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Northwest Smoked Salmon

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Is Lox Always Smoked?

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Q. To make true lox do you have to smoke it?

A. As with so many things in this back-stabbing, dog-eat-dog world of food writers, there is almost universal disagreement on the subject. Everyone agrees that lox is a form of salmon, and that it has been cured — that salmon was cured for centuries by salting, brining, and/or smoking before the advent of refrigeration. Most people agree that the name comes from the German word for salmon, Lachs, but there are those who believe real credit should go to the Scandinavians, whose word for salmon is lax. Then things really get out of hand.

Anne Willan, in the wonderful, encyclopedic La Varenne Pratique, says, "Smoked salmon is different from American lox (usually served with bagels and cream cheese) since lox is unsmoked, salted salmon." A pretty cheeky comment from a such a refined Englishwoman, even if she does spend part of each year in the US.

Actually, we had a hard time finding anyone on this side of the Atlantic who did not affirm that lox is smoked. Then we came across James McNair's Salmon Cookbook, in which the author says that lox is the most popular preserved salmon, that it is generally Pacific species that is cured in brine, soaked to remove the salt, then "sometimes still lightly smoked after soaking it, as it always was in the past."

McNair, who has also written three or four thousand other cookbooks, defines a few other traditional salmon-preserving techniques:

  • Kippered Salmon — hot-smoked, or baked during smoking. It is moist, tender, and flaky, not salty. "Nonfish eaters like it," McNair says.
  • Nova Scotia — cold-smoked salmon from the waters off eastern Canada, expensive, and creamy with very little saltiness. But, he says, the term "Nova" is often loosely applied to any smoked salmon, no matter where it comes from.
  • Scottish, Irish, and Norwegian — cold-smoked Atlantic salmon; superb quality and expensive; dry and delicate; not salty.
  • Indian Style — two variations of Pacific salmon slow-smoked by native Americans from the Pacific Northwest to Alaska. One is moist and very smoky; the other, often called "squaw candy," is smoked and smoked and smoked until it has the texture of beef jerky.

Now, this is not to be confused with gravlax or gravad lax, which is a traditional Scandinavian method of curing salmon with salt, a little sugar, and dill for three or four days — and no smoke at all.

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