When I was growing up, cured and smoked fish of various kinds made regular appearances on my grandparents’ table. Whitefish, sable, mackerel, and herring (often in jars of vinegar or sour cream) were mainstays of their lunch spreads, and I enjoyed them in all forms; I never had the common childhood aversion to fish, especially the oilier end of the spectrum. Looming large over this pantheon of what my brother and I jokingly referred to as “Jewish fish” was the king, salmon: The fattiest, most flavorful, and most expensive, it would always vanish fastest from the table.
Flash forward a few decades, to the point where I started to get serious about curing all sorts of meat at home. Because smoked salmon is expensive, and because a lot of salmon farming is not sustainable, I made lox using wild Alaskan sockeye and king salmon. Besides the savings, and the fun of learning to make something so luxurious, I also enjoyed playing around with using herbs from my garden and homemade maple syrup in the cure, adding some local flavors to the classic preparation. I wish I could have shared some of it with my grandparents.
The practice of brining salmon to preserve them (at least in Europe) appears to have originated in Scandinavia, though Romans made garum (fish sauce) from salted anchovies and there are traditions of salting and fermenting fish all over the world. “Lox” derives from the Germanic word for salmon: Yiddish (laks), German (Lachs), Swedish (lax). True lox is cured salmon belly and is not smoked, though categories have blurred over the years; much of what is sold as lox today is smoked salmon (cold-smoking imparts flavor without cooking the fish) and uses whole fillets rather than just belly.
Eastern European Jews brought this preservation technique to America. Whether smoked or not, cured salmon quickly became one of the most iconic foods associated with Jewish delicatessens and appetizer counters. (The most iconic Jewish lox of all in America, Nova lox—which, because it’s smoked, isn’t really lox—gets its name from the fact that much of the salmon that came into New York originated off the shores of Nova Scotia.) “Bagels and lox” was even a pejorative term within the community for Jews deemed to be overly assimilated. With an assist from the mighty bagel (which may have originated with the Uighur people of Western China, possibly becoming the medieval Italian tarallo as it moved west, reaching its apotheosis on New York City’s Lower East Side) and cream cheese (likely an English invention), lox is now as beloved as pastrami or a good dill pickle. And it’s remarkably easy to make in your own kitchen (recipe here) with little more than salt and a refrigerator.
A note on salmon sources: The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a website (and a handy app) to help consumers choose sustainable seafood. The takeaway is that wild Alaskan salmon and farmed salmon from New Zealand are the most sustainable choices, with some other types of farmed salmon qualifying as acceptable. In aquaculture, as with produce and meat, there are good farming methods and bad ones.
Traditionally, lox was made using just fatty salmon belly. I like to use a whole side, because I enjoy the gradient of flavor, texture, and saltiness between the thick and thin parts of the fish. Trim yours as you see fit. Either way, make sure to remove the pin bones before curing; a pair of needle nose pliers works well for this. Pull them straight out and you won’t damage the flesh.
Rather than brine my lox, I like the firmer texture (and easier slicing) that results from a dry cure. Salting causes cells—both animal and vegetable—to take in salt and release water via osmosis in an attempt to equalize the salinity inside and outside their membranes. When the salt is mixed with flavoring agents like pepper or herbs, this means those flavors enter the food along with the salt. As the food becomes saltier and drier, it becomes inhospitable to pathogens and thus can be stored for long periods without spoiling. As with pickling, the act of preserving the food also improves its flavor.
With good smoked salmon easily fetching $60 a pound, there’s a clear incentive to make your own. In addition, you can tweak the flavors using homegrown herbs or a favorite blend of spices to achieve a unique and compelling flavor unavailable anywhere else. It’s frugal, it’s easy, and the satisfaction of having made your own is a better condiment than capers. Plus, homemade lox is a gateway drug: Cream cheese and bagels are also pretty easy to make, and once you taste the difference, you’ll never go back.