Gravlax – Swedish Cured Salmon

October 20th, 2010 / Comments 7

In the mid 1980’s, at the end of a two-month trip that took us, with our five year old son, through Asia and Russia, we stopped in Sweden on our way home.

boat c egbert Gravlax   Swedish Cured Salmon

We had been living in Singapore for two years, enjoying an incredible variety of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Indonesian food. Our first meal in Stockholm was gastronomic culture shock. There were endless varieties of meat, fish, cheese, vegetables, breads and berries artfully arranged on a breakfast buffet. I began by tasting a little bit of almost everything. When I tasted the thinly sliced, cured salmon I was expecting salty lox and was surprised by the fresh, slightly sweet, dill flavor and delighted by the sauce that accompanied it.

two trout c egbert Gravlax   Swedish Cured SalmonI went back to the buffet for a second helping and knew that I would order it at every meal until we left Stockholm. A friendly Swede at the buffet table explained that what I had fallen in love with was called gravlax. She explained that the word gravlax is a combination of two Scandinavian words – grav meaning grave and lax meaning salmon – and was in fact a description of how fishermen in the Middle Ages prepared salmon by salting it and burying it in the sand, above the high tide line, to ferment. Fortunately the salmon on the buffet had been cured with salt, sugar and fresh dill in a refrigerator rather than fermented in sand. It was a lovely shade of orange, thinly sliced, served with buttered brown bread and a sweet mustard, dill sauce called hovastarsas. Months later, after we had recovered from our trip half way around the world, I remembered my salmon binge in Stockholm and decided to try to make gravlax. It was a remarkably simple process and I make it frequently.

Salmon and trout are in the same family with the distinction that salmon migrate and trout don’t. Salmon come from both the Atlantic and Pacific and may be either wild or farmed. Varieties of salmon include: Chinook, Coho, pink, sockeye, steelhead and chum. Gravlax can be made with any variety of salmon, and I choose the variety based on guidance I get from Alex, the guy behind the fish counter at my market.

The last time I made it was for a dinner party to welcome our friend, Kay, back from her recent trip to Sweden. Following Alex’s recommendation, I chose a one-pound fillet of steel head.

I prepared it three days before the party so that it would have time to cure. Here’s how I did it:


I put the salmon, skin side down, over an inverted shallow bowl to make it easy to find any bones, and used a pair of kitchen tweezers to pull them out. I combined three tablespoons of granulated sugar, three tablespoons of kosher salt and two teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper for the dry marinade. I put the fillet, skin side down, on a large piece of plastic wrap, spooned a thick layer of the salt-sugar-pepper marinade onto the salmon flesh, topped it with a generous layer of fresh dill leaves and then wrapped the salmon, marinade and dill tightly in the plastic. I put it into the fridge in a shallow bowl to cure.

Just before dinner, while the tiny, new potatoes cooked, I made the sweet mustard sauce. Here’s how I did it:

Sweet Mustard Sauce

I used a whisk to combine two tablespoons of Dijon mustard with one teaspoon of honey, one tablespoon of white vinegar, three tablespoons of grape seed oil and a quarter of a teaspoon of salt. When the mixture was creamy, I stirred in three tablespoons of chopped, fresh dill.

To serve the gravlax, I discarded the dill leaves and gently scraped off any excess black pepper. I used a knife with a thin, sharp blade to slice the salmon as thinly as possible, at a 45-degree angle from the top of the fillet toward but not through the skin.

At dinner we shared memories of sunny days in Stockholm and stories of unexpected food discoveries, all unforgettable, whether they were as delightful as gravlax or as disastrous as sea cucumbers – but that’s a story for another day.

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