Once I went to a fancy grocer and ordered five slices of gravlax from the deli counter. I was in one of those moods. Outside the store I ate the cured salmon by itself—no bagels or accoutrements required—draping those cool buttery slices into my mouth. It was the type of incomparable deliciousness that causes your eyelids to flutter close and your head to involuntarily shake.
Also: It was over $12—$2.50 a slice—so screw that.
Gravlax (gravad lax means “buried salmon” in old Swedish, when they use to salt and preserve the fish underground) is one of those delicacies that seems impractical to make at home. It is most certainly not. In fact, curing your own salmon is beguilingly simple and—if you’re like me and eat lox and cream cheese on a bagel daily—will cost you a fraction of the price of store-bought salmon.
The method I use was adapted from the Wall Street Journal, but I’ve added a touch more citrus flavor. I especially love the duo-sweetness of lemon zest and the licorice spice of the toasted fennel seeds. A few notes: It’s essential that you use freshly crushed black pepper for this; don’t even touch the stuff from a shaker. And don’t skimp on the fish. Ask your fishmonger for the fattiest salmon available with its skin still on (I like Atlantic), steering clear of coho, sockeye, or any of the leaner varieties.
3 lbs. salmon (find a well-marbled cut that’s evenly thick)
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. crushed black peppercorns
1 Tbsp. crushed or coarse ground white pepper
1 Tbsp. toasted fennel seeds (toast in a pan on low heat for a few minutes, until aromatic)
1 Tbsp. lemon zest (roughly from two large lemons)
1 large bunch of dill
In a bowl, combine salt, sugar, and spices. Mix well until evenly integrated. Next, take a large casserole dish or plastic container and line with a two-foot-long strip of aluminum foil. Take a few tablespoons of the sugar-salt mixture and sprinkle onto the foil.
Cut your skin-on salmon into two equal pieces. Place one of the halves, skin-side down, onto the foil where you just sprinkled the sugar-salt mixture. You’ll then rub half of what’s left from the mixture bowl onto the flesh of the salmon, making sure to rub onto the exposed sides as well. Then, layer the dill over the salmon, effectively burying the fillet. (Reserve some fresh dill for when you’re serving.)
You will now repeat the process with the other half of the salmon. Place this fillet onto a plate, and rub sugar-salt cure against the flesh. Take some of the cure and sprinkle onto the dill you just laid, and then very carefully, flip this second piece of salmon flesh-side down onto that dill. You want the salmon skin to be on the top and bottom, with the flesh in the middle sandwiching dill. If there’s still some sugar-salt cure left, dump that on top, and entomb the sides with more dill.
There should be aluminum foil hanging off both ends. Seal the salmon, then take two more feet of foil and wrap the package once more. You don’t want this to be super tight, because oil will be seeping out. Place back onto the casserole dish or plastic container (you may also want to consider adding a baking tray underneath it all). Take a flat-bottomed plate, place on top of the foiled salmon, and put something heavy on it, like a tin of canned tomatoes. This goes in the fridge for the next 72 hours. Flip the foiled package once in the morning and once before going to bed. Have paper towels on hand, because a lot of oil will pool in the container.
When you’re ready to serve, remove from foil package and give each fillet a light rinse. Pat dry. With a long, flexible fillet knife, slice salmon as thin as possible. You don’t want to slice straight down, but on an angle, so you’ll get long and wide pieces. Zest lemon on top, squeeze a few drops of lemon juice, grind some black pepper, add a few sprigs of dill, sprinkle some Trader Joe’s “Everything But the Bagel Sesame” seasoning blend, and serve on a toasted bagel with cream cheese. Then enjoy your home-cured salmon, which will be even more satisfying since you didn’t have to take out another mortgage to pay for it.