As soon as the February Mastery Challenge went up, I knew what I was going to make: Gravlax! Some of the other suggestions for salt preserving appeal to me, and I want to experiment with them one day (I mean, salt-preserved egg yolks? I have got to try that!). But gravlax called to me like the wilds* of British Columbia where I caught my first salmon.

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*where by “wilds” I mean “fishing resort”

So I dove in. Feeling less pressured by something that didn’t have to last, I built a mixture of seasonings that included the bits from two recipes that looked interesting to me:

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Note: The wine is for me. Everything else is for the fish.
  • 1 pound fresh salmon
  • 4 tablespoons sea salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1.5 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • 10 crushed juniper berries
  • 1/2 cup chopped dill
  • 1/3 cup vodka
  • 1 glass red wine (preserving nothing but my liver)

Bonus: Getting to use the juniper berries I bought last year for one recipe, and haven’t used since.

I measured and mixed the dry ingredients, and was encouraged by how delicious the mixture smelled. One of the recipes I referenced called for the use of a cheesecloth, which seemed like an intelligent approach to me: Cheesecloth would hold the rub close to the fish, but allow the liquid, extracted from the fish by the salt and sugar, to ooze away.

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I know “ooze” is a poor choice of words when discussing things one intends to eat. I apologize for that. Nonetheless, it is an accurate description of what happened. I didn’t really appreciate how much liquid will ooze out of a pound of filleted salmon until I went through this process.

Anyway.

I felt almost maternal as I wrapped up my seasoned salmon in cheesecloth, then plastic wrap, and tucked it in the refrigerator. This analogy falls apart thereafter, because if your mother sets a heavy casserole dish on top of you, you should probably call CPS.

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Excited, I sat back to wait, turning the fish once a day. And that’s when the oozing started. Some gravlax instructions say that you should unwrap the fish once a day and replace the plastic wrap. It was getting gooey enough that on Day 2, I decided that was a good idea. And this is when things turned unfortunate, because I realized two things:

  1. Half-cured fish smells really unappealing.
  2. I don’t like dill.

Oh. Oops. Maybe I should have picked something to salt-preserve that doesn’t include, as a major ingredient, an herb that I can only really handle in very small amounts?

But I was committed, and I was going to see this through. I gave my salmon a generous three days to cure, and then unwrapped it and sliced it up. By then, however, I was haunted by the Day 2 stench – despite the fact that it disappeared when I threw away the soaked wrapping and rinsed the fish. I was also haunted by uncertainty: I don’t really know what gravlax is supposed to taste like, do I? How do I know if it’s good gravlax, or just raw fish that’s been flattening and oozing in my refrigerator for three days?

All the same, it looked lovely when I sliced it, and there was no fishy smell, by which I determined that it was correctly preserved and safe to eat. It was very photogenic, neatly piled on crackers. I did it! I made gravlax!

Quashing the last of my food safety concerns, I took a bite. The texture was appealingly lox-ish, and the flavor was good…  until the dill hit. BLECH.

I made what I am reasonably sure was a nice batch of gravlax. As it turns out, I don’t like gravlax. I immediately dumped it in the trash and spread jam on a biscuit instead.

In closing, I give you a sketch by my good friend Nikka, which summarizes my experience nicely:

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©Nikka Valken, 2014. Image used with permission.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Here’s my version:

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Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

I don’t know if I’ll circle back around to gravlax. Hypothetically I could make it with herbs other than dill, right? But there are so many other good things to try, even in the realm of salt preserving, that my priorities will probably lie elsewhere. I’m still glad I gave this a try though. I accomplished something new… and I know to stick to smoked salmon at parties.

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