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Where there’s smoke, there’s flavor

Lox on grilled flatbread with avocado and pickled shallot

 “I grew up in a rough Jewish neighborhood, it was so bad we had to put lox on our bagels.”

A roommate/coworker of mine told me that joke when we were apprentice Chefs in the Florida Keys.  The thing is, I didn’t fully understand the joke because I didn’t know what lox was.  Oh, I had heard the term lox and bagels before (yes, I knew what bagels were) so I knew it was food but for all I knew at the time it was actually spelled “locks”.
Of course I didn’t admit that at the time.  I was a cool, brash, young culinary student and I wasn’t about to point out that I didn’t know everything.  So like any right thinking person I laughed along like I knew what was up.

I don’t recall how much later I finally learned what lox was or even the first time I tried it.  I do know it was years later when I was working as a Chef in New York City that I really fell in love with lox.  If you’ve never been to an NYC kosher deli, I can tell you that the food in them usually lives up to the hype.

Let me back up in case any of you are nodding along like cool, brash culinary students but aren’t really sure what I’m talking about.
In the broad sense, “Lox” refers to cured salmon.  What I’m going to be talking about here is cured, cold smoked salmon, specifically referred to as Nova Lox.  Apparently that name came about back when just about all of the salmon that arrived to New York City came out of Nova Scotia.

When I lived in New York and the surrounding area, lox was usually just referred to as smoked salmon.  That was because nova lox was the standard style of smoked salmon available there.  It wasn’t until I moved to the Northwest that I became familiar with hot smoked salmon.
Hot smoked salmon is as ubiquitous out here as cold smoked is in the Northeast.  In fact many of the local fisherman will put most if not all of their salmon catch into the hot smoker.   I like hot smoked salmon … LIKE.  It makes a fine snack, it’s good tossed into pasta dishes and makes a tasty dip.   However the flavor and the “cooked out” texture of hot smoked salmon is often a little heavy handed for my tastes.

I’m a big fan of cold smoked salmon though.  The flavor is more sublime and the texture, rather than being dry is almost … creamy.   Plus it has the benefit of being appropriate to enjoy at any time of day.  It’s great for snacks, hors d’oeuvres and how many seafood items do you know that are most famous as breakfast dishes?
Lox on a bagel with cream cheese is the classic of course, and in the mid East coast region the LEO, a scramble of lox, eggs & onions is another popular option.
Lately I’ve been making myself a quick to-go breakfast of sliced lox, sliced fruit and cheese: a little something to munch on on the way to work, when I don’t have time for a sit down morning meal.  When I do have time to get more elaborate with breakfast, I like to make something a bit more fun; like this lox, pear, hard boiled egg and avocado sandwich with mascarpone cheese.

The difference between hot & cold smoked salmon is pretty obvious from the names.  While both types are cured with salt & sugar, hot smoked is put in a smoker hot enough to also cook it.  Cold smoked fish is kept below 70 degrees during the process so that it is smoked but not cooked.

Lox isn’t hard to make, in that the ingredients are simple and it’s not tricky like making a risotto or a soufflé .  It does involve multiple steps and is time consuming though. Plus it requires some specialized equipment.  I’ll get into that as we go along though.

Buck, Jim and I with a catch of coho.

Buck, Jim and I with a catch of coho.

You can make lox from any variety of salmon.  I’ve tried a few different types and so far coho salmon has made my favorite batches of lox.

In case you haven’t heard, we just came off one of the most amazing coho salmon seasons that anyone in the Seattle area can remember.  So I had plenty of fish to turn into lox while still saving plenty more for other preparations.

Fish handling is always important to insure the quality and safety of your seafood, but it’s never more important than when you are going to make lox since it is cured rather than cooked.

Whenever you catch a fish, it’s best to bleed it immediately.  Excess blood left in the fish coagulates and makes the flesh less firm and leaves more of a “fishy” flavor.
This is the least sexy part of the bait to plate process but it’s an important one.  Simply cut across and through the gills.  You can just let it bleed out on the deck or in your fish box or cooler with the drain open.  That’s how one of the largest online fishing communities Bloody Decks  got it’s name.  However, I prefer to put my fish in a bucket of water right after I cut the gills.

This lets a bit more blood to be pumped out before is coagulates.  Just don’t leave the fish in the bucket too long.  Five minutes should be plenty of time.

Once the fish is bled, keep it on ice in a container that drains until you are ready to filet it.  Do not let it get warm and do not let it sit in water.

If you don’t have time to fillet the fish right after you are done fishing, then it’s best to at least gut them.  Don’t let them sit with the entrails inside for too long.

I’ll save the description of filleting procedure for another time and skip right to the fun part.  Just make sure you leave the skin on when you fillet them.

The first time I made lox, my head was too much in chef mode.  Whenever I had bought smoked salmon for work, I was buying in whole fillets.  That makes sense when you are purchasing for restaurants or catering but if you are giving gifts to friends and family or just keeping it for yourself, that’s kind of a hefty portion.
So cut your fillets into reasonably sized pieces.

As you can see, this recipe was made with 8 filets that were about 2 lbs each.  Split the recipe in half or into one quarter if that suits your needs better.

Next cut slits through the skin of the thicker pieces to allow the brine to penetrate more evenly.

Once the fish is ready there are five steps in the lox making process: dry brining, wet brining, rinsing, glazing and smoking.
First up, it’s time to make the dry brine.

Combine 3 cups of brown sugar

and 2 1/2 cups of kosher salt.

Don’t use regular table salt.  Why you ask?  Because table salt often contains small amounts of iodine and anti-clumping agents. You’ll never taste those when you’re sprinkling a little salt on your baked potato, but in the concentrations you need to cure salmon, they will leave an off taste behind.  So use kosher or pickling salt.

Mix the sugar & salt well, then spread an even layer on the bottom of a plastic, glass or stainless pan.
Don’t use an aluminum pan or you fish will have a metallic taste.

Starting with the thickest pieces of salmon, lay them skin side up in the pan.

Once one layer has filled the bottom of the pan, sprinkle on some more of the salt & sugar mixture and then add another layer of salmon.Lox
Continue layering the salmon & dry brine mix, remembering to work from thickest to thinnest pieces of fish.Lox-2

Once all the salmon has been layered with the brine into the pan and a final layer of salt & sugar has been sprinkled over the top, cover the container and refrigerate for 18 hours.
The salt & sugar will have drawn water from the salmon and created a syrup in the pan.  This is why the thicker pieces of salmon are on the bottom, because as the liquid in the pan accumulates the fatter pieces end up immersed in the liquid longer.  Also the weight of the pieces above them literally put more curing pressure on the thicker pieces.
The salmon will have gotten a firmer, tougher texture and the color will have turned a deeper red.  Don’t worry if the cure seems uneven at this point, that will be taken care of in the next step.

That’s the dry brining step.  Next up is the wet brine.
Rinse off the salmon with cold water.  Make the wet brine by mixing 8 cups of kosher salt and 2 gallons of water in a clean bucket large enough to hold the salmon.

Add the salmon to the brine and place a plate or similar object on top to keep all the salmon submerged.  In the photo you can see I used a ceramic tart pan.
The salmon needs to stay in the wet brine for, you guessed it, 18 hours.  You need to keep the bucket cool. Refrigeration is best of course but if you can’t fit your bucket in the fridge, it can be put on a porch or basement if the temperatures are cool outside.  Failing that, the bucket can be set into a cooler or larger bucket and surrounded by ice water.

After 18 hours have passed the salmon is cured.  Now you need to remove the excess salt from your lox.  Drain the salt water from the bucket and add in fresh clean water.  Swirl the salmon around, pour out that water, rinse and repeat … literally.  I usually do three fill-ups/pour-outs of the bucket to start the rinsing process.  After that you need to fill the bucket once more and keep cold water flowing over the salmon.  I use a large sink and kitchen hose although most people use a garden hose in the backyard for this.  Make sure that the end of the hose is in bottom of the bucket so that all of the salmon is getting rinsed.  Having water flow from a faucet onto the top of the bucket and draining right back off the top will not do the trick.  The water doesn’t need to be turned on high for this.  A gentle flow of water triclking over the top of the bucket is fine.
The rinsing will take about 2 hours.   Periodically during this process you’ll want to gently swirl the salmon around in the bucket to make sure all the pieces are getting rinsed evenly.

Knowing when to take the salmon out of the rinse is going to be a judgement call.  Each batch I’ve made has been in the rinse for a different amount of time.  After about 90 minutes is when I start checking.  Take one of the thinner pieces out of the rinse, slice off a small piece and taste it.  Lox is salty but shouldn’t be so saltly you don’t want to eat it.  DUH! 
How much of the salt taste you want to remove is up to you of course but I usually tell people to think of the amount of salt taste you get from a potato chip and shoot for that.  Just keep testing pieces of the lox until it tastes right to you.

You’ll see from the photo above that the lox starts to lose some of that deep red color and begins to look a little water logged on the outside.  Don’t fret, this too will even out in later steps.

You’ll likely want to start pulling the thinner pieces out of the brine first but all the salmon will be ready to come out of the rinse fairly close to the same time.  While the thinner pieces do lose their salt faster, they also will have taken more salt during the curing process, so it pretty much equals out.

When the salmon is taken out of the rinse you need to dry it off.  Some people like to set them on clean kitchen towels.  I prefer to use baker’s cooling racks as they allow for air flow all around the fish.  If you don’t happen to own cooling racks, try taking the racks from your oven and using them.

One important thing I failed to get in the frame of the picture below is the fan I have blowing across the salmon.  That not only helps them dry much more quickly and evenly, it also helps the glaze to set.

Speaking of the glaze …

While the lox is drying it’s time to put together the glaze.  The glaze helps create the outer skin or “pellicle” on the lox, add some sweetness to balance the flavor and allow the smoke taste to better adhere to the salmon.

Gather your ingredients:
2 cups brown sugar
1 1/2 cups bourbon: as usual you can use the inexpensive stuff for cooking
1/2 cup real maple syrup: best if you use the A or B grade, amber maple syrup for this
zest of 3 lemons
zest of 2 oranges

If you are using a 5 hole zester like the one I have, your zest will come out in strings like this.

So you are going to want to chop the citrus zest up finer.

Put all the ingredients in a small sauce pot and bring it to a low boil.  Keep in at a gentle boil for 10 minutes until it becomes syrupy.

Remove the syrup from the heat and once the salmon is no longer wet on the outside, begin to apply the glaze.  Simply brush a coating over the flesh side of the lox. Try not to apply so much glaze that its dripping off the fish.   Allow them to dry for 10 – 15 minutes and then apply another coat.  Repeat this procedure until the fish has been coated at least 4 and as much as 6 times.

Now that the salmon is glazed, it’s ready to be smoked.  I mentioned earlier that you would need some special equipment to make lox.  So far that mostly consisted of a food safe bucket and pulling the rack out of your oven.  Now comes the part where the equipment gets more complicated.
There are inexpensive smokers you can buy that are just metal boxes with a heated pan for wood chips in the bottom.  Or if you have bbq grill, you can turn it into a smoker by setting a metal pan or foil pouch of soaked wood chip over low coals.  The problem is that both of these are hot smokers.

Cold smoking boxes tend to be somewhat pricier and the instructions for home made ones I found on the internet are ridiculously complicated.  So I opted for a reasonably priced and simpler option.  I bought a smoke pistol.

These are portable little smoke generators that are primarily designed to attach to a bbq grill, but they can be attached to any solid container.  Just make sure that whatever you use for you smoking box is something you don’t mind getting gunked up because smoking is a dirty process and you’ll never get the smoke smell out of there.
On that topic, and I probably don’t need to point this out but, keep the smoker outdoors.  Don’t set it up in the garage or on the porch, I’d even avoid putting in the car port.  Smoke smell is strong and sticks to things. That’s why it’s so good at flavoring food.   So… pro tip: keep smoke away from things you don’t want to taste smoky.

Going back to the smoker box, as long as you use an external source to generate the smoke that keeps the heat away from the fish, like the smoke pistol, just about anything can be used as a cold smoking box.  A covered grill works great so long as it is unlit or turned off.  I’ve also known guys who have used coolers, clean metal trash cans and even cardboard boxes.  Just be sure to pick a cool day to do this.  The salmon needs to stay below 70 degrees the whole time.

I have an old catering box that I use as a smoker box.  Rather I should say that I’ve turned it into a smoker box, because lord knows I can’t use it for anything else anymore, usless I’m looking for a place to store a used ashtray collection.

This box has the added benefit of having shelf brackets that hold those same racks that I used to dry and glaze the salmon.  However you set yours up, just make sure the smoke can circulate freely all through the box and around the salmon.

If you do decide to order yourself a smoke pistol or similar external smoker, I’d advise getting a length of high temperature hose with it.  That not only separates the heat of the smoker a bit more for the box, but it also makes working with the whole system a bit easier.

So get your smoker going, get the salmon in the box and close it up.  Most recipes call for you to smoke lox for an hour to an hour and a half, but I like my lox to have a more pronounced smoke flavor.  I smoked my last batch for three hours and I love the way it came out.
Just keep an eye on the smoke during the process and after a while start doing taste tests on a small pieces of your lox. How smoky you make it is all up to you.

Once the salmon is out of the smoke, it’s time to break out the bagels.  You’ve got nova lox!

Aside from the taste you are looking for a proper consistency in your lox, and the way you test for that is to see how well it slices.  Properly cured lox will, assuming you have a sharp knife, slice thinly & evenly without mushing or breaking.   Thusly …….

My final step is to vacuum seal it and freeze what I’m not going to use in the next week or so.  I’m not going to put a vacuum sealer on the specialized equipment list because if you are a fisherman or if you ever freeze meat or fish, a vacuum sealer is a must have.  The difference in the quality of frozen foods, especially proteins, between stuff that is vacuum sealed and stuff you “seal” in plastic wrap or put in a ziploc bag or any other packaging, is profound.  In the case of lox, even if you are not freezing it, it will easily stay fresh for weeks or longer under refrigeration if it is vacuum sealed.

As you’ve read across the lox making procedure, I know what many of you are thinking.  18 hours in dry brine, 18 hours in wet brine, a couple hours of rinsing, a couple hours of drying & glazing and couple hours of smoking……   Dude!  I’ve got a job and a life and a hefty video game schedule.  How am I supposed to time this out?
It’s simple, make your lox on a weekend and schedule it this way.  Put the salmon in the dry brine 8:00 pm Friday evening, it will be ready to move to wet brine 2:00 pm Saturday afternoon.  8:00 am Sunday morning you are draining the brine and starting the rinse.  By late morning you’ve got the lox drying and glazing and you are smoking the fish while you are watching football.  You’ll have fresh lox to snack on by the time you are watching the afternoon games.  Sweet, huh?

For football snacking I like doing a simple mixed platter: some sliced lox, apples, gouda, crackers and some cream cheese.

There are countless ways to enjoy lox but for now I think I’ve hit you with enough recipe action for one post. However I am going to leave you with one more idea.

Have you ever had prosciutto & melon hors d’oeuvres?  The saltiness of the prosciutto ham marries deliciously with the sweetness of ripe melon.  Well, trying making the melon app with lox instead.  It brings a similar saltiness but with different dimensions of flavor.

1 Comment

  • Tina August 11, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    Looks amazing thank you for all the tips.

    Reply

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