Cured (Or Smoked) Salmon

Salmon is the star of any PNW meal, and this cured version is bound to impress.

Cured salmon, or gravlax, translates as salmon grave. In the Middle Ages salmon was lightly salted and then buried in the sand by the sea for a few days. This was a way of preserving the fish.  

There are many different ways of approaching cured salmon. The recipe I’m sharing here is simple and flexible. The most important part of the recipe is salt. Salt is a remarkable ingredient that will do all the curing for you. The salt absorbs into the fish’s cell walls and cause those cells to swell and eventually burst. When the cell walls burst, they release a salty liquid that works as a brine to cure the salmon. (This process is called osmosis and is the same principle that is used to cure meats, something I will write about soon.)

whole salmon

Sugar helps balance the salty flavor and adds sweetness (you can also substitute honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, or even molasses.)

Alcohol in the form of vodka, whisky, bourbon, beer, or wine can also be added to create different flavors, if using alcohol add about a cup to the salt and sugar mixture.

How long you cure the salmon will determine the texture. For the recipe below, I suggest curing for 3 days, which will give you a firm texture with intense flavors of salt, sugar, and spice. If the same piece of salmon was left for as little as 6 hours, it would be very lightly cured and have a more delicate flavor. There is no right or wrong amount — how long you leave the salmon to cure depends on what you want the final product to be.

cured salmon

Cured Salmon

Serves: 15-20 portions Time: Prep – 30 mins, 1-3 days to cure

Ingredients

All ingredients are listed in imperial and metric. As you know, I prefer metric as it’s most accurate and used universally.

  • 6 lbs or 2.7kg, 1 whole side of salmon skinned and pin bones removed
  • zest of 2 whole lemons
  • 225g or 8 oz salt
  • 225g or 8 oz brown sugar
  • 14g or 0.5 oz pink peppercorns
  • 56g or 2 oz fresh dill roughly chopped
  • 56g or 2 oz fresh tarragon roughly chopped
  • 6g or 0.2 oz whole coriander seeds
  • 6g or 0.2 oz whole fennel seeds

Method

  1. Fillet, debone, and skin a whole salmon. (You can also let your fishmonger do the hard work and buy a side of salmon that is already prepared.)
  2. Combine all the ingredients (except for the side of salmon) together in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. This will be the curing mixture.
  3. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on a work surface. Make sure it is longer than the side of salmon.
  4. Add half of the curing mixture to the plastic wrap so that it is evenly distributed (about ½ inch thick). Make sure to leave a gap around the plastic wrap edge of about 2 inches. Otherwise the salt will fall out when you wrap the salmon.
  5. Lay the side of salmon in the center of the curing mixture.
  6. Add the remaining curing mixture.
  7. Add another sheet of plastic wrap on top of the salmon. Wrap together to encase the salmon tightly in the plastic wrap. Wrap it at least 4 times.
  8. Place the salmon on a wire rack on top of a sheet pan and place in the refrigerator.
  9. Leave the salmon to cure for 1-3 days depending on the size and texture you want. (A shorter curing time will produce a lighter flavor and soft, rarer texture. A longer cure produces a stronger flavor and firm texture). Turn over a couple of times.
  10. Remove the salmon from the plastic wrap and rinse thoroughly under cold water to remove all the excess curing mixture.
  11. Pat the salmon dry with some kitchen paper, slice, and serve.

Tips And Tricks

  • Make sure there is enough curing mixture to to completely cover the fish before wrapping it.
  • A 1-inch thick piece of salmon will be fully cured in 18 hours. This works well if you are doing smaller pieces of salmon.
  • The salt and sugar ratio can be changed for various different finishes, add more sugar for a sweeter salmon.
  • Try different types of herb and spice mixtures. Add ginger, lemongrass, garlic, lime zest, fresh red chili and cilantro for a cured Thai salmon. There are limitless combinations.

Smoked Salmon:

To turn cured salmon into a classic smoked salmon, follow the exact same recipe and leave the salmon sit for about 16-20 hours wrapped and refrigerated in the salt and sugar mixture.

Thoroughly wash the excess salt and sugar mixture from the salmon and allow the salmon to sit uncovered on a wire rack for a few hours. This helps the salmon form a pellicle (a thin layer of proteins that have dried), which will help the smoke adhere to the fish.

Smoke at 140-150℉ for 20-40 minutes.

For smoked salmon, softer woods like cherry, apple, or pecan work best, but that’s not to say oak, hickory, alder maple or mesquite won’t also produce good flavor. I also love to use huge bunches of fresh rosemary picked from my garden instead of wood.