Although salmon has been preserved in a variety of ways across cultures – smoking, drying, and curing the most common methods – gravlax’s distinctive flavor owes its origins to Scandinavia. The name comes from the old Swedish gravad, or “buried,” and lax, “salmon.” As early as the 14th century, Scandinavians were preserving salmon by burying it in the cold ground, packed in pine needles; this technique led to fermentation and a year-long shelf life. Modern versions substitute dill for pine needles, and produce a much more pleasantly aromatic and delicately flavored fish, (no burying necessary!)
Despite its esoteric-sounding origins, contemporary gravlax is simple to make if you plan ahead, and can be an elegant addition to an array of appetizers, or serve as a light and protein-rich side dish.
You will need:
- 2 lb. center-cut salmon filet (skin-on)
- 2 tsp white peppercorns
- 1 T fennel seeds
- 1 T caraway seeds
- 2/3 c kosher salt
- 1/3 c sugar
- 1/2 bunch plus 1 c fresh dill
- *1/4 c aquavit (optional)
1. Coarsely grind the peppercorns, fennels, and caraway seeds. A food processor works well; I have a spare electric coffee grinder that I reserve for grinding spices, which is just as good.
2. Stir the spices together with the sugar and salt.
3. Cover a dinner plate with plastic wrap, and pour half of the salt mixture onto the plate, spreading it out evenly with your hand.
4. Place the salmon onto the salt, skin side down. Cover the flesh with the remaining salt, followed by a bunch of fresh dill sprigs (they don’t need to be chopped). Pour the aquavit over the top (optional).
5. Fold the plastic wrap up around the salmon. Wrap it tightly with another piece of plastic wrap, and store it on the plate in the refrigerator for 48 – 72 hours. Turn the package over every 12 hours, taking care to open it and pat the resulting brine evenly around the fish.
6. You’ll know it’s fully cured when the flesh is very firm at its thickest point.
7. Once the fish is finished curing, unwrap it and discard the brine and dill. Rinse the fish well under cold water, and pat it dry.
8. Very finely chop ½ bunch dill. Spread the minced dill evenly over the surface of a plate. Place the gravlax skin side down onto the dill and press, so that the dill clings to the fish.
9. Turn the gravlax over onto a cutting surface and slice it very thinly against the grain, at a diagonal.
Serve it with mustard-dill sauce, or on dark bread or Swedish knaekebrod, with minced onion. Other popular additions are capers, creme fraiche, or spicy stoneground mustard.
Store the gravlax tightly wrapped in plastic, in the refrigerator, for up to two weeks.
Many people like to experiment with the flavors of gravlax. Some suggestions for add-ins to the brining salts include: citrus zest, cumin, anise, and even coffee grounds; the addition of different alcohols or liqueurs, such as tequila or flavored vodkas, can also provide interesting, less traditional results.
This recipe appears in its original form in Saveur magazine, July, 2008.
Photo by Charles Haynes, via Creative Commons.