Weirdly, for an extremely picky eater as a child, I have always loved and craved cured fish.
I thought I would die if made to look at a salad, and couldn't stomach a hamburger bun for any price. But left to myself, at the age of maybe nine, I would eat a whole plate of batarekh myself.
That's right, the dried salted roe sacs of the grey mullet, known as Egyptian Caviar.
As I've left pickiness behind, I've found that a big problem is that this kind of thing can get pricey. I absolutely adore a bagel piled with lox, but buying lox? Expensive. And honestly, it's seldom that you get good quality -- it should have the texture of good sushi, sort of velvety and al dente, but usually it's mushy. Expensive and mushy? No thanks.
Then I figured out how to cure salmon myself. I have read lots of recipes and methods, and I am here to tell you that it's a lot easier than they make it out to be, and you need fewer ingredients.
I have been making cured salmon for years. It always works, it's always delicious, there are never enough leftovers. We have it for appetizers before every major feast, and it makes a wonderful company breakfast food since the prep is all done at least a day before! You can bet that we had this on the mornings of the weddings.
You really just need some nice fatty salmon and a good amount of salt. You don't need sugar, although many recipes call for 1 part of sugar to 2 parts of salt. Personally, I am not a fan of dill, so I don't go the gravlax route, but I do like other flavorings, which I will mention in the recipe. You don't need ziploc bags or complicated wrappings or anything other than a glass dish and some plastic wrap -- if you have a glass dish with a glass lid, then shazam! You're in business.
So here is the method:
Cured Salmon, Like Mother, Like Daughter
A filet of salmon, skin on (the skin, well, you just have to have the skin) -- don't start with less than a pound, because you will regret not having more. For our family, I try to get two pounds.
A lot of kosher, pickling, or sea salt (but it's not really worth using expensive salt -- but whatever you have is fine).
A shallow glass dish large enough to hold your fish filet and the liquid that will be produced as it cures -- in other words, a platter isn't a great idea. You need sides.
Options for flavoring:
Dulse, which is flaked seaweed -- this adds a lovely smokey sea flavor and is very good for you -- you can see the dark brown flakes in the photo above. Use about 1/4 cup per filet.
Lemon juice and/or rind or whole lemons, sliced -- the lemon will cure as the fish does, and of course the citrus flavor is a natural. Use a tablespoon of lemon juice or 1/2 a lemon, sliced, per filet.
Liquid smoke -- In theory this should just be a liquid version of the smoke you would infuse in a smoker. If it's not safe, it's probably not safe to smoke food, either. Since I liked smoked food, I don't worry too much about it, especially since I always forget to buy it. Use a tablespoon per filet.
Whiskey, bourbon, brandy, or other spirits -- Also adds a nice smokey flavor. Use a couple of tablespoons.
Any herb or spice that strikes your fancy. Scandanavians use dill. Rosemary is nice, and I also like coriander and cumin.
Rinse your filet in cold water.
Put about an inch of salt in your glass dish. Mix your flavorings with your salt. Do not worry. In the end it will taste like salty salmon, and you will squeeze some lemon on top and be in heaven.
Check your filet for pin bones by rubbing your fingers against the grain of the flesh. Pull any out with your fingers or with kitchen tweezers or a pair of needle-nosed pliers (wash before and after, thank you). Don't fret about the tiny ones -- I think that the salt dissolves them, and slicing the flesh thinly renders them harmless anyway.
Lay your salmon, skin side up, on the layer of salt. Put about another 1/4 inch of salt over the skin. I used to get high anxiety over the amount of salt, but now I've done this so many times that occasionally I find I don't have a ton of salt handy. But I really, really want cured salmon. It works even with 1/2 cup of salt, total.
Cover tightly with plastic wrap or with the glass cover to your dish. This is just so that the fridge doesn't end up smelling like fish. The fish itself would be fine left even uncovered. It's got salt all over it -- it's not going to spoil.
You just want to check in about 8 hours to make sure that the underside of your salmon is resting on salt, and that the sides of the fish also have a layer of salt.
A filet of fish that is about 3/4" thick at its thickest end will cure in a 24-hour period. One that is thicker will take up to 2 days. After about 18 hours the juices of the fish will start to mingle with the salt and create a brine. That's all good. Just use a spoon and make sure that everything is in contact with salt.
When you are ready to eat, rinse the filet off and pat it dry with paper towels. (By the way, yes, you can put the brine in a jar and use it again. Keep it in the fridge.)
Put it on a cutting board, set out a sharp knife: The flesh has to be cut very thinly, against the grain, at a diagonal. Start at the thick end.
(If you leave it longer than 24 hours, you will find that it gets quite salty, and it might need a little soak in cool water before serving -- cut it very thinly indeed.)
Serve with cream cheese and crackers, with a squeeze of lemon. Brown bread and butter -- also lovely! And of course, a bagel piled high with glistening slices -- it doesn't get better than that!
When you get to the very last bit of salmon -- when it really can't be cut into delightful thin slices any more, scrape the skin well and chop everything that is left into little bits. Mix it with cream cheese and enjoy on your toasted bagel!
Notes to answer questions:
1. It's unlikely that you will have much in the way of anything left over from this production. If you do, just wrap the skin around the flesh, cover the whole thing in plastic wrap, and store in the fridge. It's best if you eat it up within two or three days. The longer you've cured it, the longer it will last.
2. I have never frozen the cured salmon, because there is never that much left over, but I imagine it would be just fine, as our Norwegian friend Astrid in the comments says.
3. A lot of fish sold in the supermarket has already been frozen when it is sold as "fresh." Freezing kills any parasites. You can ask when you buy it if it has been frozen. If it hasn't and you are worried, just freeze it, thaw it in the fridge, and then proceed. I usually wash my filet before curing it, but the salt will kill any surface bacteria.