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The heritage of La Baleine sea salt inspired us to explore a classic way of using salt: gravlax. Today, we test and taste two versions of the Swedish staple.
It’s hard to conjure the Nordic region without thinking of its elements. The landscape is the entry point, it seems, to understanding the culture and food of the countries that reside closest to the Arctic Circle. So go beyond the cold for a moment, and really dig your feet in: The expansive sky, never-ending horizons, bold blues and muted greys of seaside cities, forests of color aplenty; these are the images that come to mind, or rather, that you see scattered between food in Darra Goldstein’s new cookbook Fire and Ice or Magnus Nilsson’s forthcoming magnum opus, the (almost 800-page-long!) Nordic Cookbook.
You would be remiss to pass these cookbooks off as mere products of the New Nordic trend—because they're totally different, from the trend and from each other. Darra’s book is a friend and teacher, making a quick pupil of you in a concise yet romantic way. And Magnus’s is an exacting yet self-proclaimed incomplete compendium that is sweeping nonetheless: It takes you on a journey across much of the 1,322,710 square miles through the eyes of over 2,000 people he surveyd on Nordic cooking.
As the granddaughter of a woman with the last name of Swanson who was known for her lutefisk, I’ve been itching to commune with my Nordic side with a classic recipe that just about any home cook could take on. Gravlax, it was.
Gravlax is synonymous with Sweden, so much so that Magnus says only the Swedish chef from The Muppets Show and the smörgåsbord have more notoriety. It’s name comes from two Swedish words smushed together—gravad lax, or buried salmon—which refers to how the fish used to be preserved underground to ferment. (Thankfully, it's cured just as easily atop a counter these days.) However fancy and foreign the word may sound, it is a simple process, and infinitely adaptable wherever you might be (depending on the season, Darra throws elderflowers or spruce buds into hers). And so, to see how Darra and Magnus's recipes differed, we prepared both in our test kitchen, to surprising results.
Fire and Ice takes us through the Scandinavian table by course, dropping in entertaining and informative essays on different Nordic countries along the way. We cured Dara’s gravlax on a baking sheet, a helter skelter of dill covering the pink flesh with bits of spices sticking out here and there. The amount of dill is wild—you hardly can see that there are any other spices in the cure (there’s a 1/2 cup of coarse sea salt and a full cup of sugar to it!). It feels like you are drowning the salmon in the cure when you prepare it (even with a 3-pound cut). But fear not—the fish can take it.
There’s something very serene about preparing this salt-and-sugar mixture, like in Amelie when the main character dips her fingers into a bag of grain for a moment of peace. The recipe calls for 32 hours in the cure, and Darra specifically notes to use coarse sea salt.
The Nordic Cookbook is organized by main ingredient, with cobbled-together stories and meticulous notes on technique scattered about each chapter to reference while you cook. The same is true for its gravlax recipe, where after introducing ingredients, Magnus refers you back to the process at the beginning of the chapter on saltwater fish, which is more detailed than the recipe itself (this process is included in the recipe).
At first I was skeptical of how little cure was involved—just 4 tablespoons of salt! no coriander!—and I had more questions still when the recipe called for the delicate salmon to be shoved in a bag with its accompanying mixture (Magnus says that this allows for a balanced cure). And I raised my eyebrows more than a bit at the very quick 24-hour salt soak (as a curing first-timer, this seemed so short!).
Left: The Nordic Cookbook's gravlax, and right: Fire and Ice's gravlax.
The bottom line is that the longer a fish stays in its cure, the denser and more firm the flesh will be when you've decided it's been long enough. Washing off the salt-and-sugar mixture stops the cure, and letting it sit for another 24 hours after you've removed it is preferred by some (this lets the cure settle in evenly).
But when gravlax is eaten right after it's cure is rinsed off, without any rest, it is truly something to be marveled at. We tried slices as soon as we washed each fish off, and both recipes produced silky, delicate pieces that practically melted in your mouth (our photographer James snatched up several pieces right as we finished photographing it). Magnus's recipe really surprised me, in a good way—we felt much less directed with his recipe and explanation. But even with less cure, it was saltier and tasted very much of the fish. And some other Food52 staffers weighed in too:
Amanda liked Magnus's recipe, as did Olivia, who called it smoky and a little saltier (even though it had much less salt than Darra's!). Hillary loved Darra's recipe, with its slightly sweet and soft flavors, and so did Clare. And this writer? She liked both, surprised by how much she enjoyed the integrity of the salmon's flavor in Magnus's and the sweet, dill-y recipe from Darra.
So what I say is this: Make gravlax at home, and it's the freshest you'll get it. As for the recipe? Choose one and riff—for something a little sweeter, to cut a rich cocktail party spread, go for Darra's recipe. Magnus's would make a great addition to a morning bagel or as a standalone dish. With both authors as our guides, it's hard to go wrong.
Photos by James Ransom
Let your strong feelings fly: Do you love or hate cured fish? Tell us in the comments below!
La Baleine sea salt certainly has a history—it’s been around since 1856—and we’ve been stocking it in our own kitchens for years, too. It's a pure sea salt originating from the French Mediterranean, drawn from an environmental preserve.