For many American Jews and for many Americans in general, lox is the luscious topping to their Sunday morning bagel and schmear.
Lox is always made from salmon and is very expensive. In this regard, it is different from many other iconic Jewish foods, like gefilte fish and herring, which are made from ingredients that are easy to acquire and cheap–an important consideration for historically poor Jewish communities.Because lox is such an expensive item, Claudia Roden writes in The Book of Jewish Food, there is no evidence that the Jews of Eastern Europe ate it in the shtetls. The widespread availability and interest in lox did not come about until Eastern European Jews arrived in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the 1920’s and 30’s lox actually became quite affordable, due to the availability of salmon from the Pacific Northwest, which was brought east to New York via the transcontinental railroad. Lox was easy to use and keep, because it did not need refrigeration. Home refrigeration was available starting in the mid 1920’s, but many new immigrant families did not yet have this new-fangled appliance. For observant Jews, lox had an additional perk: It could be eaten with any meal–meat or dairy–because fish is pareve.
No one knows exactly who put the winning triumvirate of bagels, cream cheese, and lox together. Joan Nathan suggests that it was most likely born through an advertising campaign for Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Others simply suggest that it was an “anonymous genius.” It became the perfect answer to the rest of America’s typical Sunday breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast.
While lox may be delicious, the term is quite confusing–what we now call lox, derived from the German word for salmon, lachs, is in fact smoked salmon. True lox is brined in a salty solution, which cures the fish, but also leaves a strong, salty taste. Today, lox is cured with a light salting and then cold-smoked, which provides the typical “Nova” or smoked salmon flavor. The word lox is now used interchangeably with smoked salmon, and the most popular Sunday-morning item sold at Zabar’s in New York City–over 2500 pounds per week–is not “real lox” actually, but smoked salmon.
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 1/2 - 2 lbs salmon filet, boneless, with the skin on
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 bunch dill, stemmed and leaves washed
Rinse salmon filet and make sure all pin bones are removed. To do this, take small pliers or tweezers and pull the small bones out in the same direction they face. There are pin bones more often in wild salmon than in farmed salmon.
Cut the salmon in half, to make two equal-sized pieces.
Mix the salt and sugar in a bowl. On a plate or in a shallow dish, pile half of the mixture onto each half of the salmon. It will seem like there is extra mixture, but just pile it on. The salmon will absorb the mixture during the curing process. Next, place the dill on top. Sandwich the two pieces of fish together and wrap tightly with plastic wrap.
Place the fish into a gallon-sized ziploc bag and push out all of the air. Now place in a shallow dish, such as a pyrex baking dish.
Refrigerate, with weights on top, which is crucial. Use another heavy dish, bottles of wine–anything to weigh down the fish.
The lox will take 2-3 days to cure. At the end of each day, drain any liquid that has been extracted from the salmon and flip the salmon over, so that both sides are evenly weighed down. You can begin tasting it after 2 days. When it is cured to the desired taste, remove fish from plastic and rinse well.
To eat, slice thin on a bias, leaving the skin behind. Eat with your favorite cream cheese and bagel, and enjoy.
The cured lox freezes very well. Simply wrap well in plastic and place in a freezer bag to keep.
Next time, you can change the flavor–make it Mexican with chili powder and limes; Greek with lemon and oregano; Israeli with zaatar… the possibilities are limitless!
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