Like most folks, I used to lump gravlax into the same category as smoked salmon, lox, and nova (named for Nova Scotia, not the PBS science show). They were all basically preserved fish slathered with cream cheese and draped over a bagel, a slice of rye, or some other happy carb.
But last November, when my mother-in-law visited, I learned that I was wrong. Besides having another cook to act as runner when folks needed a second glass, fork, etc. during the holiday meal, a perk of my MIL’s stay was that she taught me the virtues of gravlax. Easily our most popular app on Thanksgiving, her thinly sliced, salt-and-sugar cured salmon (no smoking or brining required) disappeared in under 5 minutes.
The word gravlax comes from gravad lax, which is Swedish for “buried salmon.” Most recipes follow the same, ridiculously effortless procedure: Salmon fillets are coated with sugar and salt, blanketed with a thick-as-grass layer of dill, and hit with a splash of booze. The salmon is then pressed under the weight of a few cans and refrigerated for 3 to 4 days, during which it releases its juice and is cured and flavored by the salt (the sugar, dill, and liquor lend a hand, too). Once a day, the salmon is basted with the released liquid. Finally, on the last day, the toppings are brushed away and the tender, compact fillet is sliced thin and enjoyed on its own or with cream cheese, shallot, or other accoutrements. When I slice, it’s a 1–1 ratio with the serving platter—a piece for me, a piece for the plate.
My recipe takes a detour in that the granulated sugar is replaced with brown sugar, which adds a deeper, richer flavor that amplifies the clear, briny flavor of the salmon. Burying—and about a minute of chopping—are all that’s required on the part of the cook, making this a recipe that’s just as easy as it is impressive.
This is all the chopping the recipe calls for—and it’s a rough chop at that! 1 cup of dill and you’re good to go.
Next, combine the brown sugar and salt in a bowl and mix them together with your fingers to remove clumps from the sugar.
Drizzle the brandy over the fish. It rolls right off, so re-scooping the liquid and drizzling again is important. The goal is to hit every part of the fillet with at least a little bit of moisture.
Cover the salmon, both top and sides, with the sugar-salt mixture—you want to really pack it on.
Now the last coating—the chopped dill—goes on, before plastic wrap is placed loosely over just the fish (not the whole baking dish).
Place a smaller baking dish on top of the plastic wrap–covered fillet. In the top dish, set a few heavy cans so the fillet is compressed. The dish should be placed on the highest/tallest point of the fish so the weight is evenly distributed. Then into the chill chest it goes.
Each day, baste the salmon with the liquid at the bottom of the dish—this is a mixture of the released liquid from the fish and the brandy. Scoop and drizzle, scoop and drizzle, until you’ve hit every part of the dill with the basting liquid and it looks thoroughly moistened. If any of the dill swims off while basting, make sure to replace it before re-covering the fish with plastic wrap and setting the baking dish and cans back on top.
Finally—three days later—it’s time to slice and eat. Start by swiping off all the dill, sugar, and salt. Using a butter knife works well—the blunt surface makes it easy to push back the thick layer of green.
After transferring the fillet to a cutting board, slice the salmon as thin as you can get it, on the bias, using a long slicing knife. While you slice, don’t cut through the layer of skin underneath because this flap can be folded up over the remaining gravlax to help keep it fresh and moist.
I like to serve the gravlax on rye toasts, with thin strips of red onion or shallot on top, and a little schmear underneath.