Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

December 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


I loved smoked salmon, but home-smoking salmon requires some specialized equipment (making it less than simple), and not everyone can afford to buy it already smoked (although at many stores that sell nova lox and other types of smoked salmon, you can purchase the trimmings at really low prices). I also love the gentle flavors of gravlax, which is cured raw salmon (by marination and maceration, which change the structure of the fish's proteins; "gravlax" means "buried salmon," referring to the ancient practice of burying fresh caught salmon in the sand of the tidal zone to "cure" it). It took me years to begin experimenting with gravlax, because so many "professionals" made it look sloppy and like it would take up a huge part of my refrigerator. Well, once I tried it, and added my own innovations, I discovered that it is so simple that absolutely anyone can do it. Not only is it good as the star of an appetizer course, but it also has so many fantastic applications (just like smoked salmon!)

As the title indicates, gravlax (like all forms of salmon) is good for you. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which provide cardiovascular health benefits, including lowering the risk of stroke, primarily by reducing the likelihood of blood to clot within arteries. Salmon is also an excellent source of the vitamins B3 (niacin), B5, B6, and B12, as well as selenium (selenium is believed to offer certain cancer prevention benefits). Salmon may even confer various mental benefits, including possibly providing some protection from Alzheimer's disease. Sure, if you are sodium sensitive, this might not be the best way to get your nutrients, but otherwise, just remember that salmon is considered by some to be one of the world's healthiest foods (www.whfoods.com). Now, make some Gravlax!


Begin this process 2.5 to 3 days before you need the finished gravlax. Combine the salt, sugar and pepper in a bowl; mix thoroughly. Check the fillets for any remaining pin bones by rubbing your fingers up and down the flesh side of each fillet; use tweezers, needle nose pliers (my fave) or your fingernails to remove the pin bones (if you miss any, you will find them easily when you begin slicing the gravlax). Place one fillet, skin-side down, into a zipper-lock or otherwise sealable plastic bag; pour the salt-sugar-pepper mixture on top of the first fillet and use your fingers to distribute the dry mixture over the fillet evenly. Place the second fillet, flesh-side down onto the dry mixture on the first fillet so that the two pieces line up evenly, rather like a salmon sandwich with a filling of salt, sugar and pepper. Squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible and seal with the zipper-lock or other sealing mechanism. Place the bag with the fillets in any tray or bowl where they can lie as flat as possible. Place another tray or plate or bowl over the fillets, and weight with some canned goods from your pantry. Place the trays/bowls in the refrigerator. Flip the fillets in their plastic bags every 12 hours (more or less); everything is just so neat and tidy this way. After 2.5 to 3 days, remove the fillets from the refrigerator and from the plastic bag, and rinse them under cold water (you can wash out the plastic bag and reuse it for your next batch of gravlax).


To slice the gravlax, you will need a cutting board and a very sharp long-bladed knife. Be aware that fish flesh forms flakes (myomeres, in biological jargon), and you want to slice the salmon ACROSS those flakes, perpendicular to them, not parallel with them, just like carving any meat or poultry. Starting 1" from one end, and holding the knife almost parallel to the board, and cut a section out of the salmon; this will not be a perfect piece, as it bears a "corner" of the fillet, so feel free to just eat it! Getting back to the fillet, move the edge of your knife slightly in from where you began to slice before, continue holding it almost parallel to the board but angled oh-so-slightly downward, and cut another slice down to the skin and then turning the knife up to separate the slice from the skin. Continue doing this until the entire fillet has been sliced, and then slice the other one. Accept the reality that "practice makes perfect" when slicing gravlax. Also accept that, after years of doing this, not every slice will be perfect, or identical to others. If I am slicing gravlax for a party or other presentation where I want some uniformity among the slices, I separate my slices into two groups: those for the presentation, and those for some future application where uniform size isn't so desirable (don't be bothered if your latter pile is larger than your former pile!). Gravlax can be frozen in tight plastic wrap for six months (or more, but don't quote me!).


Dilled Gravlax: Follow the basic recipe for Gravlax to the point of adding the salt-sugar-pepper mixture onto the first fillet; for this recipe, add only half of the salt mixture to the first fillet. Instead of capping the salt mixture with the other fillet, take one bunch of fresh dill, rip it in half (so that it will fit on top of, and between, the fillets better), and place on top of the first fillet. Place the second fillet into the interior of the zipper-lock bag, flesh side up, and cover with the remaining salt mixture, and press it into the flesh as much as possible; carefully, turn the second fillet flesh-side down onto the dill, so that a salmon sandwich with a dill filling is formed. Continue following the basic gravlax recipe for 2.5 to 3 days, and slice as you would any gravlax. NOTE: dried dill just doesn't seem to work well here.

Scandinavian Gravlax: This is a more sophisticated version of the Dilled Gravlax. Add 1 T of cracked or ground juniper berries to the sugar-salt-pepper mixture. Follow the recipe as for Dilled Gravlax. Alternatively, or additionally, add ¼ c aquavit to the salt mixture before spreading it (use vodka or gin if you don't have or don't like aquavit). The alcohol will NOT dissipate from the gravlax, so alert any fellow diners if you use aquavit (or vodka or gin).

Southwestern Gravlax: Follow the basic recipe for Gravlax, but add 1 T dried chile flakes or 1 t chile powder to the salt mixture. Also add one bunch of fresh cilantro, torn to fit the fillets, as in the Dilled Gravlax recipe. NOTE: the chile can be omitted if only the cilantro is desired.

Border Town Gravlax: Follow the recipe for Southwestern Gravlax (with or without the chiles), but add ¼ c tequila to the salt mixture (as the aquavit, gin or vodka were added for Scandinavian Gravlax).

Pseudo-Smoked Salmon: the degree of smokiness for this recipe is contingent on your tolerance of chile heat. It involves adding up to 1 T of chipotle powder, smoked hot Spanish paprika, or smoked sweet Spanish paprika (the last being the mildest) to the salt mixture of the basic Gravlax; 1 t will be barely smoky at all, but also not spicy; both qualities increase with the volume of chile added. Either dill or cilantro (or neither) can be used within the salmon sandwich; if used, proceed as with Dilled or Southwestern Gravlax. Proceed as for basic Gravlax if not using any herbs.


Plated Gravlax: the service can be as simple as some attractively arranged slices of gravlax with some slices of good bread (rye, pumpernickel, baguette, or your favorite) or some good crackers (and maybe some butter), or it can be made more complex with the added choices of capers, chopped onion (preferably red, Vidalia or Maui, but plain old white or yellow onion will work, also), chopped green onions/scallions, chopped shallots, thinly sliced and caramelized onion, roasted garlic, chopped hard-cooked eggs, tapenade, pesto, mustard, sour cream, crème fraiche, even caviar (sturgeon or otherwise!). Just enjoy it.

There are many other applications for any these versions of gravlax, but I won't take up space here outlining them. I'll save the details for another time, but let your imaginations work wonders with such titles as Scrambled Eggs and Salmon, Breakfast Burritos with Salmon, GLT Sandwich (that's Gravlax-Lettuce-Tomato), Salmon Cream Sauce, Salmon Wine Sauce, and Salmon Carbonara. Just don't obscure the flavor of the gravlax with too much "stuff."

Guests to Casa Beall often enjoy my gravlax. In fact, as I type this, I've got a couple of salmon fillets (wild caught, so they have lower levels of PCBs!) macerating and marinating in my refrigerator to produce gravlax (in fact, it's a new version, which I'll share in a future column!). Since gravlax freezes well, it's going to be a terrific holiday season whenever I haul some of these tasty delicacies out of my "magic freezer" (private joke). Blessed Solstice! Happy Hannukah! Merry Christmas! Festive Kwanzaa! Happy New Year! Whatever you choose to celebrate, celebrate well!

Whether you are celebrating by yourself, or entertaining your family, or a larger group of friends, be sure to serve good food, serve healthy food, and if you feel overwhelmed, you know you can come to me for help. Whether for cooking or entertaining help, I can be reached at 773.508.9208 or email me. Have a terrific holiday season!