In Scandinavia GRAVLAX refers to the medieval practice of curing heavily salted raw fish by burying it above the high tide level.
During the Middle Ages, gravlax was made by fishermen, who salted the salmon and lightly fermented it by burying it in the sand; the word gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word grav, which literally means “grave” (in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish), and lax (or laks), which means “salmon”, thus gravlax means “buried salmon”. Today fermentation is no longer used when preparing gravlax; instead the salmon is “buried” in a dry marinade of salt, sugar, and dill splashed with spirits. The fish is then cured for a few hours to a few days depending on the size of the fish and the concentration of salt in the marinade (small amounts of salt/sugar will require longer curing time). As the salmon cures, by the action of osmosis, the moisture turns the dry cure into a highly concentrated brine. This same method of curing can be used for any fatty fish, but salmon is the most common.
A similar preservation method used in North America & some parts of Scotland is called ‘lox‘; the fish is cured in brine and then cold smoked for 1-3 days at very low temperatures. Lox salmon is often confused with smoked salmon but they are not the same thing although both have a salty flavour. In its most popular form, it is thinly sliced – less than 5 millimetres in thickness – and, typically (in North America), served on a bagel, often with cream cheese, onion, tomato, cucumber and capers.
What I am proposing today is something that takes a bit from both practices: cure the fish in brine (both recipes) but instead of cold-smoking (lox) use Smoked Sea Salt to impart a subtle smoky flavour and produce a fresh, clean & delicate taste and a remarkable texture for a dish that makes a very elegant appetizer.
The preparation is really quick and easy and shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.
1 fresh filet salmon, skin on.
2-4 tbsp Pacific Harvest Smoked Salt (depending on size of filet)
1-2 tbsp vanilla sugar (or raw sugar)
freshly ground black pepper
a good size bunch fresh dill
1 tbsp spirits (choose one): brandy, gin, aquavit, lemon vodka, rum etc.
Note: Modern gravlax is done in the kitchen by cold-curing filets with sugar, salt, and fresh herbs. Many different combinations of sugar, salt and herbs can be used, producing different flavours & textures. A coarser salt with cure the fish faster but may also leave indents in the flesh when pressed down. A darker sugar will lend a stronger flavour and colour to the flesh.
Check the salmon for tiny pin bones by running clean hands over the flesh side of the fillet. If there are any, remove them with tweezers, otherwise they will make slicing more difficult.
Lay the fillet skin side down in a shallow dish (deep enough to collect the liquid produced by the curing) and sprinkle the fish with the smoked salt, sugar and pepper.
Spread the dill over and with the palm of your hand, gently press the mixture into the salmon. Then, splash on the spirits.
Cover the fillet with a film wrap and press down with a another dish filled with tins that weigh about half a kg (an unopened can of beans for example).
Refrigerate overnight or up to a couple of days depending on the thickness of the fillet; the fish is ready when the flesh has lost its translucence.
When ready to serve, scrape off the seasoning mixture, rinse the filet under icy cold water and pat dry. To serve, slice at an angle with a very sharp knife into paper-thin slices. It is much easier if you use a fish filleting knife or a sashimi knife. (There are a variety of different styles of sashimi knives that have different blade designs. The most popular style has a long slender blade with a face sharpened edge, meaning they are sharpened mostly on one side for a much sharper cutting).
For a quicker process, look up Jacques Pepin, a world re-known French chef. He gravlax-es individual slices of fish in dinner plates by sprinkling a small amount of coarse salt under and over the thin slices of raw salmon and letting them marinate for 10-15 minutes. He then garnishes each plate with finely sliced red onion, radish matchsticks, cucumber shavings, fennel leaves and a drizzle of good quality olive oil.
I believe that proper curing works better overall on the texture, flavour and even colour; ingredients have time to integrate and properly work on the flesh of the fish. Give it a try if you feel like experimenting!
There are a few interesting variation to the recipe…
- After rinsing, the cured fish can be coated with a mixture of Sea Lettuce Flakes and chopped fennel (equal parts) before slicing and serving. This produces a lovely green texture & colour on the top edge of each slice.
- Grated raw beetroot can be added to the curing mixture. The red juices of the beetroot colour the top layer of the salmon flesh resulting in an attractive fading red colour on the slices.
- 1 tbsp of Smoked paprika added to the curing mixture will produce a change of taste and a darker colouring of the salmon flesh.
The gravlax method can also be used successfully on some varieties of white fish such as hapuku, snapper or lemon fish. According to Jamie Oliver, white fish gravlax is particularly nice served on dark bread rounds spread with a butter-mustard mixture (equal parts of butter and Dijon mustard) and pinch of watercress.
Traditional accompaniments for gravlax salmon are: bread or toasts, lemon wedges, sour cream or cream cheese, minced red onions, capers, chopped parsley, chives & fennel or dill leaves ….even caviar or Sea Grapes. 🙂 Enjoy!