Alaska Salmon Lox or Gravlax

Lox on onion bagel_n

With a history dating back to the European Middle Ages, a number of methods for preparing lox and gravlax (or gravad lax) have evolved. We’ve settled on a dry-brining method that produces beautifully colored, deliciously flavored salmon fillets ready to be sliced translucently thin as on the above freshly made onion bagel.

Many cultures have a tradition of salting and burying fish, a technique that results in both preservation and fermentation. In fact, the origins of sushi can be traced back to fish prepared in this method. The grav of gravlax derives from the Scandinavian word for grave, and lax, salmon, has cognates in many old European languages. Thus gravlax literally means “buried salmon.”

Although preparing lox is somewhat labor intensive (the fillets are packed in salt under light pressure and liquid must be drained every 24 hours or so over a period of several days), since it isn’t smoked, anyone with a refrigerator can make it. Both sea salt and kosher salt produce good results, and we like to add a little brown sugar and black pepper. The dry brining method we prefer is known as “Scottish-style.” Other styles call for a wet brine. Dill, juniper berries and other seasonings are traditionally used in some recipes, but we prefer to add seasonings, if any, when the lox is being served.

In addition to traditional lox on a bagel with cream cheese, capers and a thin slice of onion, it’s also excellent on scrambled eggs, as a colorful finishing touch to deviled eggs, or as a wrap around any number of vegetables or other seafoods and served as an hors d’oeuvre.

Silver salmon head n

Always look for the freshest fish. Salmon should be bright with clear eyes and a pleasant smell reminiscent of the sea.

While historically lox was made with Atlantic salmon, these days, with Atlantic salmon populations in severe decline almost everywhere, the Atlantic salmon available in stores is farmed in places such as Norway, Scotland, British Columbia and Chile. For reasons rooted in flavor, sustainability and environmental impact, we prefer wild Pacific salmon. The salmon in the above photo is Coho (silver salmon), but any Pacific salmon species works well, as do large char. If you leave the skin on the fillets, it can later be used to create a crispy fried appetizer.

For the best presentation, lox should be sliced very thin. The best tool we’ve found for this job is a yanagiba – a Japanese sashimi knife. Our yanagiba has an extraordinarily sharp, nine-and-a-half inch blade. Both the sharpness and the length are important for slicing – not sawing – ultra thin pieces of salmon.

For a great recipe for smoked salmon, see:

Smoked Salmon with Soy Sauce and Brown Sugar Brine

For excellent homemade bagels, see: Bagels 3 Ways

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Homemade Lox

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. fresh salmon fillets, skin on. The fillets need not be scaled, but do take pains to ensure that all bones are removed.
  • ¼ cup coarse sea salt
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Rinse fish and dry thoroughly.
  2. Remove any pin bones in fillet with tweezers or needle nose pliers.
  3. Mix together salt, sugar and pepper. (This recipe works well when multiplied. Our last batch was 5 pounds of fish.)
  4. Pack salt mixture around fish. You can do this skin side down.
  5. Sandwich two pieces of fish together, skin side out.
  6. Pack any leftover sugar mixture onto exposed fillet.
  7. Wrap sandwiched pieces tightly with plastic wrap. Leave sides slightly open so liquid can drain while the salmon cures.
  8. I use a poacher with a draining tray for the next step. Another method would be to place a steamer basket at the bottom of a plastic box. The idea is to create a raised place for the fish to set while being pressed from the top. This will allow the juice to drain away from the fish.
  9. Place sandwiched salmon in poacher.
  10. Place weight on top of all salmon pieces. I use large jars of jam or large containers of salt. I have seen pictures of people using bricks.
  11. Place poacher in refrigerator.
  12. For 7 days, every 24 hours pour off liquid from the bottom of the poacher and flip the fillet sandwiches.
  13. At the end of 7 days, take the salmon out of the plastic wrap and thoroughly rinse using really cold tap water.
  14. Thoroughly pat dry.
  15. Slice very thin and enjoy!
  16. Store leftovers in refrigerator or freeze in airtight containers.

12 thoughts on “Alaska Salmon Lox or Gravlax

  1. I do have to admit that lox and cream cheese on an onion bagel is one thing I truly miss since going vegan 8 years ago . . . your photo makes my mouth water . . . My husband buys Alaskan salmon from Carson Hunter here in Bodega Bay. He fished in Alaskan waters and now has good contacts for amazing smoked salmon.

      • I just finished smoking a batch of samon in my masterbuilt smoker using the soy sauce and brown sugar recipe. I altered it a bit by adding chili sauce, johnies garlic seasoning, tabasco sauce and ground parsley. Once brined, I brushed pancake syrup on each fish piece and smoked it for about 5 hours. Turns out, it is the best smoked fish I have ever had. Thanks for sharing the recipe.

  2. Love the gravlax! You are lucky to have such salmon at your doorstep, or hatchway. I too use a yanagiba for slicing my gravlax, and don’t add any other ingredients in the cure other than salt and sugar and pepper, preferring to make a dill/mustard separately.
    I was just wondering, is there a culinary reason for discarding the exuded fluid from the fish while it is curing? The general orthodoxy in charcuterie is the fluid contributes to the cure and turning the meat/fish over (overhauling) every day or so is to make sure as much of it comes into contact with the fluid during the curing process. Maybe next time I shall try your method and see.

    • Hi Adam, You raise an interesting question. We prepare our gravlax as we do because that’s how we first learned to do it. The finished product is excellent, and we hadn’t thought further about the theory behind whether to pour off the juice or not. One thing we like about pouring off the juice is that by the time we’re done (the process generally takes about seven days), the gravlax requires no further drying or other preparation. In addition to regularly draining off the juice, the container we use allows the fish to sit on a grate so that it remains above the juice. Because we wrap the fillets in plastic wrap, the salmon receives adequate salt and sugar throughout the process. By contrast, when we’re doing a wet brine for smoking fish, we immerse the entire fillets in liquid and, since they float, we do turn them once mid-way through the brining process.

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