There is an old road in Japan that runs from Wakasa Bay to the city of Kyoto known as the Saba Kaido, or Mackerel Road. For centuries, the road was used to carry fresh mackerel roughly 50 miles south from the sea to the former imperial capital. Because there was no refrigeration, the prized fish were salted to preserve them for the journey. It’s been said that if one transported the fish in a single trip, without sleeping, the brilliant blue fish arrived in Kyoto fresh and perfectly seasoned.
The art of curing is an ancient technique, born of necessity and found the world over. Almost lost with the dawn of modern preservation methods such as refrigeration and canning, curing is making a comeback — and in a big way.
Curing fish takes very little active time, and it can be completed in days rather than the weeks it might take to cure other meats. Since it requires no special equipment, it’s just as easily done at home as it is in a restaurant.
The process is simple: Combine salt, sugar and/or smoke to gently draw moisture from a food to preserve it over an extended period.
And the possibilities seem endless. A quick online search yields recipes calling for not only the more traditional gravlax and smoked salmon or trout, but also fish you might never have considered curing, including halibut, mahi mahi, striped bass and even tai snapper. The flavorings include classic dill, grappa and even kombu. Try curing fish with a tasso rub for Cajun-style flavor or take inspiration from a cocktail, combining rum and mint for a mojito-style cure.
Though almost any fish can be cured, make sure the fish is fresh and of the best quality. Be sure to buy from a reputable seller — the act of curing will not make a bad fish better or safer to eat. Salmon, in particular, should be bought previously frozen — salmon is anadromous, living in both salt and fresh water, and can pick up worms that other ocean fish don’t; though curing can kill bacteria, only proper freezing can kill these parasites.
Keep the fish refrigerated at all times, even after it is cured. Home curing works to “denature” the protein in the fish, in essence cooking it, but should not be counted on to render it safe left at room temperature.
If you’re new to curing fish, start with a basic, traditional recipe, such as gravlax.
A fillet is coated with a basic blend of salt and sugar, with dill and liquor sometimes added for flavor. The fish is then wrapped and refrigerated until it is firm to the touch, generally two to three days. Follow the recipe exactly; if the measurements or timing are off, the fish might over-cure, rendering it too salty and tough, or it may under-cure, leaving the fish raw in places.
Wrap the fish, making sure to place it in a rimmed container before refrigerating to catch any juices that might drain out. Feel the fish for firmness to gauge the progress, and flip the fish if called for (some larger fillets are halved and sandwiched before curing; flipping redistributes the cure). The fish will be done when it is firm throughout; the timing will vary depending on the thickness of the fillet and type of fish.
GINGER- AND LEMONGRASS-CURED SABLE FISH
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 stalk lemongrass, dry outer leaves removed, inner stalk crushed (to release the oils) and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons pink peppercorns, crushed
1 (1 1/4- to 1 1/2-pound) sable fillet, skin on and any pinbones removed
About 3 tablespoons sake
In a medium bowl, combine the salt, sugar, ginger, lemongrass and peppercorns. Set aside.
Brush the top of the sable fillet generously with the sake.
Spread the cure mix over the top (flesh side) of the fillet, then wrap the fish tightly with cheesecloth. Place the wrapped sable, skin side down, on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet to catch any juices.
Refrigerate the fillet until it is firm to the touch, about 48 hours (timing will vary depending on the thickness and size of the fillet). Uncover the fillet, rinse and dry off. The cured sable will keep for up to several days, wrapped in dry parchment and refrigerated.