The Hungry Engineer

Cure for the Common Fish

20 Aug 2008

I was caught up in a conversation a few weekends ago about food and various methods of preservation and so forth, and we got on the topic of fish and that led to discussion of lox. I was all excited because I had a lox recipe that I was wanting to try out but was a little nervous about serving my own raw fish. My friend looked at me quizzically and explained that lox were smoked, and unless I had a smoker (which I don’t) I wouldn’t be making them at home. Turns out, the recipe I had in mind was for gravlax rather than lox, and that got me thinking.

What are the differences between these things? I have had gravlax and lox and smoked salmon and enjoyed them all, but admittedly, they’ve all been a bit different. I decided to dig in further.

Lox is essentially salmon fillet that has been cured in a brine of water, salt, sugar, and spices. It is generally served very thinly sliced, often with bagels and cream cheese. Lox is considered to have derived from the German word lachs, which means “salmon”. An interesting note here is that according to some sources, technically lox are not smoked. However, as many sources also proclaimed that what makes lox, well, lox is that once the brining is completed a period of cold smoking ensues. Just know that some would-be purists would poo-poo this, insisting that this version be called “smoked salmon” instead.

Gravlax on the other hand, is cured a bit differently. This word has similar roots to its cousin lox. It is considered to be derivative of the Swedish and Icelandic word lax and the Danish and Norwegian word laks, again meaning salmon. Its first syllable, grav-, is derived from grava meaning buried. Gravlax were traditionally not only salt cured but also buried in the sand for a brief period of fermentation. Rather than being wet brined, gravlax is instead coated in a mixture of sugar, salt, dill, and other flavorings and then weighted down for a period of several hours up to a few days to allow some of the salmon’s water to be released and to allow the flavors of the seasonings to penetrate the fish. (Not surprisingly given the prevalence of refrigeration, gravlax is no longer fermented.) The coating is removed before the gravlax is served, and just as lox are, they are generally sliced thin.

Smoked salmon is a wide-ranging classification that includes any variety of cold- or hot-smoked salmon. It can even include such creatures as hard-smoked salmon (also known as salmon jerky) and candied salmon, which is basted with things like maple syrup or honey during the smoking process. Cold-smoked salmon is smoked for anywhere from a day or so to as long as three weeks at temperatures ranging from 70 to 90 degrees (F). Hot-smoked salmon is smoked for a shorter period of time, usually a number of hours, at a temperature of 120 to 180 degrees (F), resulting in partial or complete cooking of the fish. Salmon is often brined before it is smoked, but this is not always the case.

Like many things culinary, there aren’t any hard-fast rules and no shortage of animated opinions. In my mind, after my research, I’ve distilled it down to the following:

**lox** – wet brine cured salmon
**gravlax** – dry brine cured salmon with dill
**smoked salmon** – salmon that has been cold or hot smoked
There are nearly infinite variations on any of these things, but if gross categorization is the goal, those are the categories. Naturally, there are other varieties of fish preservation (pickling, kippering, air-drying, soaking in lye), but as salmon is probably one of our most heavily consumed fish, it was the focus of this article. So, with classifications firmly in place, maybe I should finally take a stab at curing my own salmon.

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