Choosy Beggar Gravalax

I warned you, didn’t I?  That I had been craving seafood lately?  And making it aplenty?  Because it’s true. 

Gravalax is one of my favorite ways to eat salmon.  I think it’s my inner Swede coming out, which is funny because my Mom (who is 50% Swede instead of my paltry 25%) has no interest whatsoever in eating fish which has not been cooked at high heat for longer periods of time than you would anticipate.  But what can I say?  I like my fish cured, smoked, brined or just plain raw.  Or cooked.  I do eat fish cooked, although you might be starting to wonder by looking at some of my other posts like this one…or this one….

So let’s talk about Gravalax (aka Gravlax or Salt Fish to the Finns), for anyone who hasn’t had it before.  Gravalax has a texture which is similar to smoked salmon, which makes it yet another topping for your Saturday morning bagel with cream cheese.  The difference being that smoked salmon is, as you would imagine from the name, smoked.  Gravalax on the other hand is cured with the preservative powers of sugar and salt.  

The first time that I had Gravalax I was 17, and flying with Lufthansa between Germany and Italy (a school trip for which I had been saving my shekels for many moons).  I didn’t know what it was, but I’ll never forget it.  The airline served diced Gravalax with corn and black beans (?!) as our in-air entree.  I knew that it was fish, I could tell from the color and texture that it was salmon, but that’s all that I knew.  Well, that and the fact that I LOVED IT, hoovered mine down, and then ate part of my best friend’s because she was sleeping.  Just another reason never to let your guard down around me when there’s seafood involved. That was the first and last time that I ever flew Lufthansa and I imagine that their inflight food might have changed ever-so-slightly over the years, but I still dream of that first indulgence.  

Every Finn or Swede worth their salt (literally) has a recipe for Gravalax, and they can be as different as the night is long but they all have four things in common:

1. Salmon
2. Sugar
3.  Salt
4. Dill

You take those four ingredients and you’ve got Gravalax in the wings…or fins, I suppose.  From there we have many variations, some of which you may like more than others.  Some people add liquor (vodka, Pernod, Akavit, tequila), spices (coriander, mustard seed, pepper flakes), herbs (fennel, onion, parsley) and even mustard, depending on what they like.  The key here is lots of salt and sugar which cure the salmon by drawing out a lot of the moisture and working to denature the proteins.  Although the fish does not get cooked with heat, the cure effectively works in a similar way to kill bacteria, firm up the fish, and prolong the shelf life.  In fact, you can keep gravalax in your fridge for as long as you would keep smoked salmon…which shouldn’t be more than about 2 weeks (tightly wrapped), but that’s still much better than you would get from a fresh filet.

I’ve made Gravalax with several variations, but this is far and above my favorite.  Don’t get caught up with the fennel, it just lends a wee hint of flavor to the cure and you won’t be hit over the head with it at the end.  If you still just really aren’t into fennel, well, meh.  Leave it out.  Such is life.

Oh!  One more thing about Gravalax:  you know how a nice 6 oz filet of salmon is a good light dinner?  I mean, you could probably eat more but that pretty much just hit the spot and made you happy?  Gravalax (like smoked salmon) gives you a lot more bang for you buck.  I don’t think that I could eat 6 oz of Gravalax, even though I would be the happiest well-fed lady with an incredibly sore tummy after doing so.  Less is more.  If you’re making this for a party (which is a GREAT IDEA) you should figure about 1-2 oz per person, depending on what you will be doing with it.

Alright, and one more thing:  remember to start about 3 days before you want to serve the Gravalax, because that’s how long it will take to cure fully.  Rushing the process won’t help anybody.

Choosy Beggar Gravalax

  • 2 center cut filet of salmon (about .8kg/ 1.75 lbs total)
  • 1/2 tsp coriander seed
  • 1 tsp mustard seed
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seed
  • 1/3 cup coarse sea salt
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp Pernod
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh dill

Put the mustard, coriander, and fennel seeds in a mortar and pestle.  Grind them until they’re all split, and most are in a powder.

In a small to medium sized bowl mix the two sugars with the salt, and add in the ground spices.

Give the dill a rough chop if you like.  I like.  You can leave the dill whole and just drape it overtop the end result, but I feel that chopping the dill releases a bit more flavor.

When you’re thinking about the vesicle that your salmon will be in for the next three days, try to give it some comfort in a snug fit.  A container too small won’t do you any good, and one that’s too large isn’t as effective.  You see, as the salmon cures it will release a lot of juice.  This highly salty-sweet juice acts as a brine for the rest of the salmon as it continues to cure.  If the dish is too large this will be less effective.

So!  When you’ve found a container that’s Goldilocks style juuuust right, line it with plastic wrap.  I like to do one long strip horizontally, and a smaller one vertically to form a ‘t’.

Think of both the sugar/salt/spice and dill as getting divided by 4 where 1/4 goes on the bottom and top, and 1/2 goes in the middle.

In the bottom of your plastic wrap lined container you can lay 1/4 of the dill and 1/4 of the sugar/spice/salt mixture.  Take 1 piece of salmon and place it skin side down on top of your sprinkles. Cover the meat side with 1/2 the dill (that’s 2/3 of what is left after you put out the first bit) and 1/2 (again, 2/3 in case fractions aren’t your bag) of the sugar/spice/salt that is left.  Douse the whole shebang with the Pernod.

Place the other filet skin side up (so that meat faces meat) and sprinkle the rest of the dill and seasoning on top.

Tightly wrap the whole package.

To encourage the liquid to release from the salmon, a couple of weights will help.  Place a cover that’s just smaller than your container over top and weigh it down with a brick or a few cans.  As you can see, my cat food and tuna cans dwell in the same dark part of my pantry.  I haven’t confused them yet, but it’s only a matter of time…..

Tuck the salmon in the fridge for 3 days.  At least once or twice per day you will want to go into the fridge and turn the salmon over, replacing the weights every time.

After three days you will see that a lot of liquid has been released, and your salmon is literally swimming in brine.  This is actually a good thing, trust me.

Remove the salmon filets from the plastic wrap and give each a nice rinse under very cold running water, patting them dry.

And that’s it!  Your Gravalax is done!!  That’s not too bad, is it?  A bit of sugar and salt, and three days later you have the most delectable cured salmon – just waiting to be used for appetizers aplenty!!

The best way to serve Gravalax (particularly to people who may not be as fond of it) is to slice it as thinly as possible.  Use a very sharp, long, thin knife and slice across the grain.  The closer you can come to paper-thin the better, unless you’re like me (and a whole lotta Scandinavians) and you like the thicker pieces.

I had a dinner party on Saturday, and one of the appetizers that I made was open faced Gravalax sandwiches.

These are easier than sin, I swear.  On a thin slice of dense dark bread (preferably pumpernickle or a dark rye) spread a mixture of cream cheese and grainy dijon.  Top that with the thinly sliced Gravalax and sprinkle with finely sliced scallions and capers.

I ate this plate as my reward for making the dinner…and then ate more 2 hours later when people arrived.  It was supposed to be for Mike, but, well, he was at the gym……..

The next night I baked some multi-colored mini potatoes (white, red and purple). eviscerated them and stuffed the lot with a fresh creamy dilly mixture (there might have been some yoghurt in there to lighten it up….) and topped the mini gems with a twirl of Gravalax.

And DAMN these were good.  Like, I hoarded the leftovers and took them for lunch on Monday.  They were good like that.

Oh, and then there was sad, quiet, back-to-work Monday.  But…there was still Gravalax….which means that we didn’t have Monday food, we had FUN food.  These are possibly my new favorite appetizer ever.  In fact, thinking of them in retrospect, I may actually be mourning the fact that I have no more Gravalax to make these mini-feats of valor and cursing every appetizer I have eaten to this point because they were not THESE.

These beauties.

That’s thinly sliced Gravalax wrapped around pickled asparagus, Cambozola (oh, oh, oh….the things I would like to do with a wheel of Cambozola…..) and frisee with a dijon and white balsamic vinaigrette on the side.

If you can’t find Cambozola then any slightly nutty and very creamy blue cheese (specifically Gorgonzola) would do. And if you partner it with some Camembert or Brie to double your cheese-eating-fun, I would dump Mike and be your immediate girlfriend.  I swear.  Sorry Mike, but you know what they say about guys and gals who bring home the cheese……

……..I like them……..

And back to the beginning!  This is a tray of the open faced sandwiches that I DIDN’T eat and actually served to guests.  Who ate them.  And although I was happy that they ate them, I was also rather sad……

  • Alison

    I do think you are the only person in the world who could convince me to eat this. I’d have to do it just so I didn’t disappoint you. But man…….shivers. What is it about this that creeps me out???? Maybe it’s because I saw Martha Stewart make it once on t.v. – with a 10 lb salmon.

  • Tina

    Alison, you would never disappoint me. But you do realize, I’m sure, that the thought of 10lbs of gravalax to me is like finding that a dazzling chest of pirate booty was left on my doorstep?

    Also: just close your eyes and pretend that it’s sushi.

  • Mike

    Alison, did she kill the salmon with her bare hands, live on camera? Because I could totally see her do that.

    “It’s always vurrry important to propurrrly–” *CRACK* “–wrench the life from yourrr food. It ensurrres freshness, and that’s a good thing.”

  • noble pig

    Oh I would love to try this. How beautiful and just so ethnic and cool. You are awesome.

  • Lo!

    You are, indeed, awesome.
    And not just because you bravely make gorgeous-looking gravalax. It’s also because you go through the effort of sharing with us.

    I could see this being quite useful — and delicious. Especially around the holidays.

  • Mike

    I just noticed the part about being dumped for anyone who’ll buy you flavorful cheese.

  • kristie

    Tina, I have some great news for you. If we’re ever flying somewhere together, and they serve us gravlax, you can totally have mine, whether I’m asleep or not. I’m nothing if not a giver.

    That said, if they were to serve, say, a can of sweetened condensed milk and a spoon, well….you best be handin’ it over.

  • Nanco

    I’ve been thinking of trying to make this since Dan’s dad makes his own awesome version and I thought I’d give it a whirl. He alternates between using vodka and gin so I wasn’t sure which one to choose. I can now make things easier for myself and use Pernod!

  • Tina

    Noble Pig/Lo! – thank you, and it IS so great to have on hand during the holidays.

    Mike – aw, babe you know it’s in jest. I love you more than a wheel of Brie. Or even Cambozola. The thing is, if someone brought me tidings of burrata…..

    Kristie – bad news. We’d actually be duking it out over the can of sweetened condensed milk. Mind you, I’d be too full of salmon to put up a fight so we’ll just call you a virtual winner on that one. That, and I wouldn’t mess with you to begin with – my Momma didn’t raise no fool, I’d like to see the sunrise yet another day.

    Nanco – I only had the pleasure of eating Dan’s Dad’s saltfish once, but holy moses that was good. I often use vodka because it helps cure but doesn’t change the flavor. However, that’s why I love the gin – because it DOES impact the flavor of the dish. Pernod has a much stronger flavor which is why I used less of it than I would use of, say, vodka or tequila.

  • Margie

    Funny you mention burrata. I just had my first the other night and wrote about it. I’m going to have to try your gravlax recipe. I’ve been wanting to do it. But, it’s like going to a book store. I get to the market and forget all the great ideas I wanted to try!

  • _ts of [eatingclub] vancouver

    Great post! Gravlax, many ways. =)

  • Chris

    How funny to run into a recent gravalax post -the day I’m due to start making some for American Thanksgiving (others give thanks too…just don’t tell ‘them’).

    I’ll try a variation of your recipe since your Lufthansa experience sets a high level of gravalax expectation. Gravalaxtation?


  • Nanco

    I just noticed that there’s a cute little happy face at the bottom of the screen. Aww.
    Have you ever made raclette? Is it good?

  • Choosy Beggar Tina

    Margie – I would forget my own head if it wasn’t attached. You should see my grocery lists, they’re like mission controls with a master list (grouped according to use) and a subsidiary list which is organized according to the sections of the grocery store to aid with navigation. This might make it LOOK like I’m super organized, but really it’s because without said lists I would come home with nothing but 3 bags of cookies. And maybe a Twix bar or some beef jerky.

    TS – I do like variety!!

    Chris – thank you for checking out our blog! You Americans totally put our Canadian Thanksgiving to shame with your celebrating and goings on. I’ve never even thought of serving gravalax as a Thanksgiving app, and now I feel sad that I’ve missed out for so long. And ‘gravalaxtation’? You’re my new bosom buddy.

    Nanco – I have made raclette on a fireplace hearth, an electric frying pan, and a specialty raclette burner….which is such a despicable waste of money (no offense Friend With Raclette Burner). Basically raclette is just melted cheeses served on potatoes (or sometimes bread) with sides of a few assorted veggies, a variety of pickles (sour and sweet) and any condiments that you may like. How could this not be good?

  • Peter

    Gravelax is easy, affordable and delish…you did a bang-up job…you win the Abba collection! lol

  • Tina

    Peter – should I admit that I already HAVE the Abba collection?! I’m totally into encouraging people to take a chance, take a chance, take a chance on gravalax. The affordability is also a huge selling feature for me. Pound for pound when you compare it to smoked salmon or store-bought gravalax or lox?! Unreal.

  • arlettaj

    Had long loved smoked salmon (lox) w/all the fixin’s –bagels,cream cheese, tomatoes,onion, capers et al) but tho I live in Chicago (!) I never came across gravalax. (GO FIGURE!) But, one day, on a FL vacation, after picking up our rental car , we stopped at a grocery store for some immediate food — plu\s snacks,beverages … ya da.,, to bring to our resort condo so that we could just relax without having to go out that 1st evening. As I walked the store, I came across a “clearance” on shrink-wrapped gravalax. — well within the expiration date. I think it was just that people didn’t know what it was & therefore didn’t dare to buy it. I scooped up 2 pkgs (a HUGE bargain) -of paper thin slices that I enjoyed all week.. And I was hooked! Sadly, pre-made gravalax is hugely expensive (contrary to the above remark by Tina) so I’ve searched for recipes & have found a few; but yours sounded to be one of the best — tho I may ‘tweak’ some of the spices.

    But, Q is about the Pernod. I have many basic liquors at home – and some recipes call for vodka,gin, tequlia etc. But I don’t have Pernod,…so can anyone help me with exactly what it tastes like / adds to the curing process (as compared for e.g , the other liquors that I have on hand.) Here I am a “big city” girl who doesn’t know about Pernod.!!! (ha!) Since the sugar, salt & dill are the most potent of the curing ingredients…can someone tell me how important the liquor aspect is — and how different liquor flavors affect the final product. I have frozen salmon fillets just waiting to be thawed & cured! Thanks all! A

    • Choosy Beggar Tina

      Arlettaj – thank you kindly for stopping by the site! Store bought gravalax IS hugely expensive, just like smoked salmon. My comment about affordability was with regard to making it at home, which is significantly cheaper than buying it – like most things!

      When you’re making gravalax you’re right – the salt and sugar are the main curing ingredients and the dill is there to add flavor. When you’re adding liquor to the mix it’s for two reasons:
      1. Soften the texture
      2. Add flavor
      …but the flavor that the liquor gives, for the most part, is rather subtle. I’ve used vodka before and you don’t taste it (or barely at all). I can’t say that I wouldn’t use it again, but it seems like there are better options. As the fish cures it will soak up the flavors of whatever it’s sitting in, on or around, so using various liquors is another way to impact that. Gin has a distinct flavor and that comes through a bit more, but not enough to make you go, “Huh. That’s some gin, eh?” Tequila has the boldest flavor I’ve found, and if you’re using tequila I would recommend that you increase the amount of brown sugar and ramp up the aromatics a bit. However, at the end of the day, if you don’t use any liquor (I’ve made it with and without) the only difference that I’ve seen is that the texture is sometimes a bit firmer.

      Akvavit is a traditional Scandinavian liquor which is distilled from potato or grain (like vodka). The dominant flavors are anise, coriander and caraway. This would really be the ideal choice for making Scandinavian gravalax if you wanted to use a liquor, except that it’s sometimes hard to find. Pernod is a pastis which I like to use for a similar effect. It’s a good substitute as it has that very strong, distinct, herbal flavor, and it’s reminiscent of fennel/licorice because of the anise seed. It’s a strong liqueur (usually 40) and slightly sweet. Pernod makes a great match for seafood, particularly shrimp and scallops. I sometimes add a bit of Pernod to my pasta sauce if I’m doing a seafood pasta – in both cream and tomato base. I used Pernod to complement the dill and fennel, but if you wanted a less herbal taste then gin is a good bet. In fact, a Finnish friend of mine (who swears that his father makes the best ‘salt fish’ ever – and having sampled it I agree to it’s excellence) uses gin when he makes it.

      I hope that helps!! I’d love to hear how you tweak the recipe and what you thought of it!!

      One quick note – if you’re using previously frozen salmon it will leach out a fair bit more liquid and the texture may not hold together quite as well when you slice it. I prefer to use fresh fish, but it’s not a make-or-break and I’m certain that your gravalax will be delicious!

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  • Jason

    Hi ho Tina! Sorry for posting soooooo late after some of your posts. Thank you for reminding me of one of my favorite things to do with wild pacific salmon. A Swedish friend also turned me on to pureeing about 1/2 a red onion and pressing out the liquid for the brine instead of the alcohol, which could be better served in Mike’s Romulan Ale… which would be a potent blue counterpoint to the salmon : )

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  • iral

    Marry me!