Cured fish is a popular item at breakfast buffets and brunches across the globe, but making it at home may bring a bit of anxiety into the kitchen. How do you cure your own fish at home and, more importantly, what can a home cook do to make sure their home-cured fish creations turn out well?
Top Chef alum Melissa King, host of the new docuseries Tasting Wild, says curing fish was one of her first tasks in a professional kitchen. "It was one of my first jobs when I was younger," she tells Yahoo Life. "I worked at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and I was an events and banquets chef. We had to make cured lox in the morning for the breakfast banquets, so I remember curing a big piece of salmon and just finding it really fascinating and quite easy to do."
What is cured fish?
King says in the winter months, when typical appliances like stoves and ovens are often overrun in preparation for holiday meals, curing fish works great, as the cooking method doesn't require any form of heat.
"I love it because you really don't have to do much," says King. "You don't have to turn on the stove or have any kind of fire ... cured fish is a preservation method where you use salt to preserve — and essentially cook — a piece of fish."
"It's a very traditional way of preparing fish … it actually extracts the moisture and creates a natural brine, then essentially cooks the fish," she continues. "I think a lot of people get a bit intimidated by cured fish, so they outsource it and purchase it pre-done, but … it's quite easy to do."
How to cure fish
King also says most people already have the ingredients for making beautiful and impressive cured fish at home sitting right in their pantries. "Everyone has salt and sugar at home, and it really is a 50/50 ratio of salt and sugar that you just pack on top of the fish," she explains. "It just takes time, you just sit and wait and let time do the work. It results in a really beautiful product the next day."
Salt and sugar may seem like simple staples, but different types and styles of the two, combined with your favorite flavors, can create something unique and delicious.
"It really starts with your base of salt and sugar," says King. "You can play around with the types of sugars and then from there, think of the spices you enjoy or herbs or even citrus notes. You can add in lemon zest, lime zest or orange zest, or you can bring it more towards an herbaceous direction and [use] dill or thyme. You can really have fun with it and play with different spices like coriander — basically all the things you have in your staple pantry at home, you can utilize this technique with."
King says, when experimenting with cured fish, she likes to infuse flavors she's always loved from her heritage.
"I am always looking to intertwine the Asian pantry into the recipes I am trying to create," she says, "so I took a fairly traditional cured salmon recipe — the base technique — and added in tamarind and lemongrass, as well as Thai chilies and palm sugar, to really amplify the Asian pantry and add a unique twist to the original lox."
How to choose the perfect fish for curing
Of course, under the salt, sugar and seasonings, the most important part is a great cut of fish. "Look for clear eyes if it's a whole fish," says King. "Also, the skin: Make sure it doesn't look slimy, and that it's pristine and really clean. And the smell — follow your nose. It shouldn't smell fishy at all."
"Seafood comes from the ocean but it should have a nice clean smell to it," she explains, "and red gills if you do have the head intact. And just look for beautiful cuts — make sure it's not handled improperly."
King, who spoke with Yahoo Life on behalf of her partnership with Alaska Seafood, shares a few more tips for getting the perfect piece of fish. "I think for myself, whenever I'm looking to source, or just [shopping] at a grocery store nearby, I'm always picking up Alaskan seafood," she says. "It's kind of guaranteed that your fish will be wild and sustainable when you see that mark at the grocery store."
Melissa King's top fish-curing tips
Once the fish is selected and the perfect flavor blend has been created, King says there are a few insider tips that can help to make the fish-curing process simpler, while also producing a better final product.
"I think the most important thing is to press it: I always emphasize when you're making any kind of cured fish to weigh it down," says King. "Get some cans from your pantry and put those heavy tomato cans right on top — or wine bottles — anything you have to weigh down the fish."
"It will help extract more moisture from the fish to create a better product," King explains, "and I usually put it in a taller baking dish because it will leach out liquid. Also, I like to plastic wrap it completely, so that the liquid brine is still touching the surface of the fish, which really helps to draw the moisture out."
Once the fish is ready to eat, King says the sky's the limit when it comes to serving options. "I love [cured fish] on top of a latke: the potato cakes. You can just pan fry them and crisp them up and slice the lox right on top," she says. "You can do scrambled eggs or eat it even just plain with a little crème fraîche and capers, and call it a day. Really it's so versatile and simple."
Want to try curing fish at home? King shares a recipe below.
Tamarind Lemongrass Cured Alaska Salmon
Courtesy of chef Melissa King and Alaska Seafood
1 fillet (side) wild Alaska king or sockeye salmon (about 3 to 4lbs) skin on, scales and pin bones removed
1 cup kosher salt
1 cup granulated palm sugar or light brown sugar
2 stalks lemongrass, fragrant root parts only, finely chopped
5 Thai chilis, finely chopped
Grated zest from 3 limes
Grated zest from 2 oranges
1 ounce unflavored vodka
4 ounces jarred tamarind purée
Prep the salmon: Pat the salmon dry on both sides. Place the salmon flesh side up on top of a double layer of plastic wrap.
Make the salt cure mixture: In a medium bowl, combine kosher salt, sugar, lemongrass, chilis and zest together and mix well. Rub the salmon with the mixture until completely covered and packed on the fillet. In a small bowl, stir the vodka together with the tamarind paste. It should be a pourable consistency similar to thin runny honey. Add a tiny bit more vodka if necessary. Drizzle the vodka/tamarind mixture evenly onto the salmon with the salt and sugar mixture until all of it is absorbed into the salt.
Cure the salmon: Wrap and cover the salmon in the double layer of plastic wrap. Place onto a sheet tray and weigh the fish down with flat, heavy items on top (e.g., baking dish with food cans). Allow to sit in the refrigerator for 8 hours or overnight. Baste with the juices every 12 hours or so and return to the refrigerator. The flesh will become translucent, slightly firm and ready to serve by the second day.
Slice and serve: Remove salmon from wrappings. Wipe off any remaining salt cure mixture and discard. Pat the salmon really well until dry. Slice thinly at an angle to serve, leaving the skin behind.
Serving suggestions: Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche, Alaska salmon roe, crispy shallots and cilantro.
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