The trouble with cured salmon? We tend to treat it like, well... a treat.
Do-it-yourself cured salmon. — Photo by The Associated Press
Cured salmon — with all its rich, salty, savory, lusciously fatty goodness — too often is relegated to the breakfast or brunch table, and even then mostly for special occasions. It’s partly a case of association; we think of it as a specialty item not intended for everyday eating. But it’s also a case of cost. Cured (as well as its close cousin, smoked) salmon isn’t cheap.
So we decided to break both those barriers. Let’s start with cost. Gravlax — as cured salmon is known by its Nordic name — generally is made by dry-curing fillets of salmon in a blend of sugar, kosher salt, fresh dill and a variety of other seasonings. The process extracts moisture from the flesh of the salmon, producing a smooth, yet meaty texture and a wonderfully salty-sweet flavour.
It’s also ridiculously easy to make. While you pay a premium for ready-to-eat cured salmon, you can make your own for not much more than the cost of the salmon itself.
And the only equipment you’ll need are a food processor (for making the cure) and a zip-close plastic bag. And obviously you’ll want to buy the very best and freshest salmon you can find
Once you have the salmon, it’s as simple as grinding together the curing ingredients, rubbing them on the fish, and refrigerating it. A couple days later, you enjoy smoked salmon.
Now let’s talk about that enjoyment.
The classic serving suggestion is to accompany thinly sliced cured salmon with rye bread, whole-grain mustard, capers, chopped fresh dill and shaved red onion. But that’s just the start. Cured salmon has all sorts of potential at the dinner table. Some of our favourites include:
‰ Pasta: Toss warm pasta with creme fraiche, thinly sliced scallions, the zest and juice of 1 lemon, a spoonful of drained capers, chopped fresh thyme, black pepper and thinly sliced cured salmon. The residual heat of the pasta will just barely heat the salmon and melt the crème fraiche into a wonderful sauce. To boost the flavour of everything, add just a dash of Sriracha.
‰ Crepes: Savory crepes make “breakfast for dinner” so much better. Fill warm crepes with sour cream, cured salmon, fresh dill and sliced tomatoes.
‰ Grilled cheese: Slap some salmon, roasted red peppers (patted dry) and Gouda between thick slices of sourdough bread. Toast until the cheese is melty.
‰ Pizza: Roll out a ball of pizza dough, slather it with olive oil, then toss it on the grill. Grill each side for just a few minutes, or until lightly browned. As soon as the crust is done, top it with arugula, soft goat cheese, cured salmon and copious amounts of black pepper.
‰ Hash: In a large skillet, caramelize a chopped yellow onion and several cloves of garlic in a few tablespoons of butter. Microwave several sweet potatoes until just tender, then peel and cube. Toss the potatoes in with the onions, then add a chopped medium zucchini. Cook until browned and tender. Top with thinly sliced cured salmon and a couple fried eggs.
Classic Gravlax (with variations)
Select a two-pound, centre-cut fillet of salmon that is at least one inch thick. Any thin ends should be trimmed to keep the salmon as uniformly thick as possible. While the salmon can be cured with the skin on, we like to trim it off. The salmon will need to be handled with care once the skin is removed, but it makes the finished product easier to slice. It also allows the cure to penetrate more evenly.
To remove any small bones from the salmon, start by rubbing your hand over the flesh, moving against the grain. You’ll often find a short line of very thin bones sticking up. The easiest way to remove them is to grasp them with tweezers and gently tug them out.
Start to finish: three days
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon dill seeds
1 large bunch fresh dill
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2-pound centre-cut salmon fillet, any small bones removed
In a food processor, combine the sugar, salt, dill seeds, fresh dill and pepper. Pulse until the dill is well chopped and the mixture is combined.
Spread the mixture over both sides of the salmon. Place the fillet in a large zip-close plastic bag. Close the bag, then place on a baking sheet, to keep the fillet flat, and refrigerate for 36 to 48 hours. Flip the bag every 12 hours to redistribute the curing mixture.
Remove the salmon from the bag, scrape off the seasoning mixture, then pat it dry with paper towels. If you have trouble brushing off the seasonings — or find the taste too strong — you also can rinse the salmon under cool water, then pat it dry. To serve, slice the salmon thinly against the grain of the flesh.
Wrapped tightly in plastic and refrigerated, gravlax will keep for 2 weeks.
Brown Sugar-Chili Cured Salmon
Use the same method as above, with the curing mixture made from 1 cup packed dark brown sugar, 1/2 cup kosher salt, 2 serrano chilies, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes and 1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme. Proceed with the recipe as outlined above.
Peppered Citrus Cured Salmon
Use the same method as above, with the curing mixture made from 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup kosher salt, 3 tablespoons ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary and the zests of 2 oranges, 2 lemons and 2 limes. Proceed with the recipe as outlined above.
In a dry skillet, toast 2 tablespoons coriander seeds, 1 tablespoon black peppercorns and 1 tablespoon caraway for 2 to 3 minutes, or until aromatic. Allow to cool, then grind in a spice grinder. Combine in a food processor with 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1/2 teaspoon mace, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup kosher salt. Proceed with the recipe as outlined above.