I used to have gravlax twice a year, once at Christmas and once in the summer. At Christmas it was, and still is, served side by side with home-smoked salmon, mayonnaise laced with sweet mustard sauce and fresh herbs as a starter before Christmas lunch. In the summer it would usually mark a weekend of family, or a hot day, or just because it had been a while and we fancied it.
On both occasions at least a side of salmon would be wheeled out from the fishmonger’s, cured and eaten for days on end; casual lunches, starters and breakfasts might all contain gravlax for the days that followed.
Whilst making gravlax always feels like an occasion, in the last year or so I’ve been making it much more regularly. I now use smaller portions of fish so that it lasts me and Harry for a couple of meals, or just the one if we’re sharing. It’s a bit special and a bit different and so is perfect if people are visiting or if we fancy a posh brunch or lunch at the weekend.
Cue the buttermilk pancakes. What could be more perfect for a posh brunch than pancakes? Good question. Pancakes with gravlax! These pancakes have the same pillowy goodness as their sweet counterparts, but the tang of buttermilk and sharpness from the spring onions cuts through the richness of the salmon. Pair with a mustard-y dill cream cheese and you’ve got a cracking combination.
What is gravlax?
So hang on a second, I might’ve got ahead of myself here. Gravlax comes with many names or could just be downright unfamiliar.
Gravlax, gravadlax, gravlaks or gravadlaks, depending on where you’re from, is a type of cured salmon originating from Scandinavia. A mixture of salt and sugar is used to preserve the fish, which is then further characterised by the dill and juniper used to flavour it.
And what is curing?
Well, you might know this already, but here’s a refresher. Curing is a food preservation technique as old as time. It comes in two main forms, smoking and salt-curing, with the two often used in combination.
When food is salt-cured a mixture of largely salt, often mixed with sugar and aromatics, is applied to the food in question. This is then left to cure in a cool place for some time, be it days, weeks or months, depending on what’s being cured. In the smoking process meat and fish is, somewhat unsurprisingly, exposed to smoke, usually from burning wood. Depending on the temperature the food is smoked at, it might need salt-curing first to make it safe to eat.
These techniques are old and global, having been borne out of a need to stop food spoiling long before refrigeration was possible. There are records of meat and fish being cured in ancient Greece, Persia and Italy; Native Americans living on the Great Plains traditionally smoked meat, and in Ethiopia and Libya the Acridophages salted and smoked locusts before eating them. In fact it’s believed that smoking meat originated in the Paleolithic Era, well over 3 million years ago.
So, what’s the difference between gravlax and smoked salmon?
It’s quite a common confusion, they look similar, have roughly the same texture, and are often nestled side-by-side at the supermarket, but smoked salmon and gravlax are different beasts.
Quite simply, gravlax hasn’t been smoked so it doesn’t have any of the smoky flavours that come with that. Similarly, whilst smoked salmon is cured before smoking, it doesn’t tend to cure for as long or with the same aromatics traditionally found in gravlax. This results in very different flavours for each.
OK and one last question – how does salt-curing work?
So by now you’ve probably spotted that there’s no cooking involved with making gravlax and I can understand concern at leaving fish unfrozen and uncooked for days on end. However, the salt in the cure draws moisture out of the salmon via osmosis, which makes it uninhabitable for any nasties. Don’t forget, this is a method used since antiquity and has therefore been long tested.
Preparation time: 15 minutes Curing time: 4 days
Cooking time: 20 minutes (pancakes only)
Ingredients for the gravlax:
- 250g salmon
- 2 tbsp sea salt
- 2 tbsp + 1 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp dijon mustard
- 2 tbsp gin
- 10g dill
Ingredients for the dill cream cheese:
- 60g cream cheese
- 10ml warm water
- 1 tsp dijon mustard
- 1 tbsp finely chopped dill
- A pinch of sugar
Ingredients for the pancakes:
- 120ml buttermilk
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 4 tbsp plain flour
- 1 egg
- 2 spring onions, thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Four days before: curing the gravlax
- Start putting together the gravlax four days before you want to eat it. If you want it for brunch on Saturday, do it on Tuesday.
- Mix together the salt, sugar, mustard and gin into a paste, snipping in a small bunch of dill.
- Place the salmon skin side down in a dish and smear three quarters of the mix over the flesh. Then flip it and add the remaining mix to the skin side. When selecting a dish don’t forget that the cure will draw moisture out of the salmon, so it needs to be able to hold some liquid. I wouldn’t use a plate for this.
- With the salmon skin side up, cover the dish with a layer of greaseproof paper followed by a layer of clingfilm*.
- Now you want to weigh it down to encourage the moisture to draw out of the fish. I use tins or jars from the cupboard, but I’ve also seen my mum use bricks covered in tinfoil, so use what you have on hand.
- Put in the fridge and check on it after two days. It will have firmed up a little, but could still do with more time. Make sure the cure is covering the fish as it may have slipped around a little, and leave for a further two days.
- First up, make the dill cream cheese by quite simply combining all the ingredients together. The longer this has to sit the more the flavours will marry. You could even make it the day before if you liked.
- Make sure the consistency is to your liking and add a little more warm water if it’s too stiff or a little more cream cheese if it’s too loose.
- Next up is the pancake batter. Mix together the dry ingredients before whisking in the wet ones and leave to rest for a minute whilst you prep the salmon.
- Wipe down the salmon and discard any remaining cure and moisture that came out of the fish. Don’t be tempted to rinse it – it will lose flavour.
- Slice the salmon as thinly as possible with a very sharp knife. Be careful.
- Heat a frying pan or griddle over a medium-high heat. Personally I don’t use fat in my pan and rely on it being non-stick instead. I can’t stand a greasy pancake (and don’t forget there’s olive oil in there too which will help).
- Once the pan is hot spoon the mixture in dollops around the pan – three to four tablespoons for each. You’ll begin to see the tops of the pancakes bubble, which means it’s time to flip them with a silicone spatula. Do yourself a favour and don’t scratch your pans up.
- After a minute or two the other side of the pancakes will be done. Remove from the pan and keep warm in a oven at about 50 degrees celsius. Continue in batches.
- Once all the pancakes are cooked divvy them up amongst your plates, topping with a handful of the delicate salmon slices and a spoonful of dill cream cheese.
- Eat, enjoy and drink with a glass of something delicious if it’s gone midday.
*if anyone is brave enough to try this with a beeswax wrap do let me know how it went and whether the wrap needed throwing away by the end.