As a chef, I am constantly asked the question, “What is the most important ingredient in your kitchen?” The answer is consistently and resoundingly: salt. It is an essential element in life. Our bodies need it to function, and our food is made so much better by it. It’s not only vital to flavoring foods but also essential to preserving them.
Salt played a key role in the survival of our civilization in times when refrigeration wasn’t an option or when fresh meats were unavailable because of proximity.
Most people think of time and temperature as the major culprits in food spoilage, but spoilage is actually caused by bacteria and microbes feeding on foods’ proteins. Those bacteria survive because of moisture, and salt drives that moisture out, thus creating an environment inhospitable to bacteria. Salt will also kill preliminary bacteria before they can do any damage.
The process of drawing moisture out of protein comes down to a word we are all familiar with: osmosis. The cellular membranes of protein are thick enough that most particles cannot cross over. Water molecules are small enough to pass through, and when sodium is added, the water is attracted to those ions and passes through the membrane more freely, essentially dehydrating the protein.
Salt curing has endless applications – pork, seafood, duck, chicken, beef, cucumbers, cabbage and so on. It is used to make a number of foods we have come to know and love, including prosciutto, pancetta, bacon, corned beef, pickles and sauerkraut. And with all of the applications, there is room for your personal preference. Gravlax, the recipe we share here, requires a certain salt-to-sugar ratio, but beyond that the flavorings are completely up to you. Use fennel, citrus, dill, peppercorns or whatever you desire. Just remember that a 2-lb piece of salmon will require 8 ounces of salt and 4 ounces of sugar. Add additional sugar for a moister finished product. Forty-eight hours later, just slice and serve.
Cassy Vires is the owner and chef of Home Wine Kitchen. She received her culinary training in Houston and has a knack for reimagining classic dishes.
Served simply with a bagel and cream cheese, used in a salad or diced for tartare, this salt-cured salmon requires very little active time and will keep in your refrigerator for weeks.
Serves | 10 to 12 |
- 1 5-lb side of salmon, pinbones removed
- 20 oz kosher salt
- 10 oz light brown sugar
- 1 orange, juiced and zested
- 1 lemon, juiced and zested
- ¼ cup white peppercorns
| Preparation | Rinse the salmon under cold running water and set out to dry. Mix together the salt and sugar. Spread half of that mixture into the bottom of a nonreactive container, preferably glass, just large enough to hold the salmon. Do not use a container that is too large or too small, as the salmon will release moisture during this process.
Place the salmon on top of the salt-sugar mixture. Drizzle the orange and lemon juices over both sides of the salmon and then cover with the remaining salt mixture. If you need more salt mixture, feel free to make more to ensure the salmon is completely covered. The amount needed will vary depending on thickness and weight of the fish. Add the zests and peppercorns and cover with plastic wrap.
Place a weight on top of the salmon. Canned foods or heavy pots work well. Refrigerate for no less than 48 hours and no more than 72 hours. The salmon should be firm to the touch.
Remove the salmon from the pan, rinse under cold running water and pat dry. Before slicing and serving, remove the salmon’s skin by running a thin-bladed and very sharp knife between the skin and flesh. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, wrapped loosely in parchment paper or butcher paper.