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When it comes to lox vs smoked salmon, do you know the difference? And what’s the deal with Nova salmon?

Order a bagel and lox and your sandwich will likely be adorned with a schmear of cream cheese, red onion slivers, perhaps a sprinkle of capers, and, of course, luxurious thinly-sliced salmon. But oddly enough, there’s a very good chance you won’t be served any actual lox.

Sure, you’ll enjoy slices of fish that may look like lox and have the texture of lox, but it probably ain’t lox.

And if you’re not a fan of salt, that may be to your tastebuds’ benefit.

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The Key to Lox

One place where you’re sure to find real deal, authentic lox is New York’s Barney Greengrass, the century-old Upper West Side institution where the cold case is packed to the gills with old world fish favorites. “We’re a hardcore Jewish deli,” says third generation owner Gary Greengrass, so it’s no surprise his grandfather’s lox offers a taste of yesteryear—and keeping with tradition, that taste is incredibly salty.

Salt was used out of necessity in the days before refrigeration as a way to preserve a big catch and prevent it from spoiling. It has the added benefit, however, of breaking down the muscle fibers in the fish, creating a texture that’s smooth as butter.

“It’s not a smoked fish, it’s a pickled fish,” Greengrass says of lox, which is an anglicization of the Yiddish word “laks” which derived from the German word “lachs” (both meaning salmon).  This is no quick pickle. The fish is brined in a vat filled with salt and water for six months, even up to a year, transforming the flavor of the salmon. “It’s really salty through and through,” notes Greengrerass. (This is a good time to acknowledge that lox should not be confused with the similar sounding though far-milder gravlax, which is raw salmon cured for a few days with a mix of sugar, salt, dill, and other spices.)

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The resulting sodium chloride wallop is what you may call an acquired taste, which is why Greengrass is always cautious when it comes to first timers at his store.

“A customer comes in and says, ‘Give me lox and cream cheese on a bagel.’ The question really is, ‘do you want lox that is salty or Nova, which is mild?’ Ninety-nine percent are going to want it mild. The old die-hards want it salty.”

Super Nova

So about that Nova Greengrass mentioned. This is the most common of deli salmons and its roots can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century. Back then nearly all of North America and its Jewish population enjoyed salmon sourced specifically from the waters of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

But to make matters even more confusing, nowadays the term Nova isn’t necessarily used to indicate where the salmon originated (though quality purveyors such as Barney Greegnrass still source their catch from up north), but rather how it’s prepared.

Though it is often mislabeled as lox, Nova is a type of smoked salmon. It starts with a brine, often a mixture of salt, sugar, and water. Instead of a months-long soak, the fish only spends a few days in the sweet and salty bath. (In some cases sugar is removed from the equation, and in others, no water is added and the salmon is dry-cured.)

During that relatively brief time period, the salmon will excrete some of its natural oils and absorb the salt and sugar, a process that yields luscious flavor and firmness.

Related Reading: Smoked Salmon Recipes That Go Beyond the Bagel

The salmon is then cold-smoked at a temperature roughly between 68 and 75 degrees in order to enhance that flavor while ensuring the flesh remains velvety. (Cranking up the heat for a hot smoke will amp the smoky flavor and result in a firmer, flakier texture.)

There’s no mistaking mild-cured, mild-smoked Nova from the salty intensity of lox. To put it in Jewish comedian terms, Nova is the Jerry Seinfeld to lox’s Lenny Bruce.

So whether you’re a one-percenter or in the smoked salmon-loving majority, it’s best to double-check what exactly you’re getting the next time your order lox. And don’t forget that schmear!

Everything Else You Need to Know

The Ultimate Guide to Salmon

Header image courtesy of Barney Greengrass

David is a food and culture writer based in Los Angeles by way of New York City. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, CBS Local, Mashable, and Gawker.
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