October 2013 Issue
Gravlax — A Cure for the Appetite
By Bryan Roof, RD, LDN
Vol. 15 No. 10 P. 106
The do-it-yourself (DIY) craze has reached far beyond home renovations and deep into the kitchen. Homemade cheeses, charcuterie, and condiments adorn many a magazine page and blog post. The popularity of DIY projects is about getting your hands dirty, making things better than what you can buy in the store, knowing where the ingredients come from, and maybe saving a little money in the process. For me, homemade gravlax is one of those culinary pleasures where the complexity of its flavor disguises the simplicity of the process.
Gravlax is salt-cured salmon and has origins in medieval Scandinavia where it was salted and buried in the sand along the shoreline. The word “gravlax” actually refers to a salmon grave of sorts. Back then, it cured by fermentation, and the end result was pungent and assertively flavored. While curing salmon used to be done to prevent spoilage, today its deep pink color, pleasantly dense texture, and subtle salty-sweet flavor are the main drivers for its popularity.
The basic recipe involves salt, sugar, fresh herbs (usually dill), and spices (typically black pepper and juniper). The salt and sugar in the cure work by drawing moisture from the fish and changing its protein structure while at the same time inhibiting bacterial growth. Curing times vary based on the size of the fish filet being cured, but the longer the fish sits in the cure, the stronger the flavor of both the fish and the curing agent.
There are countless variations on the gravlax theme, and you’ll find “cheffed-up” versions that replace a portion of the salt with soy sauce, substitute molasses for the sugar, and include any number of spices to give the fish an ethnic slant (eg, Mexican, Moroccan, Indian). I’ve even seen salmon cured with beet juice to give it an interesting tie-dye effect when sliced. Some savvy chefs expedite the process by slicing the salmon before rubbing it with the cure, reducing the time from 24 hours to as little as 10 minutes. This is done to preserve more of the fish’s natural flavor and richness. Whatever the method, the trick is to not overpower the delicate taste of the fish.
For my own cure, the ratio I like best is two parts sugar to one part salt. More salt than that and the fish becomes too salty by the time it’s fully cured. I prefer the classic combination of dill with salmon, augmented with fresh citrus zest; however, I’ll often add cilantro to the cure as well. I keep the spices simple, too, usually just black pepper but occasionally coriander seeds in combination with juniper to fancy it up.
But fancy or not, it’s not hard to do it better than what I can buy—and all by myself nonetheless.
— Bryan Roof, RD, LDN, is a chef, dietitian, and food writer living in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @bryanroof.
2 T sugar
1 T fine sea salt
1/2 T cracked black pepper
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh dill
1 tsp each grated fresh lime, lemon, and orange zest
One 8-oz skinless salmon filet
1. To make the curing mixture, combine the sugar, salt, pepper, dill, and zests in a small bowl. Spread half of the cure in the center of a large piece of plastic wrap about the size of the salmon filet. Place the salmon on top, then spread the remaining cure over the top of the salmon. Fold the sides of the plastic wrap up and around the salmon to seal it, making sure that the cure stays in contact with the salmon. Place on a plate and refrigerate until the salmon is slightly firm to the touch, between 24 and 36 hours, depending on the thickness of the filet.
2. Remove the plastic wrap, rinse the remaining cure off the salmon, and pat dry with paper towels. Place the gravlax on a wire rack and set in the refrigerator, uncovered, to air dry, about three hours. When ready to serve, slice thinly on a bias. The unsliced gravlax can be stored in a zipper-lock bag and refrigerated for up to one week.
Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 120; Total fat: 8 g; Sat fat: 1.5 g; Trans fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 30 mg; Sodium: 440 mg; Total carbohydrate: 1 g; Dietary fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein: 12 g