What is Gravlax?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Gravlax is made with salmon.
Gravlax is made with salmon.

Gravlax is a Scandinavian fish dish which is popular in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland in particular. The recipe has greatly evolved over the centuries, from a pungent fermented fish to a more mildly flavored cured version. The food is commonly served as an appetizer, and it may also appear on sandwiches as a snack. Stores which specialize in Scandinavian food may carry gravlax, and it can also be made at home.

Gravlax is a popular dish in Iceland.
Gravlax is a popular dish in Iceland.

Traditionally, gravlax is made with salmon. Other species of fish could potentially be used, but since gravlax is eaten raw, only saltwater species can be used. Freshwater fish may carry parasites which are potentially dangerous. Purists would argue that a version of the dish made with a fish other than salmon is not truly gravlax, although it may be perfectly edible and interesting to eat.

Gravlax is popular in Norway.
Gravlax is popular in Norway.

I n Swedish, grav means “buried,” while lax means “salmon.” The original version of the dish was made by fishermen who buried salmon above the high tide line after rubbing it in salt, sugar, and dill. While it was buried, the salmon fermented, and it became quite pungent and strongly flavored. The modern dish is not fermented at all, and is cold-cured under refrigeration. This dramatically changes the flavor and odor of the dish, and many consumers prefer the modern version.

To make gravlax, equal parts of salt and sugar and blended and then rubbed into a salmon fillet. Sprigs of dill are lightly crushed and piled on top before the salmon is tightly wrapped and placed under refrigeration for up to five days. Some cooks weight the salmon, producing a pressed salmon gravlax with a very dense, compact texture. Others feel that this is unnecessary. In either case, the fillet must be as fresh as possible, and it should be washed and patted dry before the curing process is initiated.

Once the gravlax is cured, it is very thinly sliced and served. The raw salmon should be kept on ice, if possible, to ensure that it stays free of bacteria. It may be laid on on a smörgåsbord, arranged on crackers, or integrated into other appetizers. Gravlax tends to pair well with pickled vegetables such as onions, along with the strong liqueurs which are popular in Scandinavia. Some cooks like to modify the basic gravlax recipe with the addition of fresh herbs, liqueurs, or other ingredients, although this does tend to obscure the pure flavor of the salmon and dill.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

aviva

@whitesand - The mustard sauce is actually chilled then served on the side either as a spread or a dipping sauce. To answer your question, yes I think it would taste wonderful with grilled or smoked salmon.

The ingredients I used for the mustard sauce were: one teaspoon spicy Dijon mustard, two tablespoons honey mustard, one and one half tablespoons of white-wine vinegar, about one half cup of fresh chopped dill, three quarters cup cooking oil, two teaspoons of sugar, salt and pepper to taste and about a tablespoon of cold strong black coffee.

I mixed all the ingredients together in the blender, except the dill and salt and pepper which I stirred in last in a bowl that I transferred to the refrigerator for about four hours. This step is important to allow the flavor to intensify.

I hope your family enjoys it and I do hope you try the gravlax salmon recipe sometime too. It's really quite delicious. The next salt water fish I'll be experimenting with is mahi mahi of the pacific.

whitesand

@aviva - I've been trying to include more salmon in my family's diet since it's so healthy and good for us. Your gralax salmon recipe sounds fantastic and I'd love to try it sometime.

However I don't think my children will eat it raw. What are the ingredients for your mustard sauce and do you think it'll taste okay with grilled salmon?

aviva

A few years ago my aunt and uncle were headed to the Baltic Sea for a three week cruise through the Scandinavian nations. Before they were scheduled to leave my husband and I threw a Bon Voyage celebration for them.

We love to cook and enjoy sharing our creations with our friends and family, so this was an excellent opportunity to explore the wonderful dishes in the Baltic region.

I have to say the home cured gravlax with mustard sauce was the hit of the evening! We served it on a platter with little squares of both rye and dark brown breads along with the special mustard sauce.

Gravlax is really easy to make and for anyone who loves salmon, this is one you've got to try.

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    • Gravlax is made with salmon.
      By: dulsita
      Gravlax is made with salmon.
    • Gravlax is a popular dish in Iceland.
      By: siimsepp
      Gravlax is a popular dish in Iceland.
    • Gravlax is popular in Norway.
      By: bogdanserban
      Gravlax is popular in Norway.