Bourbon Cured Salmon
Any sort of cured meat is almost guaranteed to be on my list of favorites.
The unfortunate part about this is that those also tend to be very expensive. For a good prosciutto, it’s not unrealistic to pay $3-$5/ounce which can add up fast if you shovel it in your craw like I do.
Over the years, I’ve always threatened to dive into the world of charcuterie, but it’s a pretty intimidating project. For a lot of recipes you have to dedicate a lot of time and in some cases you need specialized equipment.
Plus there’s always that lurking (but small) chance that you might accidentally poison yourself.
This recipe requires none of that business. It’s really simple and pretty hard to screw up. After all, people have been curing fish like this for hundreds (if not thousands) of years.
If you’re a fan of cured salmon, you have to try this out.
1) Combine salt and sugar in a medium bowl with diced fennel tops (fronds/leaves) and lemon zest. Combine well.
2) Toast fennel seeds for a few minutes in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant. Combine with black pepper and sliced fennel bulbs in a small bowl.
3) Lay out salmon filet with skin side down and baste liberally with bourbon.
4) Lay out two layers of plastic wrap and put down half of the salt cure on the plastic.
5) Lay the salmon on the cure and cover with the other half of the cure. Then top with fennel mixture.
6) Cover with another layer of plastic wrap and wrap tightly and store in a large plastic or glass container. It will leak a lot of liquid as it cures so be sure there are no holes in whatever you store it in.
7) Store in the fridge for 3 days, turning once halfway through.
8) When salmon is done, rinse very well with cold water.
9) Use a sharp knife to cut off skin and then slice salmon very thinly.
10) Serve with crackers, sour cream, red onions, capers, chives, etc.
Adapted from a GQ recipe.
This article is a pretty good intro to how curing works, but basically the salt pulls out a lot of the liquid in the meat you are curing and makes it fairly impervious to bacteria and rot. Cured fish, if done correctly, can keep for months and months.
The key part about this recipe is you want to make sure to use a very coarse salt. Table salt will not work. Your final product will be WAY too salty. So pick up some coarse sea salt and use that.
Mix it with some brown sugar and lemon zest.
Anise (or fennel) goes great with the salmon, but I thought that it gave the fish a very subtle flavor. It’s a nice touch, but if you don’t want to go through the trouble, you can skip the fennel ingredients and just cure it with the salt and sugar and lemon zest.
If you are using fennel though, chop up the tops of the fennel and add it in with your sugar/salt mixture.
Meanwhile, add some fennel seeds to a large skillet and toast them over medium heat until they are very fragrant.
It should only take a few minutes. Again, this did give the salmon some flavor but it was super-subtle. It can be optional.
Add the fennel seeds to a bowl with some slivered fennel bulb and coarse ground black pepper.
Starting the Cure
Obviously, you’ll need some salmon for this recipe. The final product will only be as good as the salmon that you use.
Try to find a whole side of wild-caught salmon and be sure that the skin is one and the pin bones are removed. Mine was about 1.5 pounds which is a perfect size for this recipe. Theoretically you can use any size although I’m not sure it makes sense to do a small piece of salmon.
Before you pack on the cure, baste the fish really well with bourbon or whiskey.
The liquid will actually help speed up the curing process and obviously give the fish some flavor.
Once your fish is basted, lay out a double layer of plastic wrap and spread out half of your salt cure. Then add your fish to the cure and top it with the rest of the cure mixture.
The cure should completely cover the fish.
Then cover the salmon with another double layer of plastic wrap and wrap the fish very tightly in the plastic wrap.
This guy is ready to CURE.
Set this whole thing in a large plastic or glass container. Make sure there are no holes in whatever you use because a lot of liquid will be pulled out of the fish and you do NOT want to clean this liquid out of the bottom of your fridge.
I used a glass container.
Cure the fish in the fridge for three full days and give it a turn halfway through.
A lot of liquid will be in your container when you pull the fish out. This means the cure is doing its job!
After three days, unwrap the fish and rinse it very well with cold water. You’ll notice that the color will have changed slightly and it will also be very firm.
I had to slice into it immediately!
Storing the Fish
Once your cured fish is rinsed, you can wrap it lightly in plastic and store it in the fridge for weeks. There’s no way it will last that long. We ate all of this in two days with the help of some friends (Thanks Sean and Maeve for the help and also for the recipe tip off).
Serving the Fish
When you want to serve some of the fish, use a really sharp knife to slice off the skin and then slice it into very thin slivers. I actually tried a piece with the skin on (it’s totally edible) and it was okay. It was just chewy. If that doesn’t bother you then you can leave the skin on.
You could put this on a bagel, but I like to serve it as an appetizer with lots of crackers, slices of cucumber, sour cream, red onion, and chives.
For my first cured recipes, this came out better than expected.
With the help of two friends, we literally ate all of this in one sitting with lots of crackers and toppings and beers.
It felt completely decadent because that much cured salmon would have cost $100 in the store.
Besides how amazing it was, I was also shocked by how little time this recipe actually took. I think I spent maybe 20 minutes actively working on it.
It was super-simple.