Curing salmon to make lox
What does it mean to cook? According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “to cook” means “to prepare (food, a dish, or a meal) by combining and heating the ingredients in various ways.” Now, let us expand that definition and simply say that cooking is the process of preparing food for safe consumption. After all, cooks prepare food for people. Now, under such expanded definition, curing falls under the category of cooking. Traditionally, curing more closely resembles preserving food because the method involves storing meat in a dense layer of salt for long-term storage. However, the end result is a foodstuff so tasteful and elegant that we can classify curing as preparing food—cooking.
So what exactly is cured food? Ham, bacon, and lox. I am most likely missing a plethora of other types of food, but those are the most common cured foods.
Lox—cured salmon—is healthy, unlike bacon. The health benefits are essentially identical to eating salmon sashimi. Salmon has high omega-3 fatty acids and a lot of protein. However, lox has significantly more sodium.
How Curing Salmon Works
The process of curing is quite simple. By placing salmon in a mixture or solution of high salt concentration, water will exit the salmon through the process of osmosis. For those of you who do not know, osmosis is the process in which water travels from areas of low water concentration to high water concentration.
As the water exits the salmon, any bacteria on the surface of the salmon also lose water. As these bacteria cells lose water, they die. We cook food with heat in order to kill any potentially harmful microorganisms, and salting achieves the same effect. Salting kills harmful microorganisms by draining them of water.
While on the topic of microorganisms…
Did you know that meats only need to be cooked to the safe “doneness” temperature—145ºF for steak, 165ºF for chicken—on its surface? The USDA indicates these critical temperatures as “USDA Recommended Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures,” but in reality, these temperatures only need to be reached on the outside of meats. Why? The insides of meat are naturally safe to eat because they never gain exposure to harmful microorganisms during the processing of meat. The insides are naturally uncontaminated because the animal from which the meat is derived from kills any harmful microorganisms through its immune system. Thus, contamination only occurs after the animal is processed for packaging.
However, poking holes through a piece of meat allows microorganisms to penetrate deeper into the meat, at which point you would need to hit the recommended safe temperatures inside the meat as well as the outside. Furthermore, the idea that microorganisms only remain on the surface of meats is not entirely true. With time, they should be able to penetrate deeper into the meat. More complications arise when you consider the possibility that the animal from which a meat comes from may have been sick. Thus, the insides will not be naturally safe to eat, since the animal’s immune system will not have eliminated all harmful microorganisms. For these reasons and just to be safe, we normally cook meat until it is done throughout.
As a result of their high salt content, cured foods generally are served in thin slices and almost always with accompanying, blander foods.
How to Cure Salmon
- Sea salt
Note: Feel free to add eccentric ingredients such as smoking salt or other desired spices to the mix!
- First, you must create the curing mixture, which usually includes some form of salt, sugar, and a combination of spices. For my recipe, I use sea salt, turbinado cane sugar, parsley, and dill. The key part of this step is choosing a salt to sugar ratio. 3:2 usually works well. Though, I found 3:2 to be too salty, so I will likely try a 1:1 mixture next time.
For 1.5 lbs of salmon, I ended up with a mixture weighing 121g—53g of sugar and 78g of salt. The mixture constituted 17.8% of the weight of the salmon.
- Once you have combined the ingredients of a curing mixture, lay out a large sheet of plastic wrap that is long enough to enclose two salmon fillets stacked on top of each other.
- Sprinkle the plastic sheet with a thin layer of the curing mixture where you plan to place the salmon.
- Lay two salmon fillets (mine totaled to about 1.5 lbs of salmon) adjacent to each other on the plastic wrap, tail end of one fillet touching the head end of another.
- Liberally sprinkle and press down the curing mixture onto the surfaces of both salmon fillets.
- Place one salmon fillet on top of the other, and wrap the plastic wrap around both of them.
- Now, you need to create a setup where the salmon can rest without drowning in its own juices because as the salt in the curing mixture draws out liquids from the salmon, the liquids will drip down. One suggestion is to place a small bowl inverted inside a larger bowl. By placing the wrapped salmon on top of the smaller bowl, the liquids will drip down onto the larger bowl. There is a lot of degree of freedom at this point.
Regardless, you must place some sort of weight on the wrapped salmon so that pressure helps drain the salmon of its juices.
- At this point, simply let the salmon rest in the refrigerator for 2-5 days.
- Once the “curing” period has passed, take the salmon out of the plastic wrap and rinse away the curing mixture. Slice into paper-thin slices and serve!