Curing salmon changes the texture of the fish while adding rich, complex flavor and dehydrating the fish to eliminate bacterial growth and reduce spoilage. Although curing is often associated with smoking salmon, you can also skip smoking it and grill it instead, or serve it thinly sliced as gravlax. Whether you choose to dry cure the salmon or wet cure it, start with the freshest fish you can find for optimal results.
This method for curing salmon basically is the same as brining it. When performed side by side with dry curing, the flavor and texture of the cured salmon ends up being pretty much the same. Wet curing, however, typically takes less time than the dry method.
In his book Marinades, Rubs, Brines, Cures and Glazes, author Jim Tarantino recommends using a basic brine made by combining 2 quarts of water with 1 cup of brown sugar and 1 1/2 cups kosher salt. Add extra flavor with ingredients such as citrus zest, dry spice rubs, soy sauce, maple syrup, apple cider or tea. Once you have the basics down, the variations are only limited by your imagination and preferences.
Making the Brine
Combine the brine ingredients in a saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Simmer the mixture for approximately 30 minutes to let the flavors meld. Remove it from the heat, let it cool to room temperature and then refrigerate to cool the brine to 40 degrees Fahrenheit before you use it to cure the salmon.
The Kitchn recommends running a finger along each fillet to check for any tiny pin bones that may be lingering in your salmon fillets. Grab a pair of clean needle nose pliers to pull them out, if necessary.
The Basic Process
Pour the cooled brine into a large non-reactive container. Add the salmon fillets to the container, submerging them in the brine. Cover the container and place it in the refrigerator. The amount of time that the salmon needs to soak in the brine depends on the thickness of the fish. In general, up to 2 pounds of salmon needs 2 to 3 hours, while 4 pounds of fillets need at least 4 to 5 hours. You can also let it cure overnight.
Glass, ceramic or plastic works well, while metal bowls or pans may create funky flavors in the fish, if they react with your brine.
Dry curing takes longer than the wet method -- typically 3 to 5 days. Additionally, after you prep the fish, you need to weigh it down, which gives the fish a slightly firmer texture because it compresses the flesh as it cures.
The most basic curing mixture combines 1/4 cup brown sugar, 3 tablespoons kosher salt and 1 tablespoon of fresh cracked black pepper for each pound of salmon being cured. Enhance the flavor of your cure by adding dry spices such as allspice, mace or fennel pollen. Use fresh herbs such as dill, or add citrus zest for a little zing. Swap the black pepper with cracked white pepper for a milder peppery flavor. Optionally, swap 1 tablespoon of the kosher salt for a flavored one, such as smoked salt.
The Basic Process
Whisk your curing ingredients together to evenly distribute the sugar, salt and spices. Lay two large sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper on top of aluminum foil on your counter. The Kitchn recommends using 3-foot sheets or longer and arranging them to overlap slightly.
Coat both sides of the fish with your dry cure mixture. Top each fillet with a drizzle of liquor, such as vodka, whiskey, cognac, grappa or limoncello. Use approximately 1 tablespoon of liquor for each salmon fillet. Top the fish off with fresh herbs, such as fennel fronds, if desired. Then, wrap the salmon securely in the plastic wrap or parchment paper-lined foil.
Place the fish on a baking sheet with another baking sheet on top. Add some cans of tomatoes or beans to weigh the top pan down. Alternatively, for a small amount of fish, turn a small glass bowl upside down in the center of a large glass bowl. Place the fish on top of the small bowl, add a plate on top and cover the plate and large bowl with a layer of plastic wrap.
Cure the salmon in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days. Turn the fish once daily and replace the plate or the weights. This creates a nice level piece of cured salmon.
If you're curing several fillets, arrange them in two layers with a thick layer of curing mixture between the two pieces of salmon.
After the Cure
Whether you dry or wet cure your salmon, the post-curing procedure remains pretty much the same. Once the salmon is finished curing, drain it from the brine or remove it from the weighted pan or bowl. Rinse each fillet thoroughly under cold running water to remove the excess salt and sugar from both sides. Lightly pat the cured salmon fillets with paper towels to dry them. Slice the cured salmon thinly, holding a clean, sharp knife at a 45 degree angle.
If you plan to smoke your cured salmon, arrange the fillets on paper towels and place them in a cool, dry spot. As the cured fillets dry, they form a tacky coating called a pellicle. This pellicle is crucial for maximizing the salmon fillet's ability to capture the flavor of the smoke.