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Gravlax - a Scandinavian specialty

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TasunkaWitko View Drop Down
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    Posted: 05 February 2010 at 20:49
from wikipedia:
 
Quote During the Middle Ages, gravlax was made by fishermen, who salted the salmon and lightly fermented it by burying it in the sand above the high-tide line. The word gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word grav, which means literally "grave" or "hole in the ground" (in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Estonian), and lax (or laks), which means "salmon", thus gravlax is "salmon dug into the ground."
 
Today fermentation is no longer used in the production process. Instead the salmon is "buried" in a dry marinade of salt, sugar, and dill, and cured for a few days. As the salmon cures, by the action of osmosis, the moisture turns the dry cure into a highly concentrated brine, which can be used in Scandinavian cooking as part of a sauce. This same method of curing can be used for any fatty fish, but salmon is the most common.
 
Gravlax or gravad lax (Swedish), gravad laks (Danish),  gravlaks (Norwegian, Danish), graavilohigraflax (Icelandic) is a Scandinavian dish consisting of raw salmon, cured in salt, sugar, and dill. Gravlax is usually served as an appetizer, sliced thinly and accompanied by hovmästarsås-gravlaxsås), a dill and mustard sauce, either on bread of some kind, or with boiled potatoes.
 
alright - in order to get in the spirit of this new international foods forum, i've decided to try a true scandinavian specialty, gravlax. the recipe i used came from the scandinavian volume of time-life's series, foods of the world, circa 1968 

FOOD SAFETY - When selecting salmon for this project, there are a few things you should know in order to be safe, as there is a very slight, but genuine, danger of food-borne illness and parasites in choosing poorly. After all, we are talking about raw fish here, and even though raw fish is commonly eaten all over the world, that is no reason not to exercise some common sense and good judgment.

First, if you are trying to choose between wild-caught or farm-raised salmon, keep this in mind:

Quote "What's counter-intuitive to most cooks is that farm-raised salmon is much safer to eat raw than wild salmon. Farm-raised salmon is served pellet food, which is ground-up, processed fish meat. Any parasites in the fish meat are killed in the processing and grinding stages. Since salmon only obtains dangerous to humans parasites via food, farm-raised salmon simply isn't exposed to them. So, next time you use salmon for gravlax, tartar, or sashimi, go for the farm-raised stuff. When the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations tested various fish for parasites in 2003, no parasites were found in any farm-raised salmon species , whereas parasites were frequently found in wild salmon (section 5.1.4 of Huss et al., 2003).

Whether you ultimately choose wild-caught or farm-raised salmon, either will be free of potential food-borne illness and safe for consumption, if they have been properly frozen.  In doing some research on this, all sources seem to agree that commercial packagers of salmon freeze it to 40 degrees below zero (F or C is the same at that temperature) as an industry standard, specifically to eliminate the possibility of parasites. If you are using commercially-packaged salmon, you will have no worries of food-borne illness. Even if you store your commercially-packaged salmon in your home freezer, and it is only at zero degrees, the thing to remember is that it was brought down to 40 below at the packaging center, and any danger was eliminated then and there.

If you are using wild, fresh-caught salmon that has never been frozen as per industry standards, then there is some small chance of food-borne illness and that you really might be playing Russian roulette, but no more so than anyone who eats raw clams, oysters, ceviche etc, as far as I can see. A trusted friend with many years of experience in the food safety industry put it this way:

Quote To put all this in perspective, the risk you take downhill skiing is an order of magnitude greater than the risk of eating raw, not previously frozen fish. Whether that risk is worth it is up to you. I hate downhill skiing and I love raw fish, so you can guess which risks I choose to take. In fact, the risk of driving or just walking down the street is probably higher than the risk of eating raw fish. I know plenty of people who were in life-threatening car accidents, and I am yet to meat a person who got infected by anisakis simplex or tapeworm. And let me tell you, I get way more pleasure from a bowl of sashimi than my morning commute.

The bottom line is that it is up to, the individual reader of this post, to decide whether to try this or not - but if you ask my opinion, I will tell you that this stuff is too good to simply dismiss simply because you think you might be choosing between "taking a chance" or missing out on what is definitely some very good, traditional Scandinavian eating. When good judgment is combined with proper preparation, this product is no more or less dangerous than any other food prepared at home.
 
Please note that this all refers to salt-water fish. I absolutely would not consider making gravlax, sushi or sashimi out of freshwater fish that I had caught and packaged myself. For those, I would brine and hot-smoke to a safe temperature of 140 degrees. There might be a safe length of time to hold them at zero degrees F - say, 30 days - but I won't try it until I know for sure.

here's the goods:
 
 
amounts are as follows:
 
  • non-iodized salt - 1/4 cup
  • sugar 1/4 cup (i used turbinado "sugar in the raw," guessing that this would be closer to what they had in the days of yore
  • freshly-ground black pepper - 2 TBSP
  • 1 large bunch of fresh dill
  • 1 fillet of salmon

the salmon used was a chum salmon, which is not as vividly orangish-pink as some, but a very good eating salmon; plus, the price was right. the package that i got unfortunately had a salmon fillet that was pre-cut into four equal sections down to the skin. this wouldn't have been so bad, but it did complicate things a little when i sandwiched the fillets.

i prepared this cure by mixing the salt, sugar and pepper:
 
 
then gave the dill a rough chop, stems and all:
 
 
i laid down the center-cut fillet, then generously rubbed it down with half of the curing mixture:
 
 
then spread the dill out evenly across the top of the fillet:
 
 
after spreading the remaining salt/sugar/pepper cure evenly on the dill:
 
 
i laid the other fillet on top. it is important to lay them "belly-to"back" so that the thick pars of each fillet are evened out and not sitting on top of each other. i then double-wrapped it well in saran wrap:
 
 
and put the wrapped package of salmon in a rectangular glass baking dish. this was bigger than it need to be, but that's alright.
 
i set a square baking dish on top (which covered the salmon perfectly) and weighted it down with a two-pound block of cracker barrel sharp cheddar (thanks, RIVET!). the whole thing then went into the fridge, where it will remain for about 48 hours.
 
due to serendipitous timing, this salmon was wrapped at exactly 8pm friday night. every 12 hours, i will turn and rotate the package of salmon. the instructions also suuggest basting the fillets with the juice that seeps out ofthe salmon and becomes a marinade. as far as how long it needs to be there, different instructions vary from 36 hours to three days. i plan to unveil this for halftime during the superbowl sunday night, so it will probably be just shy of 48 hours in this time zone. due to the fact the the fillets are a little thin compared to big salmon, this should not be a problem.
 
gravlax is traditionally served on rye toast with a kind of sweet mustard sauce, but we will simply be using keebler club crackers and koops mustard (thanks again, RIVET!).
 
we'll see how it turns out! if anyone has any questions about the history or preparation of this awesome traditional cured salmon, please let me know.
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 February 2010 at 21:20
Oh man oh man, you have got the goods going on! This is great! I love your filet, it looked awesome, with a beautiful natural color. Excellent tutorial and looks like you all are going to enjoy some gravlax this weekend. You did right in coarse chopping up the dill, this time of year it needs it and should have done mine that way too. Very wise in layering your filets belly to back as well, something else I did not do~ thanks for the lesson, seems obvious now but not at the time. You all will be feasting on a Scandinavian delicacy on Superbowl Sunday...congratulations! Keep us posted on the progress. Clap 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05 February 2010 at 21:29
i'm looking forward to this one, john ~ having a few swedes in my ancestry, this one calls to me.
 
i am thinking that it should be quite a treat!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06 February 2010 at 10:25
gave it a turn and rotation this morning - everything is looking fine!
 
there's quite a good amount of "juice" that has been drawn out of the fish - you just know that in its place is going some sweet/salty/spicy/savory goodness ~
 
will keep you posted!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07 February 2010 at 11:15

after a third turn at 0800 this morning, mine was at the 36-hour mark, which is the minimum "finished" time.

right now it is waiting patiently for the superbowl, at which time i will open it up slice it in preparation to be served with a traditional swedish mustard sauce called hovmästarsås-gravlaxsås. RIVET found it Swedish food site. here's what he had to say about his research:

Quote I had it translated via google translator from the Swedish, so the grammar is clunky.

"This classic was one of the most important sauces in the Swedish restaurant kitchens during the 1900s.  It was served not only for gravlax - cold and grilled - and other marinated fish, but also to the shellfish cooked lobster and crab, as well as pickled herring. Now has the reputation, but at certain times and many have seen the bottom of this a bit extreme sauce. It was among other master chef Auguste Escoffier who found the tomb of the salmon delicious but despised hovmästarsåsen and instead proposed a tartar sauce as an accessory. A Danish version also contains egg yolks, and some lace sauce with a little brandy or honey.  Sometimes excluded and dill sauce is then called simply the mustard."

This recipe calls for decilitres (dl). 1 decilitre is equal to .4 cup measure, or slightly less than half a cup.

  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1-2 pinches of salt
  • 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
  • 1 / 2 dl Swedish sweet mustard I guess a light honey-mustard could be substitued with good results.
  • possibly 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 dl neutral oil
  • salt, white pepper from the mill
  1. Mix sugar, salt and dill (it is said that the dill flavor arrives best this way).
  2. Mix the mustard and vinegar.
  3. Stir in oil, little by little so that the sauce does not crack. Season with salt and pepper. Let stand awhile before serving.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07 February 2010 at 15:21

alright, the hovmästarsåsgravlaxsås is finished and looking great. i prepared it as described above, choosing to use extra virgin olive oil rather than something "neutral" like canola. results are very, very good with a sweet-tart tang and a good bite from the dill, pepper and other seasonings. my only regret is that i had no fresh dill to chop up and use - the dry "dill weed" that i did use is quite adequate, but it is ground pretty fine and therefore ended up coloring the mustard a bit. no big deal, it tastes great - just looks a little different:

 
this is going to make a very nice accompaniment for the gravlax, and i may also try it on the anchovy fillets and latvian sprats that we are offering today. this seems to be a great mustard sauce for any fish and possibly for some poultries as well - one thing is for sure, i think it would make an outstanding fish baste for the grill or smoker, and will try it in that capacity some time this year.


Edited by TasunkaWitko - 07 February 2010 at 15:33
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07 February 2010 at 16:24
alright, this is the moment i've been waiting for. my ancestors ate this, and i am honored to be joining them in this tradition.
 
some instructions say to rinse the finished gravlax off in cold water and pat dry, but i chose simply to scrape off the dill and then pat dry. becuase of the thin-ness of the fillet, it cured pretty quickly and the outer edges and surfaces were starting to get "pasty," which is just fine. the salmon below was firm and sliced easily:
 
 
here's how it looked on a club cracker. 
 
 
and here's a topping of the hovmästarsås-gravlaxsås:
 
 
in reality, it's probably a little too much of the hovmästarsås-gravlaxsås, but i wanted to get a good snort of it for evaluation purposes.
 
results are very good. i tried a it with and without the hovmästarsås-gravlaxsås and found both versions to be very good. with the traditional sauce, you get a definite and vivid explosion of flavors, all of which work well together and bring each other out. alone, you get a full mouthfull of great salmon flavor fighlighted by the salt, sugar, pepper and dill. a success all-around and an outstanding traditional experience.
 
 
this gravlax made a great addition to our superbowl smorgasbord!
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07 February 2010 at 19:49
What a beautiful spread you all had there! Well done, and fantastic looking gravlax and mustard too- picture perfect shot of the cracker close up! I'd say that was a complete success and I hope your entire family liked is as much as you did. Your football theme decorations and tablecloth were perfect for the weekend~ real nice touch!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 12 February 2010 at 11:01
brought the other fillet to work today, sliced it up and laid it out similar to the way i did it at home:
 
 
it was pretty well-recevied by almost everyone, but i forgot to bring the hovmästarsås-gravlaxsås!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Hoser Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 February 2010 at 11:22
I made the Gravlaxsas (mustard sauce) over the weekend, and smeared it on a nice piece of smoked salmon for lunch today. Clap
Great recipe!
Go ahead...play with your food!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 February 2010 at 11:26
yep, it is ~ i like the different flavors that come into play. very unique from anything i would normally eat, but it seems perfect for salmon!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Hoser Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 September 2010 at 14:01
Regarding gravlax itself....what information do you have on whether it is safe or not? I don't want any nasties or parasites! Cry
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 September 2010 at 14:57
dave - the final decision is up to you, but here are a few points to consider:
 
a) i believe that freezing down to zero degrees for a certain length of time will eliminate that worry. click here for a link to some search topics on that subject.
 
b) when i was studying up on japanese sushi/sashimi, the reading told me that the fresh, raw salmon required for many of these popular dishes was safe as long as it was caught in salt-water envrionments.
 
c) also, as i reacall, john did some research into this and farm raised was also deemed safe:
 
Quote "What's counter-intuitive to most cooks is that farm-raised salmon is much safer to eat raw than wild salmon. Farm-raised salmon is served pellet food, which is ground-up, processed fish meat. Any parasites in the fish meat are killed in the processing and grinding stages. Since salmon only obtains dangerous to humans parasites via food, farm-raised salmon simply isn't exposed to them. So, next time you use salmon for gravlax, tartar, or sashimi, go for the farm-raised stuff. When the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations tested various fish for parasites in 2003, no parasites were found in any farm-raised salmon species , whereas parasites were frequently found in wild salmon (section 5.1.4 of Huss et al., 2003).

To put all this in perspective, the risk you take downhill skiing is an order of magnitude greater than the risk of eating raw, not previously frozen fish. Whether that risk is worth it is up to you. I hate downhill skiing and I love raw fish, so you can guess which risks I choose to take. In fact, the risk of driving or just walking down the street is probably higher than the risk of eating raw fish. I know plenty of people who were in life-threatening car accidents, and I am yet to meat a person who got infected by anisakis simplex or tapeworm. And let me tell you, I get way more pleasure from a bowl of sashimi than my morning commute."
 
d) most smoked salmon i've seen of the "lox" variety is not, as far as i know, brought up to any significant temperatures and is still in the "uncooked" stage.
 
some of those points might seem a bit contradictory, so they may or may not warrant further study, as you see fit. the way i see it, raw salmon is so popular in japan and in scandinavia (and presumably a few other places) that it must be safe in some form or another. perhaps john has some updated or clarified information on this and, with access to industry food safety specialists, might be able to look into this a little more closely in order to get us some solid answers.
 
as i said before, it's up to you, but this stuff is too good to simply dismiss unless you are absolutely sure, rather than choosing between "taking a chance" or missing out on what is definitely some very good, traditional scandinavian eating.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Hoser Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 30 September 2010 at 12:19
You know Tas...you're probably right. I'm just being a wimp about the salmon, but you are definitely playing Russian roulette when you make gravlax. As far as freezing it for an extended period, you are correct, but the temperature required is -40°C which is absolutely unreachable by a home freezer.

On the other hand, I don't hesitate to make ceviche, which I cure for a mere 20 minutes in lime juice and wolf it down with mucho gusto!

I also don't hesitate to pick up a clam I just dug out of the stinking low tide mud, rinse it, open it and eat it raw.

When you're right you're right my friend Gravlax is now on Hoser's to do list. If I get worms, I'll have them removed and send them out to you in the next care package.
Go ahead...play with your food!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 30 September 2010 at 13:14
good news, dave! from what i can see you can eat gravlax with confidence ~
 
in doing some research on this, i have seen several different temperatures and times for freezing salmon in order to eliminate parasites. these temperatures range from -40 degrees (-40 is the same both C & F) to simply zero degrees F - it was confusing until i realized the common thread.
 
all sources seem to agree that commercial packagers of salmon freeze salmon to 40 degrees below zero (F or C is the same) as an industry standard specifically to eliminate the possibility of parasites. if you are using commercially-packaged salmon, you will have no worries. even if your home freezer is only at zero, the thing to remember is that it was brought down to 40 below at the packaging center, which is the important thing.
 
now, if you are using fresh-caught salmon that has never been frozen as per industry standards, then you may have a problem and really might be playing russian roulette, but no moreso than as you describe with clams, oysters, ceviche etc, as far as i can see.
 
note that this all refers to salt-water fish. i absolutely would not consider making gravlax, sushi or sashimi out of freshwater fish that i had caught and packaged myself. for those, i would brine and hot-smoke. there might be a safe length of time to hold them at zero degrees F, but i won't try it until i know for sure.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26 January 2011 at 17:10

this year's attempt is going to be the same in most ways, with a few small differences. anyone interested can click here:



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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02 February 2012 at 16:18
and, for posterity, here's this year's gravlax, which didn't turn out quite as well as last year's, but was still good:
 


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