Gravlax, salmon cured in sugar and salt until it is silky smooth, is expensive to buy, but easy to make. Once the fish is filleted, it takes about 10 minutes to put gravlax together. Two or three days later, you’ll have perfectly cured fish.
I make gravlax from sea-caught wild Alaska salmon, the best tasting salmon I’ve ever had. Its great taste reflects salmon’s varied diet and the clean environment in which it grows to maturity.
Wild Alaska salmon is on the Top 10 list of “Eco-best” fish to eat because it comes from healthy, well-managed fish populations and is caught with low-impact fishing gear. In contrast, farmed salmon is on the Top 10 list of “Eco-worst” fish due to the impact of salmon farms on the environment and the elevated levels of PCBs in the fish.
We live within driving distance of waters where wild Alaska salmon congregate. By the end of summer, our freezer contains a year’s supply of fish caught by my husband and his friends. I’ve previously described how we freeze salmon and how best to thaw it.
Although I break fish down into serving size packets to freeze, inevitably we are given at least one fish a year that has been frozen whole. The whole fish weigh between 7 and 12 pounds each, much too much salmon to eat at one time. My favorite way to use whole frozen salmon is for making gravlax.
The cure I use – sugar, salt, black peppercorns, dill, and citrus vodka – is what has worked best for me over the last 20 years. I’ve tried other combinations of ingredients, but none compare to this version. (Unless it’s my recipe for Spruce Tip Gravlax, which is also wonderful.) It’s not too salty and retains a little bit of sugar’s sweetness. Peppercorns give a mild bite, and dill provides herby freshness. Vodka pulls flavor out of the other ingredients and helps them permeate the salmon.
For many years I wrapped the salmon sides in cheesecloth after rubbing on the cure to make turning the fish easier. I forgot cheesecloth one year, and discovered salmon is easy to turn even when it isn’t wrapped, so eliminated this step as unnecessary.
Some recipes for gravlax recommend wrapping salmon in plastic wrap as it cures, which I did once and will never do again. The flavor of gravlax is best if salmon sits directly in the cure, which it can’t do when it’s wrapped in plastic.
I cure salmon under weight. This is not strictly necessary (important to know if you don’t have much room in your refrigerator). However, I prefer the firm, compressed texture of gravlax that’s been cured under weight and prefer this technique.
Salmon takes 2 to 3 days to turn into proper gravlax, depending on the variety and thickness of the salmon. The only way to know if gravlax is done is to taste it.
After 2 days, I take one salmon side out of the cure, and cut off three thin slices to see if the flavor and texture are to my liking. I cut three slices because I want to test salmon flesh that hasn’t been exposed directly to the cure. If the salmon doesn’t taste ready or is still soft, I leave it in the cure 1 more day. Salmon shouldn’t stay in the cure for more than 3 days or the gravlax will be too salty.
Some recipes say to rinse the fish after removing it from the cure. I don’t like doing this, because it negatively affects the flavor of gravlax. Instead, I remove all of dill and as many of the peppercorns as I can with my fingers. After this, I dry the gravlax with paper towels and pack it for storage, either in the refrigerator or freezer.
I love serving gravlax on toasted dark bread with cream cheese, red onions, and capers. It is also great with fresh herb salad (mixed herbs dressed lightly with olive oil and lemon) or as a side dish with stewed beans or lentil salad.