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“How to Cure Salmon and Other Fatty Fish”

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.

Pretty, eh?

Give it a try and report back to me!

“Citrus Cured Smoked Salmon”

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 lbs

“Citrus Cured Smoked Salmon”

Ingredients

  • 3 lemons
  • 3 limes
  • 2 oranges
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 4 cups Kosher salt
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon white peppercorns
  • 2 pounds salmon, boneless and skinless, at least 1.5 to 2 inches thick

Instructions

  1. With a grater, remove the zest of the citrus fruit.
  2. Mix the grated zest and coriander with the salt and sugar in a non-reactive dish, like Pyrex. The more snugly it all fits in the dish with the salmon, the better.
  3. In a hot, dry pan toast the white peppercorns, until they exude their aroma, about 3 minutes. Put them on the counter or a cutting board, and using another heavy bottomed pan crush the toasted peppercorns. You could also use a mortar and pestle. Then add the cracked peppercorns to the salt mixture.
  4. Thoroughly mix all of these ingredients then bury the salmon in this sandy mixture.
  5. Cover the dish in plastic, place a weight on top, and store in the refrigerator for 24 hours to cure. Check the firmness of the fish by pushing aside the salt pressing it with your finger. It should indent only slightly. It will likely need an additional 24 hours but if it feels quite stiff then remove it from the salt.
  6. After about two days, remove the salmon from cure, rinse with water and pat dry. You can slice it thinly and eat it this way, or let it sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours on a rack so the surface becomes tacky, and will absorb the smoke more readily. Then cold smoke it for 20 minutes.
http://georgiapellegrini.com/2010/03/01/recipes/how-to-cure-salmon-and-other-fatty-fish/

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Comments

  1. Great recipe Georgia… If I wanted to cold smoke the bacon, can you tell me at what stage this would be done.

    • Georgia says:

      Ian! If you cold smoke, you should keep the temperature of the box (and the meat) at or below 100 degrees F. This requires a reliable smoke box that you can really control. Make sure you let the bacon surface dry before you put it in a cold smoke, so that the smoke adheres more readily. The timing is up to you, since it's just about how smoky you want your bacon to be. It's ready to eat before it even hits the smoker. Hope this helps!

      • Thanks Georgia! I have just the unit to do the cold smoking bit. I will try out your recipe soon, smoke it and let you know how it turns out.

  2. Nice one! I too make this citrus-cured salmon, although my version relies more on wild fennel and ouzo, with the citrus as a back note. Never thought to smoke already sured salmon, though. Great idea! I will give it a go. Incidentally, it looks like we might get a short ocean salmon season this year in California… h.

  3. I like that version! I have avery similar recipe. After curing in salt for 3- hours and rinsed& dried ( I found it is less salty if you submerge it for about 10 seconds in cold water and rubbing the surface it is not salty at all..Then it sets in the fridge on a cooling rack for two hours.Then before smoking it is covered with a mix of equal amounts of crushed black peppercorns and lemon zest & juice of one lemon.I then put it on my pellet smoker set at 150'.I smoke it for about three hours and crank up the smoker to 225' and using a remote thermometer inserted in the salmon I take it off when the internal temp is 145'.Then it is brushed with pure maple syrup.Thirty minutes later brush it again. I can't wait to try your version.

  4. I did this! I just excavated my laks from their gravs! They were firm to the touch, just like you said they would be! I won't be smoking these ones but I'll be trying this again soon with an eye toward smoking. My thoughts: 1. I used sockeye because I prefer wild over farm-raised salmon. The flesh seems denser, and not surprisingly I ended up with an incredibly concentrated product akin to jerky. I liked it. I wonder if thicker, farm-raised salmon fillets yield a more delicate slice. 2. Even after rinsing, my laks still seem heavy on the salt. My rudimentary research told me that the aromatics would "fill in" where moisture was extracted, but the citrus, pepper and coriander are background notes behind the salinity and sweetness. Should I just rinse it more vigorously or did I do something wrong? 3. Speaking of cures, some call for alcohol, like absinthe, vodka or rum. I forget the rationale for it, but I figure the sooner my food gets exposed to booze the more comfortable it will be in the long run. Have you any experience with this? 4. My local grocery gets some nice steelhead trout on occasion, so I think I'm going to work that into my curing rotation. I'm also going to try brown sugar eventually as I play around with smoke combinations. Thanks you so much, Georgia! I never would've thought of curing salmon before this, and now I'm already dreaming up recipes for it!

    • Georgia says:

      Greg! How big was your piece of salmon? The smaller the less cure you use… give it another good rinse and let me know!

      • Georgia! The salmon fillet was pretty small, like .75-.8 pounds. I cut the amount of cure by half. I rinsed it heartily again but the salt is holding tight.

        • Georgia says:

          Hi Greg, I think next time use less cure, and if it's small like that keep checking it to make sure it doesn't get to that "jerky" consistency. The thinner the filet is, the faster it will cure. You just don't want it to be squishy, but mildly firm is all you need. It should melt in your mouth!

  5. I used an 8oz piece of salmon with sea salt and cured it for almost 48 hours and then rinsed it.We didn't bother to smoke it because we liked it the way it was. Not salty at all after a good rinsing.It was great on crostini with goat cheese and a leaf of cilantro.Thank you so much.Next time ..bigger piece and kosher salt.

  6. Sounds like a great idea and a perfect way to stretch a buck. Living in NYC smoked salmon is running $10 for a measly 1/4 lb…I'll definitely give this a try!!

  7. Hi, first time visitor. I'm not a huge fan of salmon, but I enjoyed reading this post and seeing the curing process – who knew it was that easy? It looks so beautiful and colourful. :)

  8. Peter Gabriel says:

    Beautiful post.

  9. So, I got to taste this and I must say it was amongst the best I've tasted. Quick question: how long and at what temperature did you smoke? I'd always thought that texture was maintained by "cold" smoking where the temp of the product doesn't get much above 40 degrees. Thanks so much for sharing your culinary adventures.

    • Georgia says:

      Hi Dan, you were one of my guinea pigs! Sometimes I drop my recipes off in office buildings to get a truly objective panel of tasters ; ) I smoked it for 20 minutes on the stove top. I kept the burner on as low as possible to ensure it didn't get too hot, but I also didn't worry about it too much since it was only going to be in there for 20 minutes. Once I turned off the heat I let it stay in for a bit longer to soak up the smoke. Every smoker is different so follow the instructions that come with yours. Hope this helps, and let me know if you have any more questions!

  10. Unbelievable. As great a cook and big game fisherman as my Dad was, it never occurred to him to try smoking his own fish. Or maybe it did and you were not around to show us how easy it is!

  11. Grandma says:

    I'm not planning to do it but I learned a lot from that post.

  12. Interesting! Living here near the Oregon coast we do eat a lot of smoked salmon that we buy from local providers. I don't have any salmon fishermen in my family, unfortunately. I'm wondering why salt curing doesn't make the meat extra salty? It doesn't seem to absorb that much salt, does it? I also wondered that about the lemons you did previously. Any residual saltiness?

    • Georgia says:

      Believe it or not, it's not salty because you rinse it under water well. Nature has a way of making it all work out…

  13. nice pic:))

  14. Christina says:

    Hi there,

    This recipe looked so great so I gave it a whirl, and followed it to a tee with 2 pounds of day-boat Coho salmon – a pretty pricey piece of fish.

    What I wound up with after 48 hours was something akin to salmon jerky. Not just firm but stiff, and when I sliced off a piece it was like biting into a boullion cube.

    I’m so sad! What do you think went wrong and how can I prevent that from happening again?

    Thanks,
    Christina

    • Georgia says:

      How thick was your fish? Moisture content can vary so much with curing, so it is a good idea to check the firmness intermittently. I’ll point that out in the directions… buy I also love salmon jerky!

      • Christina says:

        Hi there,

        The fillet varied greatly in thickness, but was probably no thicker than 1.25 inches at it’s maximum depth. I’ve since soaked that piece of salmon in water for about a half an hour, and it did release some of it’s salt, but it was still so, so salty that I decided to mince it and make a cured salmon hash, and also some fish cakes both of which turned out very yummy-licious!

        Next time I will check on the cure every 12 hours or so… trying again tonight!

        Best,
        Christina

        • Way to adapt! Sounds delicious. Also make sure to use Kosher salt, since it is less potent. And just keep pressing it to feel the firmness along the way. It’s always better to under do it because you can finish it my smoking it in the oven with some wood chips.

  15. I am so going to try this recipe and was wondering if I could cure a frozen fillet… I want to start it tonight and don’t want to wait for the steak to thaw. Perhaps I’ll be patient and start it tomorrow to be smoked on Saturday

  16. I just rinsed and sliced a piece of my salmon. It tastes really good. I put it back in the fridge and am planning on smoking it tomorrow. Great recipe. Good job.

  17. Hi,

    I am wondering what happens to the curing mixture of salt/sugar/condiments… Can the mixture be dried out and used after the curing is finished?

  18. Ooooh just what I’ve been hankering for. Funny, nobody even on the waterfront in this fishing community seems to be familiar with “mild cure”salmon. Can’t wait to try it.