to adjust the spice proportions to taste.
Originally published November 2014 and updated October 2020.