For decades, gravlax has held a precious place in my food-loving heart. For years, slicing it in front of guests was one of my signature show-off moments at gatherings. I’d use a long, thin bladed knife to cut slivers off the oh-so-shiny fish, it’s jewel-like flesh fueling revelers’ hunger.
How to Use It
It can be the centerpiece of simple-yet-elegant appetizers, first courses, and salads. It’s delicious for breakfast or brunch, served with brown bread, cucumber slices, capers, red onions, and mustard sauce (more delicious than lox in my opinion). Toss it into warm potato salad or pasta. Mouthwatering.
Gravlax (pronounced GRAHV-locks) is a Swedish-style cured salmon made by coating a fresh salmon fillet with a salt-sugar-fresh dill rub. Sometimes spices—such as cracked white peppercorns or brined green peppercorns—are smeared on, too, as well as a splash of brandy, gin, or aquavit (a Scandinavian liquor distilled from potatoes or grain, often flavored with caraway seed).
Once coated, slide it into a zipper-style plastic bag, seal well, and place in a roasting pan big enough for the fish to be flat. Then weight it with a heavy can or two placed atop a plate. I have a huge can of hominy, more than 6 pounds, that is reserved for this purpose. Some cooks like to use a saucepan filled with water. But whatever the weighty object, it sits atop the salmon in the fridge for a three- to four-day cure. Some insist the fish needs to be rotated in the process, but I just let it snooze skin-down, undisturbed.
The fish firms as the seasonings work their magic, drawing moisture out of the flesh while concentrating sweetness. Thinly sliced, the texture is silk-like. And once it’s cured and has the seasoning (mostly) wiped away with a lightly water-moistened hand, it can be placed in plastic wrap and refrigerated up to five days. Easy, right?
Skin or No Skin
Although skinless salmon fillet can be used, I prefer to use it with the skin left in place during the curing process. The skin provides something to hold onto at the far end when carving the last quarter of the gravlax. To thinly slice it, place it flesh-side up on a cutting board, and slice on the diagonal using a sharp (thin-bladed) knife. When the knife reaches the skin, turn it so it is parallel with the work surface and continue cutting (the slice will separate from the skin and the skin will remain in one solid piece.
Which Salmon and What Sauce?
It is crucial to use a super-fresh salmon with any pin bones that may still be in place removed with pliers or tweezers. (I rarely find any.) I use Atlantic salmon because it has the right amount of fat to make the gravlax rich and scrumptious (Scottish is a favorite).
A traditional Swedish way to serve it is thinly sliced, accompanied with a sauce made of mustard, oil, sugar, wine vinegar, and lots of chopped dill. I’ve included that recipe here. But I encourage you to try a tasty New World inspired Chipotle chili-based sauce. It’s a versatile sauce, slightly spicy but wonderous in its creaminess; it’s great on everything from grilled chicken to hamburgers. But to my way of thinking, gravlax is its biggest star.
Make gravlax. You will be impressed with its ease of preparation, versatility, and delectability. Honest.
Gravlax Appetizers with Chipotle Sauce
Yield: serves 10-12 as an appetizer
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons cracked white peppercorns
2 1/2 to 3 pounds skin-on salmon fillet, in 1 piece, any pin bones removed
2-3 large bunches fresh dill, coarsely chopped (including stems)
2 (good-sized) canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce (be sure they are well coated with adobo)
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed or chopped
Garnish: chopped chives, or microgreens, or parsley
For serving: 1 baguette, thinly sliced, lightly brushed with extra-virgin olive oil on one side, briefly broiled oil-side-up, about 8” from broiler element in oven until nicely browned on one side (1 to 1 1/2 minutes does the trick in my oven(keep an eye on them – they can turn black in a wink of an eye).
Cook’s notes: Gravlax will keep in the refrigerator (airtight) 5 days. Leftovers can be frozen (that have the coating wiped away – ok some coating will remain), wrapped in plastic, then in aluminum foil, up to 1 month.
1. Prepare Gravlax: Check salmon for pin bones. Combine sugar, salt and pepper in small bowl and mix well. Place salmon in shallow nonreactive dish and rub handful of salt mixture into both sides of fish. Sprinkle with remaining mixture on top and cover with dill. Place in zipper-style bag, press out air and seal. Place on rimmed baking sheet or pan that allows it to lay flat. Put a weight on top – can be a pot filled with water or a large can or two cans set on plate.
2. Place in refrigerator 3 to 4 days to cure.
3. Up to one day ahead, prepare sauce. Place chipotle chilies in food processor; pulse to finely mince. Add remaining ingredients and process until smooth. Transfer to container and refrigerate airtight. (The sauce will keep up to 5 days refrigerated.)
4. Scrape seasoning off gravlax. Cut on diagonal into thin slices, turning knife parallel to board when you reach the skin. (If you slice it well in advance of serving, place plastic wrap over gravlax and refrigerate.) Place gravlax atop toasted baguette slices and top with a small spoonful of chipotle sauce. Garnish with microgreens, chives or parsley.
Source: The Chipotle Sauce was taught to me by cookbook author Hugh Carpenter
Marcus Samuelsson’s Traditional Mustard Sauce
Yield: about 1 1/2 cups
2 tablespoons honey mustard
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon cold strong coffee
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup room temperature grapeseed oil OR canola oil
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
1. Up to 1 day ahead of serving, prepare Mustard Sauce: Combine both mustards, sugar, vinegar, coffee, salt and pepper in blender or food processor. With machine running, add oil in slow, steady stream, blending until sauce is thick and creamy. Transfer to bowl and stir in dill. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight, to allow flavors to meld.
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.” Thomas was proud to be named one of Orange Coast magazine’s “35 Kickass Women” (September 2020).