Healthy Food

How to make the perfect gravadlax | by Mitesh Patel | Sep, 2021

Mitesh Patel

Gravadlax is glowing pink proof that healthy eating doesn’t have to be all hairshirts and low-fat hummus.

This Scandinavian buried salmon (a term that would have been pleasingly intelligible to our own ancestors, “lax” being the Middle English word for that mighty fish before the Normans came along and introduced the Latinate salmon, and “grave”, of course, persisting to this day) is a relic of the time when fish was put into holes in the ground and covered in salt to preserve it for the wild and freezing winter ahead — no doubt something similar was practiced on these isles, too.

Fortunately, there’s no need to get out into the garden with a spade. It is incredibly quick to make and, as Diana Henry observes in her book on the art of preserving, Salt, Sugar, Smoke, curing fish is one of the “most calming things you can do in the kitchen”. Simply add the rub to the salmon and leave it to work its magic in the fridge for a couple of days, then brush off, slice and arrange — it really is as easy as that. Best of all, making it yourself is so much cheaper than buying it that this recipe also ticks the new year’s thrift box.

The fish

Most recipes are fairly vague about the fish itself, specifying just a weight. Only Thane Prince observes, in her preserving book Ham, Pickles and Jam, that “you are best off with a centre cut” — as I find in the process of my experimentation, the flesh should be of as regular a thickness as possible, or the fish will cure unevenly. The other important thing is that it must either be very fresh, or frozen — many recipes specify freezing it before curing anyway in order to kill any parasites, although if you find fish described as “sushi grade” then this should have already been done for you. (Having recently visited a certain Swedish home furnishings retailer, I can report that they sell competitively priced sides of frozen salmon, though I’m not sure I should recommend that you go there specifically for that purpose.)

The cure

Cure “is slightly more sweet than salty”, but though she and Danish chef/food writer Trine Hahnemann both adhere to this, most of the other recipes I try do not.

Tim Hayward’s Food DIY and Henry use equal weights of salt and sugar, while Prince and Rick Stein’s Fish and Shellfish both opt for salt-heavy cures. Only Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher’s River Cottage Fish Book stick with tradition, and wise they are too — though salt is an essential part of the curing process, these days we’re unlikely to need to preserve the fish for more than a few days, and too much of it can give unpalatably dry and, well, salty results.

Henry offers a whisky, apple and brown sugar cure, “an almost Irish” take on the dish. Alcohol is quite common in gravadlax cures — Prince puts vodka in — but though I like the flavour of the whisky, I think it makes the surface of the fish a little tough, so I’m going to leave it out. Ditto, if more reluctantly, her apple and brown sugar; lovely as they are, they’d stick out like a sore thumb in a more traditional recipe.

Herbs and spices

Dill is the key flavour here — and though there’s more than one way to cure a salmon (beetroot versions have become popular in recent years for their vivid colour, and Henry has a lovely recipe in the same book), most recipes still include its aniseedy fronds. The combination just works, so be generous (if you have a greengrocer or market nearby, the bunches tend to be larger and less expensive than mean little supermarket packets).


Pepper is the other principal ingredient. White peppercorns, more popular in Scandinavian than British cooking, are the more common choice, used by Stein, Prince and Johansen. Hahnemann doesn’t specify, River Cottage says one can use either, or indeed a mixture, and only Henry and Hayward stick with black. Stein particularly likes the flavour of the white peppercorns in this cure — I find them actively unpleasant.

A little digging online suggests that the rubbery “off” note that tempts me to feed the whole lot to the dog is caused by microbial action during the fermentation process that white peppercorns go through, so I’m perhaps being a little unfair in condemning the spice in general. But salmon is expensive, so I’m going with black. If you’re confident in your white pepper, by all means use that instead. Hayward, Johansen and Hahnemann put some coriander seeds in there too, but I can’t really taste them in the finished dishes, so I decide to dispense with them to keep things simple. I also sneak some lemon zest into Prince’s recipe, but again, it gets lost among the other flavours.


Most recipes suggest wrapping the salmon in clingfilm or foil, but if you have a dish just bigger than your salmon, and a lid or a board that can be weighted down, then I’d recommend that instead — there’s something deeply unpleasant about fishy, briny clingfilm. You can baste the fish with the accumulated juices, as River Cottage suggests, but if you turn the fish regularly, as all the recipes except Hayward’s advise, and weight it down to help press the liquid out, it should get enough exposure to the brine without this step.

Forty-eight hours seems to be the standard curing time, with River Cottage recommending three days for smaller fillets, and Henry going for between two and four days. The timing depends on your taste; I prefer the lighter cure and softer texture that two days yield, which allows the creamy flavour of the fish to shine through too, but you can take it further if you’d prefer a more intense salt hit.

River Cottage is also unusual in layering the cure beneath and above the fish, as well as between the fillets. As the skin is removed before slicing, I’m not quite sure why. They’re also the only ones to not only advise scraping off the cure before slicing (which is absolutely vital — Stein doesn’t, and, white pepper aside, it’s horribly crunchy and salty), but to rinse the fish too. I’m not sure that’s entirely necessary; I like a few stray dill fronds clinging to it, but nothing larger.

I read somewhere that gravadlax is often sliced more thickly than smoked salmon, which I approve of — not only is it easier, but it it allows better appreciation of the texture. Come to think of it, I’d prefer my smoked salmon thicker too.

The sauce

My idea of gravadlax sauce is yellow, pungently mustardy and in a little jar, so I’m surprised by the variety on offer here. The main ingredients tend to be mustard — usually Dijon, but occasionally, as in the River Cottage book, English — sugar, vinegar and dill, but they’re put together in very different ways.

Stein’s sauce is most unusual — grated horseradish and onion folded into whipped cream alongside the usual mustard, sugar and vinegar. It’s a dill-free zone, and though the creamy, peppery flavour works well with his salty salmon, I miss the hot, sweet tanginess of the usual version. River Cottage uses caster or light brown sugar, Hahnemann dark brown sugar and Prince honey — I like the more bitter flavour of the darker varieties, but I don’t want my sauce to be too treacly, so light muscovado seems a good compromise.

Dijon mustard and cider or white wine vinegar (Prince’s rice vinegar is too mild for my liking — I end up sticking a lot more in at the end) and another big bunch of dill are easy choices, but I’m torn on the fat content. Prince makes a kind of mayonnaise with eggs and vegetable oil, which is pleasant enough, but needs a lot more in the way of mustard and dill as well as vinegar to suit me. River Cottage dilutes their version with creme fraiche, which is rather nice, but in the end I find the simplest vegetable oil versions, from Hahnemann and Johansen, work best with the fish, which is quite oily enough on its own.

Serve with a peppery salad or pickles and rye bread, preferably with some icy vodka or acquavit to wash it down. January or no January, if the Scandis do it, it must be OK.

(Serves 6–8)

1 side of salmon (about 1kg)

1 tbsp peppercorns (black or white, depending on preference)

70g caster sugar

50g coarse sea salt

85g dill

For the dill mustard sauce:

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp soft light brown sugar

2 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar

Pinch of salt

2 tbsp vegetable oil

50g dill, stalks removed and finely chopped

If you want to be super safe, freeze the salmon for 24 hours, then defrost before starting the curing process. This will kill any parasites present.

Trim any thin bits from the sides and tail end of the fillet to make it into a evenish rectangle — this may seem a waste, but thinner bits will overcure and be inedible, so it’s better to eat them now.

Crush the peppercorns in a pestle and mortar, then mix with the sugar and salt. Roughly chop the dill. Put one of the fillets, skin-side down, in a dish and put half the dill on top, followed by the salt and sugar mix. Finish with the remaining dill, then put the other piece of fillet on top, skin-side up.

Put a small board or lid on the dish, weight it down with something heavy, and chill for 48 hours, turning the fillet over every 12 hours or so.

To make the mustard sauce, whisk together the mustard, sugar and vinegar. Add a pinch of salt, then whisk in the vegetable oil. Add the dill.

Scrape the cure from the fish. Slice and serve with the sauce.

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