Like fire opals lit from within, freshly cured salmon eggs are ready to be served as ikura sushi, sprinkled on a bowl of rice (ikuradon), as a seafood garnish, with cream cheese and rice crackers, or simply gobbled by the spoonful!
At $40 to $50 a pound wholesale (and more expensive than that at the grocery store, when you can find it), cured salmon roe is not a regularly featured food in most kitchens. But if you catch your own salmon – or are friends with someone who does – it can be. Although the process of curing fresh salmon roe is somewhat time consuming, it is not difficult, and with patience almost anyone can turn out a sushi-grade batch of this delicacy.
These two matching skeins of eggs, or roe sacs, from a Chinook salmon were frozen this past summer and went into one of our ice chests when we flew to our home in Point Hope, Alaska this fall. Japanese chefs typically prefer the eggs of chum salmon (they’re big), but the eggs from any salmon species are fine. In fact, very attractive cured roe can be made from the smaller eggs of large char, too.
Whether you use fresh or fresh-frozen eggs, the first step (once the roe is completely thawed) is to separate the individual eggs from the skein. The riper the eggs, the easier this process will be. There’s a trick that makes this process much easier than it might otherwise be. Bring a pot of water to a temperature of about 120 degrees Fahrenheit and plunge the whole skein into the hot water. Remove the pot from heat and gently swirl the eggs around. You’ll probably want a pair of nitrile or plastic gloves for this. As you do this, you’ll notice the eggs becoming opaque – cream colored. They’ll look as though you’ve ruined the batch. You haven’t.
Hot water temporarily colors the roe and makes it easier to remove from the membranous roe sac. Provided you have kept the water temperature below 140° F, do not be concerned if your eggs become whiter and more opaque than those in the above photograph.
Next, pour the eggs and the water into a strainer. Plastic colanders, with their smooth surfaces, work well for this step. A lot of the extraneous tissue will drain off at this point. Place the strainer with the eggs in a large pot, fill with cold water, and continue to swirl the eggs around. The fat and other unwanted tissue will tend to rise above the eggs and can be skimmed off with a wire mesh skimmer. Some of the eggs will still have tissue attached. These can be cleaned by hand.
Left: Salmon roe separated and cleaned and ready to be cured. Right: the finished product – fresh, salty ikura.
The next step is magical. For each cup of salmon roe, add just less than a teaspoon of salt. Finely ground sea salt or kosher salt works best for this step. Gently but thoroughly mix the salt into the eggs with your hands. The eggs will immediately begin to turn bright and translucent. Taste and roe and, if desired, add additional salt.
Finally, place the eggs in a strainer one more time to allow excess liquid to drain off. The cured roe will keep for several days in the refrigerator. It can also be kept in the freezer in tightly sealed jars.
One you get the basic method down, you can substitute soy sauce for some of the salt or add a splash or two of sake (酒) to create subtly different flavors.
We serve ikura on everything from scrambled eggs to seafood pizza, as well as on traditional Japanese dishes such as chawan-mushi and zaru soba. Below, they add a splash of color and flavor to crepes wrapped around smoked Alaskan salmon and herbed cream cheese.