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The Future of Lox

As supplies of salmon become less sustainable and prices less affordable, what are we supposed to put on our bagels?

Sonya Sanford
February 21, 2024

Sunday mornings were made for bagels topped with paper-thin, subtly smoky lox and a schmear. But in recent years, the price tag on your bagel order may have given you pause. As prices for lox continue to rise, and wild salmon becomes scarcer, it’s hard not to wonder: What is the future of lox?

Lox encompasses a range of products: Nova, double-smoked Nova, salty belly lox, hot smoked salmon, and kippered salmon. In purely technical terms, lox is defined as salmon that is cured in salt. The word lox is a derivative of the Yiddish word for salmon, laks, and early versions were also called “belly lox” and actually came from the fattier part of the fish. Over time, Nova lox has become synonymous with Jewish-style lox; this is the kind of lox you’d imagine our elder Jewish family members ordering at the appetizing shop and kvelling about.

Nova lox (or Gaspe Nova lox) was once made with salmon from Nova Scotia, but now the term refers to a style, not a region, and Nova can be made with anything from farmed Atlantic salmon to wild-caught Pacific salmon. Lox made from wild-caught salmon like sockeye is drier, stickier, and leaner than lox made from fattier, farm-raised salmon. Most of the salmon used for commercial lox comes from Chile, Scandinavia, and Alaska, and increasingly, it’s farm raised. You can find a package of lox at almost any grocery store in the country, but what’s widely available is often lacking in flavor and richness. Whether it’s made from wild or farmed salmon, top-tier Nova requires more time and care than the style ubiquitously employed in commercial lox-making.

To address the 21st-century realities of lox, I spoke to a new era of deli, bagel shop, and appetizing store owners across the country. They are facing shifting supply issues, restrictive and outdated health department regulations, and threateningly thin margins. In the face of those limitations, their dedication and passion for fish preservation is palpable, and they employ an identical process for crafting great lox: a salt and sugar cure, cold-smoking the fish, and expertly hand-slicing their product, which is imperative to achieve a silky texture. Elyssa Heller, founder and owner of Edith’s, a popular Jewish sandwich shop in Brooklyn, forthrightly explained: “We don’t make our money smoking our own fish—it’s more of a soulful thing that fuels our mission to serve food your great-great-grandma would serve.”

To understand the future of lox, we need to examine how we got here: the history and emergence of lox as a Jewish specialty food, its rise in popularity, and the current challenges producers are facing.

In its essence, lox is a fusion food born out of the American Jewish immigrant experience. Various forms of smoked salmon have ebbed and flowed as a luxury good for centuries, and gourmet smoked salmon consumption dates back to the Middle Ages, where it was often enjoyed in soups and salads. Scandinavians are well-known for having developed gravlax, a style of curing salmon in salt, while Eastern European Jews have a long history of smoking non-salmonid fish both for preservation and flavor.

When Ashkenazi Jews arrived in New York City, the fish scene wasn’t the same as it was in the motherland. Jews came to America in large numbers at a time when an increase in salmon was being shipped to the East Coast from the Pacific Northwest. Washington and Oregon were abundant with salmon in the late 1800s, and the Native American tribes there paved the culinary way with their traditions of smoking and drying the fish, both as a means of nourishment and for trade. Thanks to cross-country railway infrastructure, the abundance of salmon was shipped back east in barrels, and the salmon was preserved in layers of salt as it made the long trek. It wasn’t the fish they were used to in Eastern Europe, but the salt-cured salmon was heartily welcomed by New York’s Jewish community. Once it was received, it was rinsed of excess salt, and the filets were thinly sliced and served at appetizing shops.

Nikki Russ, co-owner of Russ & Daughters, explained to Brette Warshaw of Eater: “We think bagels with lox was invented because belly lox needed bread and dairy to cut [its saltiness].” On the other hand, Jewish culinary historian Gil Marks claimed that lox’s popularity skyrocketed in the 1930s when eggs Benedict became all the rage. Observant Jews could not partake in the ham-topped, Hollandaise-drenched egg dish, and bagels and lox became the kosher replacement for the tref American brunch staple. Its origin story may be up for debate, but a bagel with lox and cream cheese remains at the top of the Jewish food pyramid with its holy combination of salty, smoky, and creamy.

Jewish deli and appetizing culture is only about 150 years old, and Jewish-style lox quickly evolved beyond the salty barrel variety. Whether to impress your friends or to enjoy on a bagel, lox was widely accessible during the early 20th century when the five boroughs contained hundreds of appetizing shops. Historically, brisket was the cheap stuff—it was inexpensive and eaten on a sandwich during your lunch break. Lox, on the other hand, nestled easily into the Eastern European and Russian custom of serving cold appetizers before a special meal. Smoked fish has often been considered an elevated good that leans luxury.

House smoked salmon, layered with charred scallion cream cheese, amba-pickled shallots, and heirloom tomato, on a Chicago-style everything bagel from Edith's in Brooklyn
House smoked salmon, layered with charred scallion cream cheese, amba-pickled shallots, and heirloom tomato, on a Chicago-style everything bagel from Edith’s in Brooklyn

Elyssa Heller

At their onset, appetizing shops’ clientele were indeed predominantly Jewish, though the demand for lox substantially broadened over time. In 1968, New York Magazine published Milton Glaser’s “Gentile’s Guide to Jewish Food: The Appetizing Store,” which contributed to the rise in popularity of these shops outside the Jewish community. His article begins with a clear directive: “Go to the appetizing and get half a quarter belly.” Belly and smoked salmon were interchangeable terms, and you could pick up an order for $3.15 a pound. While there are now markedly fewer appetizing stores, New York is still a beacon of lox for all people. It’s been reported that Zabar’s sells roughly 2,000 pounds of smoked salmon a week, and up to 5,000 during the High Holiday season.

But demand presents a conflict with supply. The seemingly never-ending stream of wild Pacific salmon began to significantly diminish in the latter half of the 20th century. Native nations in the Northwest, also known as the Salmon People, employed sustainable salmon-fishing practices for generations, but as they were violently displaced their approach was wholly abandoned, and salmon fishing quickly became recklessly unsustainable. By the 1960s, the salmon industry shifted from wild-caught to farm-raised, and today approximately 70% of all salmon is farmed. And still, much of farmed salmon is not immune to sustainability issues caused by rising ocean temperatures and overconsumption.

As lox’s popularity grows worldwide, its growth is most substantial in China and across Asia, particularly with the expansion of the middle class. The global salmon market is expected to increase by nearly $15 billion in the next five years, even in the face of overfishing. For large-scale lox manufacturers to continue to operate, they inevitably must utilize lesser-quality, farm-raised fish in order to offer their product at competitive prices.

In Portland, Oregon, Jacob & Sons, a family-owned Jewish deli-lifestyle company, started offering wholesale artisanal, kosher-certified smoked fish in 2023. Owner and chef Noah Jacob told me last summer: “We started the lox business when we moved back to Portland in the pandemic. You’re not finding the same quality [lox] you’d find at Russ & Daughters. We were thinking, ‘We have all this salmon, why is no one doing Nova lox here?’” Demand for Nova in Portland is so high that over $1 million worth of lox is shipped to the city each year from the East Coast via Goldbelly. Jacob quickly learned commercial salmon fishing is extremely limited in Oregon, and the fish that is locally available is often too lean for buttery Nova-style lox. After consulting with sustainability experts, he began sourcing his salmon from Iceland. In Iceland and Scandinavia, aquafarms like Arnarlax are recreating the natural wild ecosystem and lifespan for salmon in ocean and freshwater tributaries, allowing for less toxic and sustainable farmed fish. While these innovations are promising, in order to have great Nova lox on the West Coast, salmon may counterintuitively need to be shipped from the other side of the globe.

A few weeks after we spoke, Jacob announced on Instagram that his business was closing. “We made a valiant effort to create an artisan lox product, going up against Acme and Pacific Seafood, but it’s impossible for a small wholesale business to get the price of fish low enough at a small volume to compete against a large brand,” Jacob explained in a follow-up interview. Even though demand for his product slowly grew, the business ran out of runway too quickly. Jacob reflected: “I know how to make lox, and good lox … but there were so many things I didn’t know.” For Jacob, that included the scope of the finances required, the realities of sourcing fish from the Atlantic to the West Coast, and the difficulties of building a business that relies on large quantities of a time-intensive and costly product.

Industrialized lox made from farm-raised salmon dominates the marketplace, making it harder to find the high-quality artisanal lox that was so common 100 years ago. Fortunately, there’s hope at the bagel shop. Take Loxsmith Bagels in Seattle, an appetizing bagel shop specializing in Seattle-style lox. Chef and owner Matthew Segal is a former sushi chef who serves sustainable, high-quality fish offerings on hand-crafted bagels. While his buzzy bagels are the main draw for his customers, it’s the fish Segal cares about: “I’m passionate about smoked fish. It always gives me a smile when people come in and just order appetizing. They know what they want: A pound of lox, a half-pound of whitefish, cream cheese, and they’re out.” Working with local smoke houses, Segal offers specials like a seasonal lox made from local King salmon, smoked local black cod (also known as sablefish), as well as Japanese-inspired unagi and trout roe-topped bagels. Segal maintains flexibility by offering a rotating menu, partnering with a smoking facility, and having a small retail footprint. Most importantly, once something is sold out for the season, that’s it.

While bagel shops like Loxsmith are resourcefully offering impeccable smoked fish products, the majority of chain bagel shops and New York City delis and appetizing shops get their lox from large-scale purveyors, like Acme Smoked Fish in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Interestingly, Edith’s is located only a few doors down, and as easy as it would be to source her lox from Acme, Heller remains committed to serving sustainable high-quality salmon smoked in-house. Her interest in making her own lox began during the pandemic; Heller used to smoke lox outside on her balcony when Edith’s was still a pop-up venture. She grew up fishing with her father, and her reverence for fish started young. In developing the lox for Edith’s, she said, “We were trying to make something that was a little fish-forward in flavor, a little leaner and less fatty, something with great mouth feel and that is still hand sliced. Something real fish people would eat and would be like, ‘Wow! this really tastes like smoked salmon.’”

But if “real fish people” appreciate flavorful fish, what if the lox we love doesn’t have to be made from salmon?

One very plausible future for lox is finding an affordable, comparable replacement for salmon. That’s something young lox-makers are already pursuing. While his business is currently closed, now that he has a better understanding of the landscape, Jacob plans to make lox again in the future, and he understands that may require a swap for salmon: “Steelhead [trout] is locally, sustainably farmed, locally grown, and locally caught,” he told me. “It’s abundant here in the Northwest, and it has the same fat content as Atlantic salmon.” In his trials, Jacob found little noticeable difference between lox made from Atlantic salmon versus steelhead trout. Jacob remains optimistic: “There’s this young Jewish secular deli culture that really wants these products. It’s just a matter of making the numbers work.”

Similarly, on the opposite coast, Heller has found success in testing alternative, more affordable, sustainable fish like Arctic char, a cold-water fish in the Salmonidae family. When cured and smoked, the product is as melty and buttery as Nova lox. Heller is also playing around with Old World recipes like pickled mackerel—a dish that she loves even if it’s a tough sell for many of her customers. When asked about her outlook on lox, Heller told me, “When it comes to things like smoked salmon or lox or other important Jewish foods now, you’re only going to get to the next layer of meaning if you dive into the past, and where it comes from. And you can only propel it into the future by making it with meaning and intention.”

That meaning and intention includes the commitment to the craft of carefully cured and smoked fish, while sourcing products that don’t continue to strain and deplete the planet. Lox was born out of a combination of Eastern European culinary preferences and local product availability. As our tastes change, and salmon quality and availability shift, lox can remain, but the additional labor and use of high-quality ingredients required for artisan small-batch lox will be reflected in the price. It does cost more now to eat the kind of smoked fish that was abundantly available in the early 20th century. To be fair, even more industrialized forms of lox continue to cost well over $25 per pound. One likely outcome is that Jewish-style lox made from salmon will become a luxury good akin to caviar, as opposed to an everyday bagel add-on. In its place, alternative fish can fill the gap.

While there are real economic challenges for the future of lox, the commitment of a younger generation of chefs carrying on the tradition of making this quintessential Jewish food is heartening, and it also offers a glimpse into a new path forward—with or without salmon. There’s hope for our bagel sandwiches after all.

Sonya Sanford is a writer, culinary educator, and chef. Follow her on Instagram @sonyamichellesanford.