RECIPE: Gin-Cured Gravlax from Sweets & Bitters

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We know it might be a real shocker for you, but we’re pretty big fans of indie food publications—especially ones that are Brooklyn based. One of our favorite issues hitting stands this holiday season is Sweets & Bitters’s third volume, the Foodways issue.

After featuring New York Distilling Company in our winter 2013 issue of Edible Brooklyn, we are psyched that Sweets & Bitters has agreed to let us share both a story from their visit, as well as a recipe inspired by their gin.

Like what you read here? Get the full story by visiting their online shop. Love it so much that you want to share with friends and family? Check out their gift subscription option, too.

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A Rye Look at New York

By Hannah Kirshner

I had never stood in a rye field before I visited Rick Pedersen’s farm. The blue waves of grain swayed and rustled. The grass reached my shoulders and tickled my chin. Whether nurturing seeds into plants or grains into liquor, there’s magic in transformation. After hearing about Pedersen farm from New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn, where they use Rick’s rye to make their spirits, I travelled five hours northwest of the city, to see where the grain grows.

In a few more years Rick will begin harvesting a variety of rye that filled fields—and drinking glasses—in the 1700s. Four years ago an envelope of 10 seeds arrived from an Idaho seed vault. Can’t you imagine someone sitting at a desk in a dark corner parsing out precious seeds? Every year Rick saves the seeds to plant more. By 2015 he’ll have enough for the distillery to make whiskey from it.

We have to relearn things farmers knew a century ago, says Rick. Agriculture industrialized so quickly that all but a few crops and methods were lost. Our founding fathers cultivated rye for whiskey (even George Washington had a distillery). Nordic and Eastern European immigrants made bread from the grain. And its sturdy straw was used as a building material. These days rye is mostly planted as a cover to protect soil between cash crops, or for the golden straw preferred as show horse bedding.

Until he has enough heirloom seed, Rick grows cover crop rye; all 70,000 pounds of it go New York Distilling Company. In their airy Brooklyn warehouse mashed grains brew in steel tanks. Their ferment gets concentrated through a big copper still. The clear distillate is barreled in new charred American oak barrels, and left to age for two or three years until it becomes mellow, golden and rich. Their first batches of whiskey will mature soon, but it will be at least 2017 before we get to taste the stuff that started with those 10 ancient seeds.

New York Distilling Company revived a formula from an 1809 manual called The Practical Distiller. The recipe for Chief Gowanus: New Netherland Gin calls for re-distilling un-aged rye whiskey with juniper and hops to approximate the malty mellow taste of Dutch gin—a spirit that was nearly as popular as rye, particularly in New Netherland (now known as New York). The name, as esoteric as the libation, alludes as much to Brooklyn’s murky Gowanus Canal as to the mythic Chief Gowanus of the tribe that welcomed the Dutch Settlers.

Quirky and interesting new gins have emerged in recent years, but they don’t all mix well in classic cocktails. New York Distilling Company produces two (in addition to Chief Gowanus) that add to the conversation of new spirits, yet still play well in classic drinks. As the distillers developed their blends of botanicals, they tested each batch in a sour, a martini and a gin and tonic. I’m impressed by the sophistication and subtlety of the aesthetic decisions they made—if their rye whiskey succeeds in reaching the same standard of excellence, we’re in for a treat! I look forward to drinking in those fields of rye, this time literally. In the meantime, please pass me another glass of gin punch?

Want to learn more?
Visit New York Distilling Company. Their saloon is open every evening, and they offer distillery tours on weekends.

Gin-Cured Gravlax

Traditional recipes for this Nordic cured fish call for a dry rub, a heavy weight and three days of basting—but there’s an easier way. By submerging the fish in brine you can shorten the process to overnight or less, and you won’t have to tend to it. A dousing of good gin provides all the spices and botanicals you need for flavoring. Add dill and cracked pepper to the brine if you like, but I prefer to sprinkle them on fresh when I serve the fish. Try it on tangy rye bread with a spoonful of crème fraîche.


side, loin, or fillet of salmon, deboned

brine for each pound of salmon

1 cup salt

1 cup sugar

2 cups water

1/4 cup gin

for serving

fresh dill

cracked pepper

rye bread (store-bought or page TK)

crème fraîche

1. Multiply the brine recipe for each pound of fish you’ll use (a 4-pound side of salmon will easily serve 20 people). In a large pot, bring the salt, sugar, and water to a boil. Stir until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove the brine from the heat.

2. Set up an ice bath to speed the cooling: fit a bowl big enough to contain the brine inside a larger bowl of ice water that’s mostly ice. Pour the brine into the inner bowl. Add the gin. Stir until cool.

3. Place the fish skin-side up in a shallow glass container just larger than the fish (a casserole works well). Pour in the brine. Cover and refrigerate. For a 1- or 2-pound fish, brining may only take 5 hours; a larger piece should brine overnight. You’ll know the fish is done when it feels firm, not mushy, and turns a darker, slightly translucent color. You can test it by cutting off a little piece to taste.

4. To serve, sprinkle with lots of the dill and cracked pepper. Slice thinly and enjoy on the rye bread with the crème fraîche. Eat up your gravlax within a few days. After that, you can cook it (I like mine with scrambled eggs).

Hannah’s Hint
Crème fraîche can be hard to find, depending on where you live, but it’s easy to make. Simply add two tablespoons of buttermilk or yogurt to a pint of heavy cream in a nonreactive bowl, cover it and let it sit at warm room temperature overnight. Voila!

Simple Science
Some gravlax recipes call for freezing the fish to kill parasites, but unless you have liquid nitrogen on hand or a freezer that gets down to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, this won’t do much good. Fortunately, you probably won’t get sick even if nematodes are present—only about 10 people per year do in the U.S., and it’s an unpleasant but not life-threatening experience. I find this an acceptable level of risk, but if you are concerned, simply buy farmed salmon or sushi-grade fish (that has been frozen to an appropriate temperature).

Bacteria are much easier to deal with—the salty brine makes an inhospitable environment for them. Start with fresh fish and keep it cold, and you will have little to worry about.

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