Whisky-Cured Gravlax

November 24, 2013
by Jack McNulty
Whisky-Cured Gravlax

Hang out with us long enough and you will no doubt taste our whisky-cured gravlax at some point. We make this simple delicacy at least once per week and use it in a number of ways: on bread with avocado puree and a dash of flax seed oil, on mini savory olive oil scones as an apéro item, inside wraps using lavash or tortillas with plenty of avocado and sprouts, on whole wheat Irish soda bread, on buckwheat blinis (pancakes), on salads…or simply sliced and enjoyed naked (not us…just the food).

The juicy texture and fresh aromas coming from the orange and herbs marry with that unmistakable hint of smoky whisky to create a taste sensation which has, quite frankly, replaced our fondness for smoked salmon.

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Gravlax originates from Sweden. In its simplest form, it made by packing salmon filets in salt, sugar and dill for 2-3 days. The finished salmon is then sliced very thin like smoked salmon and served on crisp toasts with lemon wedges and some kind of sauce like a dill and mustard sauce.

Our version follows the same curing principle, but we add whisky and orange zest slices to the mix to infuse the salmon with a little bit more freshness and flavor. The basic preparation remains very simple and only requires a few minutes of your time. Curing takes a couple of days, though so you will need to plan ahead.

We believe the key to making a good gravlax is to get the sugar and salt balance correct. The salt works to draw moisture out of the fish which mixes with the whisky and sugar creating a liquid brine. Through the process of osmosis, the brine flows into the salmon’s cells causing them to change or denature. Gravlax made without sugar is dry, tough and (not surprisingly) way too salty. So the sugar is necessary to balance the taste as well as create a softer texture. You can experiment with your own ratio to create a tougher or softer version.

Now…about that whisky. We’ve actually experimented with many different whisky styles in making the gravlax, which as you can imagine, was a difficult task indeed. We have used several varieties of scotch whisky ranging from Highlands to Islays…and styles ranging from single malts to blended whiskies. The good news is they all work, but we think a mild Islay style works the best…especially one which will impart a small amount of smoke into the mix. Try something like a Lagavulin. Other alcohols to consider would include cognac, brandy, noilly prat or pernod…but then you would have to change the name of course!

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Whisky-Cured Gravlax
Makes enough for a few days…

400-500 gr. fresh salmon filet, trimmed and without skin
35 gr. white sugar
35 gr. brown sugar
60 gr. fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
4-5 cl. whisky
zest of one orange (use a vegetable peeler)
fresh dill

Place a good size piece of aluminum foil in a deep dish (one you would make a lasagna in) so you can wrap the salmon completely. Rinse the prepared salmon filet well with cold water and dry with a towel. Prepare your brine by mixing together the sugars, sea salt and black pepper. Pour the whisky onto the aluminum foil in the dish and add half of your sugar-salt mixture. You should cover the entire bottom of the dish. Place half of the zest and half of the herbs into the mixture, then place the salmon onto the brine. Cover the salmon with the remaining brine, zest and herbs. Close the aluminum foil around the salmon, working carefully to prevent the whisky from leaking out of the foil. Once you have sealed the foil, place a dish or some kind of weight directly on top of the salmon and refrigerate for 24 hours.

The next day, simply turn the salmon over. You will no doubt notice that some of the brine has leaked out of the foil and into the dish. No problem…just leave it that way. Let the salmon continue to cure for another 24 hours.

After 2 days of curing, unwrap the salmon, remove all of the zest and herbs and rinse the salmon under water. Pat dry with a towel (or paper towel). Chop up some more fresh dill and pat it onto the top surface of the salmon. The gravlax is now ready to eat or wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.

To slice the gravlax, use a very sharp thin-bladed knife. Hold the knife at a 45° angle and slice thinly.

note on brown sugar: be sure to use a soft dark brown sugar for the brine. If you can’t find anything near you, then try making your own – it’s really very simple. Just mix 100 gr. of very fine white sugar (this would be in between the texture of normal table sugar and powdered sugar) with 15 gr. of dark molasses. The initial mixture will be very sticky as you get your hands stuck in and begin the mixing process, but don’t worry…it will begin to come together in a cohesive mass which will be soft and very much like the brown sugar commonly used in America. Keep pinching the sugar mixture together using your fingertips for about 5-7 minutes to remove as many clumps as possible. When you are satisfied, push all of the sugar mixture through a strainer and you are done! Keep the finished brown sugar sealed in your cupboard.