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Upping the Ante: Adventures in Gravlax

Making gravlax at home is surprisingly easy and rewarding. That is, unless you let a little old tragic flaw called hubris into the kitchen.

Overly salty curing mixture

After several weeks of posting – how do you say – perhaps overly accessible recipes, I approached this week thinking it’s high time I upped the ante a bit with something you might not find in every cookbook. Or at least something most people would have to consult a cookbook, or maybe even Google, to make.

Which made me wonder, does anyone remember how we functioned in the Pregooglean era? How did we learn? What did we read? Where did we get our recipes for homemade gravlax? How did we bear the monotony of that lone, thoroughly audible voice in our heads, clearly transmitting one thought at a time from brain to body, resulting in proper follow-through and reliable, if plodding, efficiency?

Certainly many of you – those without small children, those with greater than or equal to three quarters of a well-rested brain – are better at managing the demands of this era of multitasking than certain anonymous umamigirls could ever hope to be. Probably you found and prepared a nicely balanced gravlax recipe this week, and you proceeded to enjoy your delightfully seasoned homemade cured salmon on buckwheat blini, or with scrambled eggs, or perhaps on brown bread with a dollop of creme fraiche and a little caviar.

Here’s what I did instead.

Step 1: Circa 10 January 2006. After class at French Culinary Institute, stay late to learn how to prepare homemade gravlax, which, for years prior, has been of great interest. En route home, encounter traffic on Canal Street. Ignoring iPod playlist featuring socially acceptable soundtrack to Garden State, make use of safe cocoon of own car to play Natasha Bedingfield’s 2005 smash lite-FM hit “Unwritten” on repeat for full hour. (There was a career crisis happening, okay?) Sit idly as lyrics replace details of salmon curing process in personal knowledge base.

Step 2: Circa 10 January 2009. Receive gorgeous book from Julie – The Culinary Institute of America’s Garde Manger: The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen. Note mouthwatering cover photo of smoked salmon on blini. (Smoked salmon is also surprisingly easy to make at home, but gravlax, which is cured but not smoked, will not make your entire home smell like a cold-smoker.) Note book’s status as definitive authority on garde manger preparations, including cured salmon. Shelve book, immediately forgetting its existence.

Step 3: Circa 3 February, 10:00 a.m. Develop insatiable hankering for homemade gravlax. Believe, in all sincerity, that this craving arises from nowhere.

Step 4: Circa 3 February, 10:34 a.m. Place FreshDirect order for previously frozen Wild Alaskan salmon.

Step 5: Circa 10:35 a.m. Seal own fate with world’s most over-succumbed-to tragic flaw, hubris. Perform hasty search for gravlax recipes on foodnetwork.com. Think briefly of own culinary awesomeness compared to average American cook, and of lack of time to sort through plebeian recipes that merely use, rather than create, magic of gravlax. Use search term “make gravlax” rather than “gravlax,” limiting results to short list of questionable recipes. Ignore nagging feeling in gut.

Step 6: Circa 4 February. Bypass all prior training on subject. Prepare nasty little salt-fest of a Tyler Florence gravlax recipe.

Step 7: Circa 5 February. Pickle self and family by consuming vast quantities of wickedly salty, but still umami-filled and fairly tasty, homemade gravlax.

Step 8: Circa 10 February. Emerge from salt coma. Blog to catharsis.

So where does this classic tale leave us today? Unfortunately, I think it leaves us about halfway through the process I should’ve used to develop a proper gravlax recipe to share with you. Even worse, I’m going to share one with you anyway, in case you’re interested in doing some testing with me, and on the off chance that you’d care to reciprocate and post your more refined recipe in the comments section. Once my sodium level returns to normal, I promise to continue curing until we reach gravlax nirvana, and I’ll update this post when we get there. In the meantime, what I’ve got so far will produce a totally worthwhile snack.

Homemade Gravlax


1 side of previously frozen Wild Alaskan salmon (2-3 pounds), or 2-3 pounds filets. (Previously frozen is key – the commercial process of flash freezing at very low temperatures kills parasites that no one needs to be eating, and that the curing process wouldn’t kill on its own. This is what they do with sushi-grade salmon.)
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 bunch fresh dill, washed and dried thoroughly
Zest of 1 lemon, peeled into thick strips with vegetable peeler
2 Tablespoons whole white peppercorns
Special equipment: Two rimmed baking sheets, parchment paper, and something heavy (2-5 pounds)
*     *     *

Combine salt, sugar, dill, lemon zest and peppercorns in a medium bowl. Use your fingers to knead the ingredients together to release the oils in the lemon and dill. Do this for a minute or two, until it smells so good you want to eat it – but don’t eat it.

Rinse salmon and pat dry. Place a piece of parchment paper on one of the baking sheets. Sprinkle a bit of the salt mixture onto the baking sheet, then lay the salmon on top, skin-side down. Cover the flesh of the salmon with the remaining salt mixture. Cover the salmon with another piece of parchment paper, and lay the second baking sheet on top. Weight the baking sheet with something fairly heavy, like a half gallon of milk or a couple of large cans.

Place the whole thing in the fridge for 48 hours. Every 12 hours or so, drain and discard the accumulated liquids.

After 48 hours, scrape the curing mixture from the salmon and rinse the salmon under cold water to remove any residue. Slice as thinly as possible, on a slight angle, starting at the tail end. (This will take a very sharp knife and some practice.) Serve as you would smoked salmon.

Salmon snuggled into curing mixture, just before heading to bed


Hi there, I'm Carolyn, and I'm delighted you're here. I'm a NYC-area food, travel, yoga, coffee, wine, running, music making and book obsessive with a great family and a love for sharing it all with you. Grab a drink and come on in. Learn more.