Much of the food we eat today is derived from recipes that were developed before modern food preservation conveniences were available to us. Human innovation created clever and coincidently delicious techniques to preserve meat during pre-refrigeration days. Gravlax is a classic Scandinavian example of this concept (grav meaning “grave” and lax meaning “salmon”). During the Middle Ages, fishermen were likely faced with the dilemma of large catches but little salt to preserve their bounty with. As a solution they buried lightly salted fish underground on the beach and allowed it to lightly ferment. The enzymes from the fermentation likely produced a buttery texture and the fish smelled like, well– rotting fish. Think Epoisses cheese.
By the 18th century, the fermentation process was taken out of the equation (and with it the stench) and gravlax recipes called for salting and pressing the flesh, producing silky and translucent fish. Today, standard recipes for curing salmon include salt, sugar and dill, which is likely a modern replacement for pine needles. The fillets are kept compacted in the refrigerator for anywhere from 1-4 days, and with each day the flavor intensifies.
In this recipe, I allowed my salmon to sit for 2 days in the refrigerator. The process is extremely simple and just needs some planning ahead. It's delicious paired with dark bread and mustard or just sliced paper thin on its own.
- 1 3-pound salmon fillet with skin, preferably center cut
- 1/2 cup of kosher or sea salt
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1 bundle of dill (plus extra for garnish)
- 2 tbsps of whole white peppercorns
- 1 tbsp of fennel seeds
- pumpernickel bread (optional)
In a mortar and pestle (I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's a kitchen essential), lightly crush the white peppercorns and fennel seeds. If you don't have one, place the spices in a ziplock bag and lightly crush them with a rolling pin or something equally heavy. In a separate bowl, combine the spices with the salt and sugar.
Place the fillet of salmon on a sheet pan or large dish and pile the bundle of dill over the fillet.
Sprinkle the salt mixture over the salmon evenly.
Cover with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and place a cutting board or large plate over the salmon. Put a couple of canned foods on top as a weight. Check on the salmon occasionally and baste the top of the salmon with the liquid that collects at the bottom.
After two days scrape off the dill and salt and then slice the salmon thinly.
Spread a little mustard sauce on some pumpernickel bread and place a slice of gravlax on top. Garnish with some fresh dill and enjoy!
- 1/4 cup of dijon mustard
- 2 tbsps of sugar
- 1 tbsp of white wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
Combine the mustard, sugar and vinegar in a bowl. Whisk in the extra-virgin olive oil until blended.
(Recipe adapted from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics)