Hibernating inside during quarantine has proven that people simply like a project. From baking sourdough bread to mastering mixologist-approved cocktails, a culinary-forward project has not only served as a way to pass all the extra time on our hands, but has also resulted in a delicious output. So if you’re in the market for a new project, it’s time to level up and start your own fermentation station.
Related Reading: 7 Summer Seafood Feasts to Have Delivered to Your Door
That’s what cookbook author Andy Hamilton hopes you’ll set up once you open his new book “Fermenting Everything.” Perhaps you’ve already tackled making your own kimchi or brewing your own kombucha. But there are plenty of projects that require fermentation that you probably never thought you should—or could—make, like ginger beer, fish sauce, and creme fraiche. Andy provides recipes and instructions for all that, and more, plus a dive into the history of fermentation, so these processes that may have once seemed uninviting and daunting are merely the antithesis of that.
Fermenting Everything: How to Make Your Own Cultured Butter, Fermented Fish, Perfect Kimchi, and Beyond, $14.70 on Amazon
Weekend brunch lovers will want to keep reading for Andy’s gravlax recipe, a type of salmon technique that’s cured, rather than smoked. All you’ll need is a hefty salmon fillet—like the kind you’d normally roast—plus a smattering of fresh herbs (Andy goes for dill), sugar, and salt. Andy also recommends adding a fluid ounce of liquor, like rum, vodka, or gin, an optional choice that he finds ultimately makes for a better final product. Then all you’ve got to do is rub the cure into the fish, pop it in the fridge in some cheesecloth for 24 to 48 hours (depending how rich you want the fish to be), turn the fillet over a few times, and by the weekend you’ll be able to carve paper-thin rounds of gravlax over your bagel and cream cheese.
The word gravlax means “grave fish”; lax meaning salmon and grav meaning, well, grave. This might sound like a rather odd name for a cured fish dish that tastes like an unsmoked version of smoked salmon. It makes more sense when you consider the origins of this dish, which is the Nordic countries of Northern Europe. People rubbed salt and sugar into fresh salmon, and then buried it while it cured. This would prolong the life of the fish from a good catch, if it wasn’t all going to be eaten straightaway.
I found that a salt-to-sugar ratio of 2:1 by weight to be just right for this recipe. If you prefer a sweeter fish, you can alter this to 1:1 by weight. You can also add dill, fennel, or other herbs that complement salmon. I find that lemon balm and other delicate tasting herbs are overpowered by this fish, no matter how much I use, and so I think that using them for this preparation is a waste of herbs and effort. Another interesting twist on gravlax is to use spruce tips in the curing. These will give up their flavor if whole sprigs are pressed onto the fish along with the cure. Aim for spring/summer growth, as spruce then tends to be at its most flavorsome. You must be sure you are not picking sprigs from yew pine, however. Please refer to the foraging tips on page 50, and, remember, do not use anything you find foraging as an ingredient unless you are absolutely sure it is okay to ingest.
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You can also add rum, vodka, or gin to the mix at a rate of roughly 1 fluid ounce per 3 pounds (30 ml) per 1.5 kg. There is fierce debate as to how traditional this technique is. Some swear by it, others say it doesn’t make much difference to the final flavor. I’d suggest that it does. It can give the fish an extra flavor on what wine tasters call the farewell—the last flavor you are left with after eating. If you are hosting a dinner party with drinks that match, then I’d urge you to give it a go. It’s not such a great idea if this is for a lunchtime treat and you have work in the afternoon!
As with all cured meat and fish, make sure the fish is as fresh as you can possibly find. Preferably, it will have been caught that morning. If filleting the fish yourself, be sure that any pin bones have been removed. For aesthetic reasons you can remove the skin too, although I like the skin and leave it on. Some like to work with a loin of salmon instead of a fillet, because the loin is of an even size and offers a more even final product. I personally like to have a little variation in flavor when I eat my gravlax. This ultimately comes down to personal preference.
If you are adapting the recipe, I would be wary of using an abundance of citrus juice. A little peel is fine, but if you start adding citrus juice to the fish before you cure it, then the acid in the juice will start to cook the fish. As a result you will end up with fish that is both cured and cooked, and it’s not tasty.
Note: This can be quite an expensive dish to make, depending on where you get your salmon. It can be scaled down, but the volume of cure will be altered, so just be sure the cure is evenly and liberally spread across the outside of the fish.
- One 3-pound (1.5-kg) salmon fillet
- ½ cup (7 oz; 200 g) sea salt
- ½ cup (3.5 oz; 100 g) sugar
- 2 bunches dill (about 2 oz; 60 g; optional)
- 1 fluid ounce (30 ml) vodka/rum/gin (optional)
- If refrigerated, take the salmon out for about 30 minutes before curing. If you’re going to, this is the point to take off the skin too.
- Combine the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl to make the cure: for a simple cure that allows the fish to speak for itself, use just salt and sugar at a 1:1 volume ratio; in other words, ½ cup salt to ½ cup sugar. If using dill or other herbs, then finely cut them and add them to the bowl too. To help the flavor open up a little you can rub the ingredients together. This bruises the herbs, allowing for the flavor molecules to be released. If using rum/vodka/gin, then mix in with the cure.
- Lay the salmon down on a piece of plastic wrap or cheesecloth and rub in the cure. Ensure that you cover the entire side of salmon as evenly as possible. It will start to soak into the fish straightaway, so I tend to rub a first layer in and then repeat until the cure stops immediately turning transparent.
- Flip the fish over and repeat the process. Then wrap the plastic wrap/cheesecloth tightly around the fish, leaving the top and bottom free. Place the fish in a baking dish and place something heavy on top of it. I use jars filled with ferments, but if you don’t have many, then try something else: a large, filled soda pop bottle or a heavy book or a chopping board with bricks on it for example.
- Place the whole thing in the refrigerator and leave for at least 24 hours and up to 48 depending on how rich you like your fish. The fish will need turning at least four times when you do this. Drain off the excess liquid as you do so and keep the fish sealed in. If using cheesecloth, you may need to tighten it. The liquid that drains off can be kept in the refrigerator and made into a sauce for your fish.
- Take out the now cured fish and rinse off the cure. This can be done by running it under the tap and rubbing it off with your hand. Some just brush it off but I find this far too salty.
- To carve, take the sharpest and longest knife you have and cut in diagonal slices, the thinner the better. It takes practice, and the first two or three slices won’t be very long as the angle gets deeper as you go.
- Serve with cream cheese on a bagel or however you would serve regular smoked salmon. There is a discrepancy between many sources as to how long this dish will last in the refrigerator, and I have read anywhere from two to three days or up to two weeks. I have erred on the side of caution and will eat my gravlax within five days of curing it, and I have always been fine.
Header image courtesy of "Fermenting Everything."