Gravlax always impresses: buttery, salty, supple ruby-red ribbons of cured salmon, fit for brunch on any-old Sunday and gorgeous enough for a holiday feast. But you’ll impress even yourself when you make it, since it’s actually dead easy and quick; it takes just 10 minutes of prep and 24 hours in the refrigerator.
Not to be confused with Nova (as in Scotia) lox, which is cured and then cold-smoked, gravlax is a practical invention of Scandinavian fisherman who salted their fresh catch and buried it to maintain a cool temperature while the fish cured. (In Swedish, Gravlax translates to “buried salmon.”) The gravlax that we know and love is milder and sweeter than the pungent, fermented version from centuries ago, but it’s still practical—it can be kept in the fridge for about 10 days.
You must start with great fish. Like any simple dish, the quality of the main ingredient will be apparent at first bite. The curing helps preserve it, but remember that you’re still essentially eating it raw; buy very fresh fish from a trusted fishmonger. Some people prefer to use defrosted flash-frozen salmon since the freezing process rids the filet of possible unwanted microorganisms; the resulting gravlax is good, but to me the texture falls short of the meltingly tender but still-firm gravlax you get from a fresh filet.
Aside from getting very fresh fish and keeping it very cold, the only other thing you have to be careful of is slicing it. I admit I screwed up this recipe once by slicing it too thick, clumsily with a dull knife. It tore and mangled the delicate fish. So use the sharpest knife you’ve got, and urge paper-thin wisps off the filet by smoothly and gently sawing the knife against the grain. You want the blade of the knife to be nearly parallel to the surface of the cutting board for nice, broad slices.
Traditionally the recipe calls for salt, sugar, Aquavit (a Scandinavian liquor) and truckloads of dill. I’ve brightened it a bit with a splash of triple-sec and a healthy amount of lemon, orange and grapefruit zest.
1 pound very fresh salmon, center-cut filet (ideally wild-caught)
½ cup sugar
½ cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon peppercorns, crushed
2 tablespoons Triple-Sec
1 handful large piece of orange, lemon or grapefruit zest
Clean and bone filet: Rinse the salmon filet in very cold water and pat dry. Using fish tweezers, remove any pin bones in the filet.
Mix cure: Combine the sugar, salt, peppercorns, triple sec and zest in a small bowl. Crush the zest a bit and mix well.
Apply cure: Lay a large piece of plastic wrap (about 2’) horizontally across your countertop. Arrange a second piece directly over the horizontal piece, forming a cross. Place the filet in the center of the plastic wrap, skin side down. Rub the cure into the flesh, and pile the cure on top of the salmon, mounding it higher in areas where the fish is thicker.
Wrap fish and refrigerate: Fold the plastic wrap tightly around the salmon on all sides. Put the salmon on a small rack over a plate in the refrigerator and place something heavy (like a platter) on top of the fish. You don’t need to press the fish while it’s curing, but it helps get some of the moisture out and force the flavorings into the filet. Let the filet cure for 24 to 48 hours in the fridge.
Rinse, dry, and slice: Remove the filet from the plastic wrap and rinse in cold water. Pat dry, slice and serve.