Photo by Elizabeth Coetzee, Food styling by Mira Evnine
If you’ve ever been to a bagel shop in New York City (undoubtedly the bagel capital of the world), you know that ordering even a basic bagel can be a sweat-inducing experience. Where’s the menu? Scrawled on a chalkboard behind the counter. Is there a line? More like a semiorganized mosh pit. My advice? Don’t overcomplicate it. Order the classic: a bagel (yes, you want it toasted) with lox and a schmear.
But even that standard order isn’t so straightforward. You’ll often find the shop’s cold case filled with dozens of flavors of cream cheese next to an array of cold, spreadable “salads.” And the fish is no different: “We sell 10 different varieties of smoked fish,” says Niki Russ Federman, fourth-generation co-owner of Russ & Daughters, an iconic NYC bagel shop. “It’s like choosing a wine.”
Though lox and smoked salmon are often used interchangeably, they refer to two different products. Fear not: I’ve got all the information you need on the difference between lox, smoked salmon, and their many cured pink cousins. Let’s start with the basics:
What is lox?
Though bagels and lox have become a hallmark of New York City, particularly of the Jewish community, the story starts across the Atlantic. According to NPR, early Scandinavian fishermen developed a process for preserving salmon in a saltwater brine—and that salt cure is key. Although, Merriam-Webster defines lox as “salmon that has been cured in brine and sometimes smoked,” real ones know that true lox is made with just the fatty belly portion of a piece of salmon and is salt-cured only. Smoked salmon? She’s something else entirely (more on her in a minute).
In the early 20th century, most of America’s salmon came from the Pacific Ocean, off the Canadian and Alaskan coasts. To preserve the fish en route to New York, “salmon from the Pacific was hauled across the country in bins packed with salt,” says Federman. Lox—which cost very little, had a long shelf life, and was kosher—became a staple among the city’s Jewish immigrants; even its name is said to derive from the Yiddish laks, meaning “salmon.”
This is the type of lox Federman’s great-grandfather, Joel Russ, carried when he opened his shop in 1914. It’s incredibly salty—so much so that bagel shops still producing belly lox, as it’s often called, frequently include a disclaimer. While the salt-cured belly lox at Russ & Daughters has a devoted fanbase—its salty flavor pairs particularly well with rich cream cheese—Federman says most customers asking for lox are actually looking for smoked salmon.
So, what is the difference between lox and smoked salmon?
Primarily? Smoke. Preserving fish via smoke is a longtime practice of many Indigenous American tribes. Somewhere along the way, these salt-curing and smoke-curing methods merged, creating another type of preserved salmon.
To make smoked salmon, producers usually start with a whole side of fish and lightly cure it in salt by way of a rub or brine. It’s then smoked, preserving it further. Most recipes for lox call for a curing time of no less than 3 days (and some go for months), which concentrates its pure, oceanic flavor. Smoked salmon typically spends just 18–24 hours in its salt solution before hitting the smoker. The latter is, therefore, milder in its salinity but perfumed with the unmistakable flavor of whatever wood has been used to cure it further.
Cold- vs. hot-smoked salmon:
The details of the smoking process vary based on the producer: “Different types of wood, smoking temperatures, and [the amount of] exposure to smoke affect the flavor and texture of smoked salmon,” says Federman. But there are two general methods: Cold-smoking and hot-smoking.
Cold-smoking happens at a lower temperature—typically 75° or below—over a longer time frame, anywhere from 8–20 hours. This process yields fish with a very delicate texture: Cold-smoked salmon can be sliced so thin, “you can read the Times through it,” says Federman. This type of smoked salmon tastes right at home on a bagel or toast with a proper schmear.
Hot-smoking requires less time (about 8 hours) and a higher temperature, usually around 150°. Hot-smoked salmon, also known as kippered salmon, has the flaky texture of cooked fish. It’s often sold in thick portions, not thin slices, and can stand in for a seared salmon fillet for a quick weeknight dinner. Use it anywhere you’d use cooked salmon; this Smoked Salmon 7-Layer Dip, made with hot-smoked salmon, makes an excellent party appetizer.
These smoking methods can be used for other types of fish too. Whitefish, another deli staple, is commonly hot-smoked whole and sold that way (though you can ask for it deboned or flaked). Smoked whitefish salad is another common bagel shop offering.
What about gravlax and Nova lox?
Gravlax is a Scandinavian specialty. Like lox, gravlax tends to be salt-cured but not smoked; unlike lox, recipes usually call for a whole salmon fillet, not just the belly. The cure for gravlax incorporates sugar, dill, and often aquavit (a neutral spirit flavored with caraway; some use gin or juniper berries in its place), giving it a more aromatic and less salty flavor.
The term Nova lox originally referred exclusively to salmon from Nova Scotia; today the term describes a specific preparation, in which the fish is cured in a mixture of salt and sugar and then cold-smoked. It’s not quite as salty as belly lox, and its smoke flavor is quite subtle. Much of the smoked salmon you’ll find today is categorized as Nova lox, or Nova for short.
Plenty of bagel shops and delis get creative with their cures, adding herbs or spices to flavor the salt mixture. Legendary New York grocer Zabar’s offers peppered Nova salmon, which is packed with coarsely ground black pepper and garlic while curing. Meanwhile, Russ & Daughters rubs their pastrami-cured salmon with a blend of 14 herbs and spices.
What should I look for when buying cured salmon?
When shopping for smoked salmon, the first place to look is your local bagel shop or deli, especially if they’re curing in-house. The flavor can vary widely based on their process, aromatics used, whether it’s smoked or not, and even the type of salmon (fun fact: Atlantic and Pacific salmon are two entirely different species). Try a few varieties to find out what you like.
Generally, farmed Atlantic salmon will be fattier and more delicate than wild-caught Pacific salmon, which has a leaner texture and a fishier, more robust flavor. Wild salmon will also be vibrantly coral or pink, while farmed varieties tend to have a muted hue. The most popular option at Russ & Daughters is the Gaspe Nova cold-smoked Atlantic salmon, which has a “melt-in-your-mouth butteriness,” according to Federman. By contrast, the bagel shop’s Western Nova smoked salmon (made with wild king salmon from the Pacific) has a “tighter texture and more assertive flavor.”
If you’re picking out a sleeve of cured fish at the grocery store, look for the freshness date, which can vary from a few weeks to two months. The further out, the better. The best-quality stuff will have a short list of ingredients (type of fish, the various seasonings, and little else). The label should also list specifics, such as where the salmon is from and whether it was farmed or wild-caught. Add a bag of bagels, a few tubs of cream cheese, and your favorite accoutrement (like tomatoes, red onions, capers, and fresh dill) for a quick, easy brunch. If you’re feeding a crowd, Russ & Daughters recommends accounting for two to three slices of lox per person (1 lb. should be sufficient to feed 6–8 people).
How should I store lox and smoked salmon?
Katz’s Delicatessen, an NYC mainstay, and Russ & Daughters both advise eating lox within 7–10 days. Store any cured fish in the refrigerator in a sealed container. Katz’s also notes that cured salmon lasts up to 3 months in the freezer.
Can I make my own lox?
Yes! And the process is surprisingly simple. Make your own cured salmon at home with this handy guide—the process takes around 3 days. Short on time? This shortcut lox is ready in under an hour. Really want to impress? Add grapefruit zest and dill to the cure to make homemade gravlax. Go the extra mile and bake your own bagels too.
Whether your lox is homemade or store-bought, its use extends far beyond bagels. Pile cured salmon atop a deep-dish quiche or savory Dutch baby. Add rosy ribbons of lox to everything-but-the-bagel bowls or a one-pot spring pasta. Finely chop smoked fish and fold it into crème fraîche with lemon zest to make smoked salmon tartare. There are as many options as there are fish in the sea.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious