Smoked salmon and lox—potato, potahto, right? Well, not really. Not only are the two classic varieties of breakfast salmon different from one another, but they each have sub-varieties that will show up at your local bagel shop, or the fish section of the grocery store. Are you confused by Nordic vs. Scotch, Nova vs. Gravlax? Follow along as we navigate just what kind of fishy delicacy is perched on top of that everything bagel with cream cheese.
Lox is the simplest, and the most misunderstood, member of the breakfast fish family. Its name comes from the Yiddish word for salmon, “laks,” or the German, “lachs,” and there’s not much more to it than that.
These days when you order lox you’re likely to get some variety of smoked salmon, but real lox isn’t smoked. Instead, it’s brined in cold water and salt, or a combination of salt and sugar. It’s also traditionally made from the belly of the salmon—the most delicious and fattiest part—although that’s no longer always the case. But because it’s brined it tends to be salty, rich in flavor, and translucent in color. Modern day salmon hawkers say that real lox is enjoyed mostly by older customers, but we think it’s due for a resurgence.
Like regular lox, gravlax is cured and not smoked. But in the case of this traditional Nordic food, there are a lot of ingredients that can go into the curing mixture in addition to salt. To make gravlax, the salmon is coated in an elaborate rub that can include dill, juniper, pepper, and often some kind of alcohol like aquavit, or brandy.
Also, the “grav” in “gravlax” is a cognate of the English word “grave,” and refers to the fact that gravlax was traditionally buried during the curing process. That’s usually no longer the case, but it is sometimes weighed down to achieve a similar effect. And don’t forget the mustard sauce!
It’s unlikely you’ll confuse pickled salmon with these other varieties, since it tends to come in a jar rather than in a big slab sliced thin. But like lox it’s preserved using a combination of salt, sugar and other spices, plus vinegar, and is often festooned with onions for extra flavor. This is also one of the easiest types of preserved salmon to make at home, and is definitely worth the effort.
Smoked salmon is more of a catchall term than a specific kind of fish, but the main thing about it is that it’s, well, smoked. Like lox the salmon is first cured or brined in salt or a salt-sugar mix, and then either cold smoked or hot smoked. The specific combination will determine which type of smoked salmon it is.
Although it sometimes travels under the name “Nova Lox,” Nova isn’t really lox at all. And in truth, it’s not necessarily “Nova” either, since the name refers to fish from Nova Scotia, and these days Nova comes from just about anywhere. But what makes Nova Lox different is the preparation method—first a mild salt brine, then a cold smoke, which gives it a mild flavor, salty and smoky, but not too much of either.
Although the fish may or may not be from Nova Scotia, most Nova is still made using Atlantic salmon, which tends to have a higher fat content than the Pacific variety, and gives it a better flavor after all that salting and smoking. Farmed salmon is also used for the same reason, although wild-caught Nova is sometimes available.
Scotch salmon is like Nova because it is cold-smoked, but instead of a wet brine it is dry cured by sprinkling salt and sugar directly on the fillets. The curing mixture is then rinsed off before the fish is smoked at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, using woods like maple, oak and hickory, for about 10 to 15 hours.
Nordic smoked salmon is basically the same thing as Scotch, but with stricter rules. Whereas Scotch salmon can use sugar as part of the dry cure, and occasionally other spices, Nordic is a salt-only affair.
Most varieties of smoked salmon you’re likely to put on a bagel are cold-smoked. But hot smoked salmon—also known as kippered salmon—has its own devoted following, especially on the West Coast. Unlike lox or nova, hot smoked salmon is actually cooked through by smoking it for a few hours at temperatures of around 130 to 140 degrees. That gives the salmon an opaque, light pink color, as though it had been poached, and a much more smoky flavor. Try putting it in an omelet—we guarantee you won’t regret it.