This is the time of year when a lot of your proteins are in the freezer, since in many places, it is the “in between” season.
One of my favorite things to do in these months is cure meat and fish. If I can manage to do it before it hits the freezer even better, but you do what you can.
Salt curing inhibits the growth of microorganisms by drawing water out of microbial cells through osmosis. Salt pork and salt beef were common staples for sailors on long journeys, and was the only widely available method of preserving food until the 19th century. The term we often hear for cured salmon is “gravlax,” a word that comes from Scandinavia. “Grav” means “grave,” and “laks” means salmon. During the middle ages, the fisherman of that region salted and fermented their salmon in the sand above the high-tide line—a little grav for their laks.
Today we do it in a similar way, minus the actual sand. Salmon is buried in a mixture of salt and sugar and cured for a few days. The salt and sugar serve as a highly concentrated brine.
I used citrus in my cure because it adds a little intrigue. You could also use fennel seeds, star anise, dill, coriander seeds, or anything else that floats your boat.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the price of cured salmon recently, but if you were to buy a two pound piece in the store, you’d spend about $50 dollars. Doing it at home will only cost you a few dollars, and last for weeks and weeks. Plus you get to impress people with your home curing skills.
Kosher salt is ideal for curing because it isn’t heavily refined. Each grain has many faces, which helps draw out moisture. This is how it earned the name Kosher salt. It’s not actually “Kosher,” it got its name because this is the kind of salt Kosher slaughterhouses use in order to extract all of the blood from their meat so that it can me deemed Kosher.
A lot of people also think the flavor is more pure because it is not heavily refined, so you will see it in a lot of professional kitchens.
You add your salt and sugar to a non-reactive container that will hold the salmon as snugly as possible–I used Pyrex.
And regular every day sugar is perfectly fine as well.
Then some white peppercorns. These are just black peppercorns with the shells removed. Did you know that? It was a long time before I knew that. The flavor is quite different, not the same “burn.” A lot of chefs use white pepper on fish simply because the color blends in. Pretty silly, eh? But it is milder… almost sweeter.
You want to toast them until you can smell them.
Smell that? mmmm, pepper.
Now, if you’re fancy and have a mortar and pestle you can crack the peppercorns in that. I’m not fancy so I do it the other way–with the bottom of a heavy pot or pan. It’s a cinch and works just as well.
Then I tossed in some ground coriander. I could have used whole seeds and toasted them along with the peppercorns, but you use what ya got, right?
Now, combine your mixture into a colorful sand… go ahead, I’ll wait…
Okay! Place the salmon in and bury it. A little “grav” for your “laks”…
Now the fun part. Cover the dish with plastic and find a weight to place on top. I used a pie dish. That’s what I could muster. Something that will fit pretty evenly on top, but don’t go crazy trying to find the perfect fit.
Then you wait for two days…….
Okay! Two days have past. And it’s like opening a present on Christmas morning.
It should be firm to the touch. If it’s squishy, cover it back up and wait another day.
Give it a rinse.
Give it a pat.
And it’s done! You can slice it thinly and serve…
OR you can take it one step further which I did.
I put it back in the refrigerator uncovered for another 12-24 hours so the flesh became “tacky.” This is called a pellicle and helps it absorb smoke more easily.
Then I smoked it using a stove-top smoker that cost $31 on Amazon (Max Burton Stove Top Smoker) proving that even if you don’t have a back yard and an expensive smoker, you can still execute this perfectly. And of course you could always say that you have a big outdoor smoke house that you built yourself—I won’t tell.
The smoke just adds an extra dimension. If you do smoke it, use cherry, oak, or alder wood chips, or something in that vein. I used cherry, because that’s the kind of mood I was in. Just avoid pine or anything in the conifer family.
Then it’s ready to slice and serve. This same method of curing can be used for any fatty fish, but salmon is the most common.
It’s lovely with toast points or just by itself.
Like smoky pink sheets that melt on your tongue.
Give it a try and report back to me!