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Salt-cured raw salmon

Gravlax We Nordic people, to whom salmon has almost always been common everyday food, cannot help but smile or stand aghast at the ridiculously high pricing of various gravlax products sold in gourmet shops, delicatessen counters or airport "luxury" food shops in some countries, as gravlax is one of the simplest and easiest dishes in the world to be prepared at home, if you only have access to good-quality, fresh salmon.

Using this same curing method, you may prepare the traditional Finnish freshly salted powan, salt-cured raw whitefish.

one fillet or a piece of fresh salmon fillet with skin
coarse-grained sea salt  —  3 - 4 tbsp per 1 kg of fish
sugar  —  4 tbsp per 1 kg of fish
large bunch of fresh dill

Choosing the right type of fish:
The salmon must be absolutely fresh and kept properly chilled. Also trout or rainbow trout may be used instead of salmon. Frozen fish should not be used, especially when making freshly salted fish, as freezing worsens the texture of the above mentioned oily fish species (see the note printed in bold below). In countries where salmon and other trout fish do not occur naturally and are only available as imported, frozen products, it is best to seek a good-quality speciality fishmonger selling sushi-grade fresh salmon and other fish.

However, after seeing outside Finland, that for example in countries like Ireland the fresh fish sold to consumers is often positively infested with sealworms/codworms (Pseudoterranova decipiens) or other types of parasites, I think in most countries it is never absolutely safe to eat raw fish without freezing it first. To avoid any risks, follow the guidelines issued by your local food safety authorities.

Curing the fish:
Place the salmon fillet skin-side down on a large piece of clean parchment paper. Run your fingers on the surface of the fillet to feel any bones and remove them by pulling them out using fish tweezers (or use regular tweezers). Make sure your hands and all the utensils you are using are clean  —  it is a good idea to wear disposable, thin plastic gloves.

Mix together the salt and sugar and sprinkle evenly on the fillet. Some people also like to add just a hint of freshly grated or coarsely crushed white pepper in the mixture. Distribute the dill sprigs, with their stems slightly crushed with a back of a spoon, on top (see the pictures below). Do not use chopped dill, as the small leaves will only get soggy during curing and become difficult to remove afterwards. One can never use "too much" dill to season gravlax!

Note: when making traditional gravlax, only salt, sugar and dill are used to enhance the delicious, natural flavour of raw salmon flesh. Adding all kinds of "exotic" spices on the salmon or drenching it in liquors, like vodka, aquavit, cognac or brandy, will completely adulterate the unique, delicate flavour of this dish (for example, curing salmon with cognac may produce a turpentine-like off-flavour). Of course you can use whatever "unorthodox" ingredients to cure your salmon  —  just don't call it gravlax, as it would be a bit of an insult toward this ancient dish and the Nordic culinary heritage :-)

Piece of fresh salmon fillet Arrow Sprinkle with salt and sugar
Piece of fresh salmon fillet   Sprinkle with salt and sugar

Arrow Distribute dill on surface Arrow Wrap and place in a dish
  Distribute dill on surface   Wrap and place in a dish

Tightly wrap the fillet in the parchment paper, then in plastic and place the package, with the fish skin-side down, in a deep dish, to catch any juices leaking out of the packet (see the picture above). There is no need to turn the fillet during curing or place any weight on top of it, as stated in some recipes. Place the dish in refrigerator for about 12 - 24 hours  —  but no longer than 48 hours. The longer the fillet is kept this way, the saltier it becomes.

In my family, we find the salmon best when it is only very lightly salted. In fact, we often just cut fresh, skinned salmon into thick, shortish strips, place them on a plate, sprinkle with a little bit of salt, cover and let stand in refrigerator for an hour or two. We then eat the salmon either plain or dipped in soy sauce mixed with a bit of wasabi paste, like sashimi.

Slicing the gravlax:
Unwrap the paper package, pour out the accumulated juices, remove the dill and gently wipe the surface of the fish clean. Cut the flesh into thin slices along the skin with a filleting knife (see the pictures below).

Slicing a fillet or piece of salt-cured salmon
Opened gravlax package Arrow Piece of gravlax
Remove the soggy, limp dill, pour out accumulated juices and wipe the surface clean   Cut out thin slices along the skin with a fish filleting knife

Arrow Piece and slices of gravlax
  Repeat until all flesh is cut out

Serving the gravlax:
Arrange the salmon slices in a serving dish and sprinkle lots of fresh, chopped dill on top. Gravlax can be served as it is, garnished with dill and lemon slices or wedges, or with the traditional Swedish dill and mustard sauce, or used to make gravlax canapés, or more elaborate open-faced sandwiches, garnished with lettuce, mayonnaise, crème fraîche, lemon, dill, slices of hard-boiled egg, shrimps, etc. Especially in summer time, one may serve freshly-boiled new potatoes as an accompaniment.

My favourite way of eating gravlax is to layer it thickly on a thin slice of generously buttered white bread or toast, dark sourdough rye or black sweet-and-sour rye bread, or rye crispbread, with lots of chopped fresh dill sprinkled on top.

Also the leftover skin from the salmon fillet may be eaten: scrape off any remaining flesh from the skin, so that only the skin is left. Cut the skin up crosswise in narrow strips (about 1 centimetre wide), and either grill them or fry in a hot pan until crisp and curled up, but do not let them burn. Serve immediately, eg on side of the gravlax or as a crunchy snack with beer and drinks.

Storing the gravlax:
Wrapped in plastic and refrigerated, gravlax made according to this recipe will keep for up to two to three days. It should never be frozen, as freezing worsens the texture of salmon and other oily fish.

Additional information:
Also smaller cuts of salmon fillet may be salt-cured  —  just reduce the amount of sugar and salt in proportion to the weight of the fillet cut. Let salmon pieces that are thin and/or weighing less than 400 - 500 grams marinate only for about 8 to 12 hours. Cut out and eat a slice of the fish to see, whether it is salty enough for your taste. Note that the flesh on the surface will be saltier than that next to the skin-side. Gravlax should not be overly salty  —  while the original purpose of salting raw salmon was to preserve it, today salt is only used as a seasoning.

*) If you do not happen to have coarse-grained sea salt, use half the amount finely granulated sea salt. Regular table salts, especially those containing anti-caking agents, added iodine or other additives, should not be used in salting gravlax, or indeed any other fish or food.

Recipe source: traditional Nordic recipe.


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