Super Food Nerds: How to Make Gravlax

By: Rupa Bhattacharya

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Welcome to Super Food Nerds, a  column written in alternating installments by Rupa (Food and Beverage Editor, Culinary Staff) and Jonathan (Research Librarian, same place). Each installment will be dedicated to a particular topic – how to DIY something you don’t normally DIY, how to perfect a dish usually taken for granted, plus best techniques, underlying chemistries and a handful of inexplicable preferences. Basically, if they can overthink it, they're on it.

Cured fish is basically my favorite food. Smoked eel, pickled herring, kippered whitefish, weird dried squid snacks you eat in Russian saunas — I'm all about it. But it's expensive, and I'm on a budget, so I wanted to see if I could make it myself.

There are a few ways to go about curing fish: brining and cold-smoking (at a temperature of about 100 degrees F), like most smoked salmon you see sold with bagels; brining and hot-smoking (so it's flaky and rich, mostly done with trout); and gravlax, a dry salt cure, which gets you the silky texture of cold-smoke without the smoking part.

Gravlax is a traditional Scandinavian way of curing fish — it translates literally to "buried salmon," since the fish used to be buried in the ground to cure. Now the fish gets buried in the dry salt-sugar cure, and since it's the quickest, easiest way to get the fish from zero to my mouth, that's the method I picked.

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The traditional gravlax cure is a 1:1 ratio of salt to sugar, along with spices, herbs and a splash of liquor. (Salt does the curing. Sugar balances out the saltiness. Spices, herbs and liquor add flavor.) The traditional fish is salmon, but given the cost of wild salmon, and the absence of a sustainable salmon alternative, I thought I'd try with arctic char. Char is a thinner fish than salmon, so it cures faster and doesn't need to be weighted while curing.

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Fish in hand, I got to work. Salt and sugar were a given, but the rest of the seasoning was up for discussion. Since I love everything bagels, but can't eat them, I thought everything-bagel seasoning (dried garlic, dried onion, poppy seeds and sesame seeds) would get me the best of all possible worlds: bagel flavor, no bagel necessary. (I also tried a tequila, chile and cilantro version, as well as a garam masala one, but everything bagel came out best.)

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I piled the cures on, wrapped the fish well, put it on a rimmed sheet pan in the fridge and called it a day.

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After 24 hours, I rinsed off the cure, patted the fish dry and started slicing.

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( See the recipe for specific slicing instructions; the longer and sharper your knife, the better, and the thinner your slices, the better. In an ideal world, you should be able to read the newspaper through each slice.)

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The onion and garlic come through the most, but the flavor is still pretty delicate — what you really get is rich, buttery, almost-concentrated fish.

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Garnishing with extra poppy and sesame seeds gets you the whole everything-bagel experience, along with a little textural contrast.

But, when I sent the recipe to our test kitchen for cross-testing, everything went awry. After many, many rounds of testing, this is what we learned:

Char cures beautifully after 24 hours in the fridge. Salmon, which we also tried, can cure somewhat erratically depending on its thickness. We played around with weighting and flipping and still occasionally ended up with a demarcation line after which the salmon remained uncured — it was delicious, but not exactly right. So char it was, and char it continues to be; I've cured a whole fish per week since starting this project just to eat at home, and that shows no signs of slowing.

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