Cured salmon is the new sourdough starter—you heard it here first. There’s nothing quite like an at-home culinary project that you can continuously work on perfecting, whether it’s baking sourdough, churning homemade ice cream, or curing salmon to rival NYC’s best brunch offerings. And as foodie endeavors go, curing salmon leaves plenty of room for creativity depending on what flavors you use while curing. To get the low down on curing salmon at home, we tapped veteran Los Angeles chef and 2019 James Beard ‘Best Chef: West’ winner Michael Cimarusti. Cimarusti’s twice Michelin-starred restaurant Providence celebrates fish and seafood using intentional California flavors. Their cured salmon is out of the ordinary, bringing tequila, citrus rind, and jalapeño into their curing process. Cimarusti walks us through how to make classic cured salmon, and ways to get creative with unexpected infusions of flavor.
What You’ll Need to Start Curing Salmon
Cimarusti says the most common way to cure salmon is with a blend of salt, sugar, and various spices and herbs. “Traditionally, gravlax uses salt, pepper, juniper, dill, and some sort of spirit (like Aquavit),” Cimarusti explained.
You’ll need salmon filets rather than steaks—preferably long, center-cut salmon filets. And you can cure multiple salmon filets at once. To start curing, you’ll also need plastic wrap or cheesecloth, a pan to place your filets on, and an additional baking dish or heavy pot to apply pressure as the salmon cures.
As for ingredients, you’ll need salt, pepper, a fresh herb (like dill) as well as dried spices, and a clear spirit (Aquavit is most commonly compared to gin or vodka). The measurements will vary depending on how much salmon you’re curing, but for two filets (each weighing about a pound), you’ll want a cup of salt, a cup of sugar, a few tablespoons of other spices (dried and fresh), and a ¼ cup of your chosen spirit.
How to Get Creative With Your Ingredients
Other than the baseline of salt, sugar, and salmon, there’s room to customize the flavor profile of your cured salmon. At Providence, Cimarusti does a California-influenced cured salmon.
“We started using flavors that are more prominent in California,” he says. “Lots of citrus along with the salt and sugar. We would then use fresh fennel, coriander seed, and different spices, like jalapeño.”
As for their curing spirit of choice? It’s tequila.
Cimarusti encourages at-home chefs to not restrict themselves to one recipe, and instead try “whatever spices or aromatics you want to use.”
The trick is to find complementary flavors. For example, if you’re using tequila as your spirit and jalapeños or poblanos for some spice, you may want to incorporate cilantro instead of dill. If you’re keen on a citrus flavor, like lime, smoked paprika is a nice complement, for a more southwestern-style preparation. Or for those who tend toward Mediterranean flavors, zaatar and lemon tend to work well together.
The Salmon Curing Process
Once you’ve mixed your ingredients to create your curing mixture, it’s all in the assembly. Cimarusti recommends creating a bed for your fish with the well-tossed curing mixture of salt, sugar, spices, and liquor. Lay the filet skin side down, and add a generous layer of spices, salt, and even citrus rinds on top of the filet. Finish with an additional layer of salt, then place your second filet (skin side up) and pack on another layer of salt, spices and herbs.
The two filets—or one large filet—should get tightly wrapped in cheesecloth or plastic wrap and weighed down in the refrigerator. The salmon should stay in the fridge for 24 to 48 hours, weighed down significantly (with a baking dish and perhaps a few cans or something more civilized, like pie weights) the entire time. Cimarusti says it’s essential to weigh down the wrapped salmon for the full 24 to 48 hours because it helps speed up the curing process.
Serving Your Cured Salmon
Once you’ve unwrapped your fish after 24 to 48 hours, gently rinsed the filets, and thinly sliced them, it’s time to serve. Cimarusti says a traditional filet of cured salmon is served with a dill garnish and a side of mustard sauce. It can also be classically garnished with finely chopped onion, lemon, capers, or mustard seeds.
“[At Providence], we do a play on that with mustard, local wildflower honey, jalapeño, and fresh cilantro,” says Cimarusti. “Pickles, cornichons, and pickled vegetables are nice additional accompaniments.”
Cimarusti also serves the cured salmon with a side of everything brioche—which, as the name suggests, is freshly baked brioche dusted with all the accoutrements of an everything bagel.
Garnishing is, ultimately, a dealer’s choice situation, but remember to draw out the ingredients you cured with. If you cured with tequila, garnishing with cilantro and lime might be nice. Whereas, if you cured with more traditional flavors (lemon, dill, Aquavit), homemade dill pickles, capers, and a nice selection of seeded crackers will complement your spread well. And if you’re serving the salmon for brunch, really any garnish pairs nicely with Bloody Marys.