Thursday, October 11, 2012

Curing Salmon Quandaries

Any good, native New Yorker will be able to tell you the difference between lox, gravlax, nova, and smoked salmon.  But for those of us outside the big city, determining which is which can be a little confusing.  Most of the time we just get frustrated and use one term to embody them all.  While this is an easy way out, it just isn't correct, and can lead you to purchasing something saltier than what you had in mind, or a product milder than what you crave.  If you are like some people I know, the inability to decipher the difference between the varieties by nomenclature on menus can lead to skipping the dish altogether.  That is the true tragedy, because there really is no breakfast food that can compare to some excellently cured salmon placed on a toasted bagel with rich, homemade cream cheese.  I discovered this treat during my stay in N.Y. City and even mentioning it now conjures up memories my saliva glands are sulking over.  To avoid this dire fate, lets define and differentiate between what you might come across at the market and restaurant.  Keep these terms in mind while shopping and dining and you are sure to get exactly what you were craving.

Cured Salmon from BlackSalt Fish Market
The term lox derives from the German and Scandinavian term for salmon, laks.  The process of making lox was popularized during the early 19th century and was used mostly with wild fish, as they were abundant during that time.  Unfortunately, wild salmon are not as price accessible now as they were then, so a farmed substitute is not only acceptable, it is the norm.  The lox technique involves curing the salmon in a heavy brine mixture.  There is no smoke used at all in the process.  Some people add citrus notes to the salt mixture and the average curing time can vary from 2 to 5 days, depending on how 'cured' you like your fish.  The resulting flavor is usually saltier and stronger than most of the other options.  Most people use lox nowadays as a general term for all cured fish, but real lox are never smoked.
Gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word meaning 'from the grave'.  This is not due to the fact that the dish was only served during a burial, but because once cured the salmon would be buried in the ground near the ocean where the high tide reaches the shore.   Today the salmon is not buried in the ground, I just don't think the FDA would support this, but rather buried in the fridge in a traditional Scandinavian mixture that usually includes dill, sugar, salt, and chopped herbs.  Here's where it gets a little confusing; today most of the commercially sold gravlax gets a light smoke after curing.  Traditionally the light smoke is not used and the salmon is prepared with only the herb/salt mixture.  Either way, gravlax is usually distinguished by the presence of some remaining herbs in the package, though during the typical process the fish is rinsed after curing.

Nova or nova lox gets it name from the wild Nova Scotia salmon that used to inhabit the waters in the Canadian maritimes.  Now farmed salmon is used to make nova lox, but the process is still the same.  When making nova lox a wet brine mixture is used and the fish is usually cured for up to 5 days.  After curing, the fish is rinsed and then cold smoked for 10-15 hours.  The flavor is milder than lox, less salty, and lightly smoky.

Smoked salmon can be either cold or hot smoked.  Usually cold smoked salmon is sliced thin and used as a breakfast food.  This is the product that you will find packaged in most markets labeled smoked salmon.  Hot smoked salmon is much denser and less moist and is usually accompanied with a creamy sauce.  Hot smoked salmon is also the typical product used to make cakes, dips, and salads.  Either way, smoked salmon is never cured.  The resulting flavors are smoky and reminiscent of whatever wood is used, usually cherry, hickory, or oak.

Ok, so there you go, you are now ready to hit the markets and restaurants armed with the knowledge that will ensure that you are purchasing exactly the item you are looking for.  Whether it be Katz's deli or your local fish market, you can have confidence when you ask for lox, nova, gravlax, or smoked salmon that you know what you are going to get.  Also, this information can also make you look like a true connoisseur of the finer things at your next cocktail event.

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