Mastering Cured Salmon
Cured salmon is a versatile meal starter. Once you get comfortable with the simple process of curing salmon, you’ll be able to create your own variations. The basic cure mixture always includes sugar and salt: The salt draws out moisture and breaks down the natural protein, while the sugar provides sweetness. The recipe below uses only the basic mix, but you always want to add an accent; you can find these in the variations described below. Salmon has a high fat content that results in a firm and pleasant texture, but tuna also takes cures well. Buy very fresh fish. Avoid the narrow tail end of the salmon, as it will easily dry out and resist slicing. Thicker portions are preferred though they will need more time to be cured.
do ahead Cured salmon can be made well ahead. You can start up to three days in advance for lightly cured salmon or up to two weeks for long-cured salmon. Store cured salmon, tightly wrapped in plastic, in the refrigerator.
Basic Salt and Sugar Curing Mix
1 pound salmon filet
3 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, coarsely ground
flavor accent (see variations below)
1 Remove skin and trim away fat on the skin side of the salmon. Trim off the thin striated strip that runs down one side of the filet so the piece of fish is uniform. Run your finger along the top flesh, about an inch from the thick side, checking for pin bones. Remove any pin bones with tweezers or needle-nose pliers. Rinse filet and pat dry.
2 Make the basic cure by combining salt, sugar, pepper and additional flavor accent. Use a fork to distribute ingredients evenly.
3 Spread a generous piece of plastic wrap large enough to easily wrap around the fish. Spread a layer of the cure mixture in the shape of the filet. If you have cheesecloth on hand, lay that down next. The cheesecloth will make it easier to remove the curing mix. Place fish on top and add enough cure mixture to completely cover, with some cure mixture spreading over the sides of the fish. Tightly wrap the fish in the cheesecloth, if using. Either way, wrap again in a second layer of plastic. Place wrapped fish in a shallow, nonreactive container with at least some slope to contain any moisture that escapes from the plastic wrap. Next, place a weight on the fish to aid the extraction of moisture. A plate and several large cans work well. Refrigerate anywhere from 3-14 days. The longer the cure, the firmer, drier and more intensely flavored the fish.
4 Once the fish is cured to your liking, remove plastic wrap and cheesecloth. You can cut a little slice of cured fish to check. If you want a longer cure, just rewrap the fish and return it to the refrigerator. Keep in mind that the first slice, surrounded on three sides by the cure mixture, will be more intensely cured than the interior will be. If you’re satisfied, carefully scrape away the curing mixture with a knife blade. If you prefer a less salty cure, rinse salmon under cold water and dry. (If you used cheesecloth, rinsing won’t be necessary.)
5 Use a very sharp knife to slice salmon on the bias against the grain. For lightly cured salmon, cut slices about 1⁄4-inch thick. For longer-curedM salmon, cut thinner slices. Cured salmon can be eaten without adornment, dressed with a touch of good olive oil or served with condiments on fresh or crisp toasted bread.
Pepper-Cured Salmon Add 1 tablespoon coarsely ground black peppercorns, 1 tablespoon coarsely ground green peppercorns and 11⁄2 tablespoons pink peppercorns to basic salt and sugar mixture. Leave some residual pepper and do not rinse. Just scrape.
Coriander-Cured Salmon Add 2 tablespoons ground (preferably toasted) coriander to basic salt and sugar mixture. Just scrape and leave some residual coriander.
Salmon “Jerky” Add 2 teaspoons ground (preferably toasted) coriander, 2 teaspoons ground (preferably toasted) fennel to basic salt and sugar mixture and use 3 tablespoons total black peppercorns. Use 1 pound salmon trimmings in place of filet. Cure for 5 days. Remove mixture, rinse and dry well. Slice thinly.
Juniper and Sage-Cured Salmon Add 1⁄4 cup crushed and chopped juniper berries, 1⁄3 cup chopped fresh sage to basic salt and sugar mixture. Serve with horseradish sauce (see page 216).
Traditional Dill-Cured Salmon Add 1⁄2 cup chopped fresh dill and 1 ounce brandy to basic salt and sugar mixture. Serve with dill honey mustard sauce (see page 223).
Citrus-Cured Salmon with Jicama Relish Add finely grated zest of 3 lemons, 3 limes and 2 oranges and 1⁄2 cup chopped fresh cilantro to basic salt and sugar mixture, using a fork to break up zest. Serve with jicama relish (see page 212).