Like panna cotta and aioli, gravlax is one of those intimidating-to-make foods that are, in actuality, incredibly easy. The most important thing to remember is to stop the curing process at the right time or your salmon will become overly salty and stiff. I learned this the hard way, but luckily it was still tasty when used as a condiment in omelettes and rice bowls. Thus, never fear - even if you mess up, your salmony goodness will still be appreciated. When cured to just the right level, gravlax reaches an ethereal luxuriousness that both impresses dinner guests and is incredibly cheaper than the store-bought version. Your guests will be wondering how you did it and you'll be wondering why you ever eat gravlax that aren't home-cured.
Curing is a generic term that can mean anything from drying apple slices to smoking pork belly for bacon - essentially, preserving a food by altering its ingredients. Gravlax, which is a Scandinavian type of lightly cured fish, uses sugar and salt to draw water from the fish and create an inhospitable environment for microbes. This both (slightly) preserves the fish and changes the flavor and textural properties. What is incredible about humans is that so many of the processes we figured out to survive (food preservation by adding salt being one of them) resulted in foods that we now cherish. A lot of the most culturally definitive foods, from fish sauce to cheese, were originally created out of necessity, but are now valued for their gastronomy and cultural significance.
Although no longer a necessity, gravlax is one of those cured foods that will endure because it's so darn delightful. When curing fish, it's important to have the right about of sugar, salt, and time, but beyond that the herb/spice pairing is up to you. I have made gravlax with fresh dill, as is outlined in the recipe below, but I have also used dry dill in a pinch or even other combinations of herbs and spices (for example, coriander and sweet fennel fronds), all with pleasant results. Nothing really beats the classic fresh dill, white pepper, and fennel seed combination however! the below recipe makes enough for about 12 servings as an appetizer or on a bagel, but it can be adapted according to needs (more fish will require a longer curing time). As gravlax is only lightly cured and no heat is involved, the fish is only preserved for about 5 days after the curing process.
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1/3 cup kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon whole ground white peppercorn
- 2 teaspoons fennel seed
- 1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
- 1.5 pounds fresh salmon fillet
Blend sugar, salt, white peppercorn, fennel seed, and dill. Sprinkle half of the mixture evenly all over the skin side of the fish and rub into the skin slightly so it sticks. Place fish in baking dish, skin side down, and sprinkle the other half of the mixture over the fish.
Cover the dish in plastic wrap or, alternatively, put the whole piece of fish coated in the sugar-salt-dill mixture into a large ziplock bag. Weigh down the fish to express moisture as it cures. Some items that can be used include another smaller baking dish with cans or jars filled with water or rocks.
Refrigerate the salmon for at least 2 and up to 3 days, turning it every 12 hours and basting it with the liquid that collects.
To serve, slice the fish thinly and use as an appetizer atop rye crackers or cucumber with crème fraîche, on the classic bagels and cream cheese, or in a number of other creative ways.