Salmon gravlax tastes similar to smoked salmon, but without the pricetag. Easy to make, all you need is a little planning, then enjoy the delicate, lightly herbed flavor.
I don’t think it’s just our family, but we’ve tended to have seafood of some kind as an appetizer on Christmas day. Maybe it’s the Scottish love and wealth of seafood, an unconscious nod to those that celebrate the feast of the seven fishes the night before or Scandinavian influence. Or maybe it’s just that it’s fairly light before the rest of the big meal to come. Whatever the reason, it’s a great choice. Easy to prepare, not to mention tasty. When I was a child, we often had smoked salmon or shrimp. Now and then we had gravlax (also called gravadlax or grav laks), a tasty cured fish dish, most commonly made with salmon, that’s Scandinavian in origin.
What is gravlax?
Gravlax is fish cured in a mix of salt, sugar, pepper and dill. It’s easy to make yourself from fresh salmon and the result a little like smoked salmon but without the high cost. It’s a common sight on a Scandinavian Christmas meal table, and makes a great holiday appetizer. You can use gravlax just as you would smoked salmon, it just has a slightly lighter flavor. It picks up the lovely freshness from the dill in the cure, but without it overpowering. I’ve used it as a topping for blini as well as on Danish smørrebrød and it’s great.
How it’s made
Making gravlax is, as I say, really easy. You just have to be a little patient for the cure to do it’s work. All you do is mix up the cure, put it between two pieces of salmon then put the salmon in the fridge, weighed down, for a couple days. Turn the fish every 12-24 hours. It takes around 2-3 days to bring out all the moisture from the salmon and for it to firm up and go more opaque. If you look at the picture bottom right below, this is the result after 48hours. You can see quite how much liquid has come out.
How long you cure it is a little to taste. It will go a little firmer and drier, and have more of the taste of the cure, the longer it is left in. The cure is traditionally more sweet than salty, although many recipes are the other way round. I like it equal parts of both as I think this gives a more neutral flavor allowing you to really taste the salmon itself.
Tips for making gravlax
While gravlax is easy to make, one point to note is it’s worth having a piece of salmon that’s as close to the same thickness the whole way through – in other words a centre fillet rather than tail end. If not, it will cure more on the thin pieces and less on the thicker part. The thin part may also go dry. Nearly all recipes call for a piece of fish with skin on but to be honest, having made it both ways I don’t think it makes much difference. Either way, I suggest you remove the skin before slicing as I find it easier to slice the salmon that way.
A final tip is use a dish that’s only a little bigger than the pieces of salmon so that as the liquid comes out, it becomes fairly well covered by the brine liquid. You can wrap it in plastic, but I think being in a dish and weighed down is much better and easier to handle.
Homemade gravlax is a very cost-effective way of making something a bit fancier that’s great for entertaining. Put it on top of rye bread with some Danish remoulade sauce (as in my smørrebrød). Serve it with salad, roll it with cream cheese instead of smoked salmon in smoked salmon pinwheels. Or serve it on bagels or crackers. The options are as endless as anything you would do with smoked salmon. We had it for lunch over a couple days with rye bread and remoulade. I left the pieces that were on top last in the brine the extra day so it worked out perfectly. We all loved it, including my toddler. It’s got a fantastic flavor and is so easy to make, it’s a wonder it’s not better known. Give it a try and see for yourself how delicious it is.
Gravlax is a delicious, economical alternative to smoked salmon that's easy to make.
- 1 lb salmon fillet 450g, skin off or on, as you prefer
- 1 oz coarse sea salt 30g
- 1 oz sugar 30g
- 1/2 tsp black pepper freshly ground
- 3/4 oz dill 20g, tough stems removed and finely chopped
- 1/2 lemon zest optional
If you have any doubt on the freshness/quality of your salmon, freeze it first then defrost it before making the gravlax to get rid of any bacteria. If it has been previously frozen or is sushi grade, no need to do this.
Trim any thin pieces from your salmon. They will likely over-cure and are best used in some other way fresh. Carefully check to see if there are any bones and remove. Cut the salmon in two equal-sized pieces. This can be down the central spine if a wide fillet so you have in effect two squares.
Mix together the cure of salt, sugar, pepper, dill and lemon zest in a small bowl.
Place one of the pieces of salmon, skin side down, in a dish just larger than the piece of salmon, and tip the cure over the top. Spread evenly.
Place the other piece of salmon on top, skin side up. It should be the opposite way round from the bottom piece if possible (ie if bottom piece is thick on the left, have the other piece thick side to the left. Rub any cure that's escapes out the sides on the side and over the top of the salmon.
Cover the fish with plastic wrap/cling film and place in the fridge. Put another dish or plate on top weighed down with something heavy (I used a few beer cans!). Leave it to cure, turning every 12-24 hours for 2-3 days until the salmon goes firm and slightly opaque.
Rub off any excess cure (some stray dill is fine) and pat the fish dry. Slice the salmon thinly across the grain, removing any skin, and serve.
Note: the nutritional information doesn't reflect that you remove most of the cure so the actual sodium and sugar levels are lower.
Prep time does not include time left to cure.
Try these other seafood appetizers:
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