Gravlax – Smoked salmon without the smoke

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It’s Sockeye season on the West coast of BC, and 2014 is the peak return in a four year annual cycle for this tasty little salmon. The last peak in 2010 saw ten’s of millions of this species returning to their home waters to spawn, and while this year’s return is still underway the spawning population looks to be quite healthy.

It seems strange in the era of always-available fresh farmed salmon, but the sockeye run continues to be part of the “heritage” of coastal and central BC (and of course plays a huge role in the cultural heritage of first nations people). Neighbours regularly gift fish picked up from friends, off local fishing vessels, or even self caught. We swap recipes over drinks and talk about best preparations.

A standard fillet of salmon off a four pound fish can feed usually four adults, but there always seem to be more fish than the typical family can eat at a sitting. While freezing is an option, it’s a waste not to use this fresh fish when it’s available. Most families I know will simple cook the whole fillet and use the leftovers for sandwiches, but there are other ways of preserving the delicately flavoured fish.

Smoking is an option that’s long been practiced here on the coast and to a lesser extent in the interior. Smoking can be done any number of ways, but it usually combines brining and curing the fish before placing in a home smoker of some sort. The process can be labour intensive and take a long time to complete. You also need to have a source to properly add the smoked flavour–not always an option for many folks.

Another way to use the excess fish (and sometimes the whole fillet) that requires far less time and effort than smoking is Gravlax. Gravlax is a very common method of preparing salmon that has been practiced across Northern Europe and Scandinavia in various forms since the middle ages. Essentially it is a simple salt cure used to both extract moisture from the fish and enhance it’s flavour. Modern preparations such as the one below add sugar and herbs to balance the saltiness and impart subtle flavours to the dish. If you’ve got super fresh salmon on hand this is an excellent treat.

Sockeye Gravlax with Green Onion

  • Raw Sockeye Fillet*
  • White sugar
  • Pickling or Kosher Salt (coarse, non-iodized)
  • Thinly sliced green onion (white and green parts), Dillweed, or other herbs.

Method

  1. Debone, rinse, and pat dry a salmon fillet cut to desired size
  2. Place the fish skin side down on a clean piece of linen or a tea towel
  3. Lightly sprinkle all the exposed flesh with simple white table sugar
  4. Sprinkle a thin layer of salt over all the flesh, using less on thin sections of the fish and heavier amounts on the thicker areas
  5. Sprinkle a thin layer of sliced green onions over the entire piece of fish
  6. Wrap the linen or tea towel tightly around the fish and refrigerate, flesh side down on a suitable sized plate for 24 hours or more.
  7. Repeat steps 1-6 and refrigerate for a further 24 hours. You may need to change the linen or towel if there is an excessive amount of moisture drawn out of the fish.
  8. Remove linen or towel, rinse, pat dry with paper towel, slice thinly and serve alone, or on unsalted crackers or dense bread.

Notes:

Most sockeye caught on this coast has no nasty parasites and the salt will generally take care of any that might be there, but if you want to be on the safe side freezing the fish used for 24 hours prior to preparing will help eliminate any that might be hiding (as an FYI most Sashimi is served after freezing). I personally don’t freeze the fish as this tends to change the finished texture.

Thinner pieces of fish, i.e. the rear third of a standard salmon fillet, tend to cure in 48 hours or less. In our house this is usually the piece left over from a meal so it works out nicely. Thicker pieces may take an additional day to cure. The cure is “done” when the flesh reaches a firmness similar to pressing on the heel of your thumb. In order to get nice thin slices, it’s best to put the cured fillet in the freezer for 30 minutes before slicing and use a sharp thin bladed knife.

Some recipes recommend covering the fillet with a weighted plate while curing, but I don’t find it necessary, particularly with thinner pieces of fish.

Cheers,

Aaron