The cure begins by tucking the salmon into a blanket of sugar, salt, and dill. By the time the ingredients are fully applied, there’s no trace of the fish. The vibrant red of the sockeye is buried—as its name gravlax (“grave salmon”) suggests—in a mound that resembles freshly fallen snow.
We’ve been making gravlax, a Scandinavian cured salmon with roots that go back to the Middle Ages, for years in my home. It’s our go-to holiday appetizer, the constant fixture in our Christmas feast. The rest of the menu almost doesn’t matter; no matter how complicated or simple I make the task of designing the menu, gravlax is there.
The beauty of gravlax is in its simplicity; while many recipes call for additional spices and flavorings, I prefer to let the essence of the salmon shine. With nothing aside from salt, sugar, dill, and perhaps a bit of aquavit or vodka, the flavor of the salmon intensifies, transforming the fish into an even more rich and luscious version of itself.
When making gravlax, I know that I’m celebrating something of my heritage, joining in a centuries-old tradition, albeit one that’s morphed considerably over time.
Thinking of the origins of gravlax—which appears in documents as early as the 1300s–I imagine Norway in the Middle Ages and see a land of jagged topography lined with frigid waters that bleed into its shores and cut through the mountainous landscape. These fjords are a landmark of sorts of Norway, as recognizable to the rest of the world as are the country’s medieval Stave churches and the Viking ships unearthed over the past 150 or so years. Some things are sure: The waters were cold. The winters were dark. People needed food.
And that’s where preserved fish comes in. Gravlax, of course, gets its name from its origins. Grave salmon, buried salmon. These days, preparations like mine literally bury the salmon in a coat of sugar and salt. But its roots go back to a different kind of preservation, burying fish in the ground, wrapped in birch bark, where it would ferment.
Today a type of fermented fish, rakfisk, remains a Norwegian delicacy. The Swedes have surströmming. But the fish fermentation of the Middle Ages has otherwise largely been replaced by today’s curing methods, which draw out moisture and accentuate flavor, leaving behind the softest, most velvety texture. The results are satisfying and sophisticated, yet simple and uncomplicated—just good ingredients prepared simply. What food should perhaps almost always be.
Over the years I’ve come to see gravlax as less of a recipe than a technique. It’s almost a formula: high-quality salmon with a two-to-one cure of sugar and salt and traditionally a scattering of fresh dill. All other ingredients are optional and vary. As with any traditional recipe, variations abound, ranging from the simplest to others incorporating fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits to lend varying essences and hues to the fish. I’ve seen recipes with orange and horseradish, and others that call for beetroot, the latter of which lends the most gorgeous magenta ombré effect to the sliced salmon. I’m sure they all yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax traditional, the flavor of the already-rich sockeye concentrated and accentuated only with a hint of dill.
Years ago we read Mark Bittman’s article about gravlax in The New York Times and have almost always used The Minimalist’s Gravlax recipe as our base, though over the years it’s begun to feel less like a recipe, more like a technique. In a nutshell, we take a fillet of sockeye salmon (previously frozen to kill parasites and bacteria), then defrost it and cover it with a thick blanket of sugar, salt, and chopped fresh dill. In the winter months, we leave it out in a cool spot for a few hours, then refrigerate it for about 24 to 36 hours before wiping or rinsing off the salt mix and slicing the salmon thinly. Making gravlax is so simple. It’s about using good fish, understanding the process, and not getting intimidated by something that just looks fancy.
When it comes to serving gravlax, it’s as easy as setting out some crispbread or crackers, lemon wedges, a dill-flecked mustard sauce sweetened with a bit of honey, and perhaps some capers and chopped red onion, so that guests can assemble it to their own taste. I find that simple is best, and that gravlax needs little more than a cracker to bring it one’s mouth. Of course, one can also feel free to serve it alongside potatoes, on smørbrød (open-faced sandwich), or as the centerpiece of a salad.
No matter how you serve it, it’s hard to beat something as simple yet elegant as this.
And to think it only required a simple cure.
The Simplest Cured Salmon Gravlax
I notice the beauty of the sockeye each time we bring a fillet into our home. We always use sockeye for our gravlax, with no exception. It’s my favorite kind of salmon; the color is only a hint at the flavor and the richness of the fish, whether grilled or poached, cured or sashimi-style. Each time I unwrap a fillet I marvel at the beauty of the fish—its vibrant color and silky texture portend the deliciousness to come.
1 (approximately 2-pound) fillet of best-quality salmon, skin on, previously frozen
1 bunch dill
2 cups sugar
1 cup salt (I use kosher)
3-4 tablespoons vodka or aquavit
Line a large baking sheet with plastic wrap, leaving enough over the ends to wrap over the salmon. Top this with a layer of parchment paper similarly sized. (The double layer helps to contain the mess when draining the excess liquid, although a single layer of plastic wrap will do in a pinch.)
Rinse the salmon and pat it dry. Remove any pin bones and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.
Thoroughly wash and dry the dill, then rough chop the whole bunch, including the stems (you’ll be removing the dill later, leaving just its essence behind). In a medium bowl, mix the dill, sugar, salt, and vodka or aquavit, then scatter it on top of and underneath the salmon, being sure to pack the cure ingredients on every part of the fish. Wrap the salmon, first with the parchment and then the plastic wrap.
At this point, you can refrigerate it immediately or take Mark Bittman’s advice and place it in a cool location (he recommends below 70 degrees) to rest for about 6 hours before refrigerating it, which will shorten the amount of time it needs to cure.
Check the gravlax every 12 hours or so, pouring out excess liquid (some is okay and can be used to baste the fish, but drain some out if it’s excessive) and turning the fish. After the salmon has cured to your liking (at least 24 hours, or as long as two days), drain off the liquid and pat the salmon dry, removing excess curing ingredients from the surface (alternatively, you can rinse them off and then pat dry if you don’t like the little flecks of dill left over). Slice very thinly.
Leftovers, if you have any, should last about five days and can also be frozen. I’ve also taken the advice of Michelin starred chef Titti Qvarnstrom, previously of Sweden’s Bloom in the Park, who taught at Seattle’s Nordic Culinary Conference last year, and briefly steamed thicker portions of leftovers. These make a wonderful addition to salads.