BY MARTIN HOELLRIGL PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS SCHMAUCH
A springtime delicacy you can make at home
Growing up at 9,000 feet elevation in the Austrian Alps, salmon was a rare treat. Fresh salmon had to be imported to the lands where rivers and lakes froze in winter. Only the fanciest restaurants had saltwater fish on their menus.
Smoked and cured fish were a different story. This was a food for special occasions and it was available at some pricey delicatessens, imported mostly from Scandinavia and presented in tiny thin slices next to Russian caviar.
My first taste of salmon tartare at an upscale restaurant in the early 1980s inspired me to become a chef. After graduation from the Austrian tourism college, I developed my passion for fish and seafood in several trendy restaurants in Europe, eventually becoming chef poissonnier (fish chef) at a Michelin-starred spot in southwest Germany.
There, for the first time, I could fully indulge my passion for seafood. We had a saltwater aquarium, a smoker in the back and a super happy Martin in the kitchen!
The practice of preserving fish by salting it originated as early as 3,000 BC in Mesopotamia, where cooked fish was preserved in sesame oil and dried fish was part of the Sumerian diet. Phoenicians traded salted fish in the Eastern Mediterranean region and the Romans acquired curing procedures from the Greeks and further developed methods to pickle fish. There are several ways to cure salmon, but salt is the primary ingredient used to cure fish everywhere in the world. It not only draws moisture out of the fish, the saline-rich environment also works through osmosis to draw water out of micro-organisms that cause spoilage, retarding their growth.
The most important aspect of salmon is freshness. It’s not always easy to find high quality fish all the time, even though we live right by the ocean.
When I moved to Capitola and founded Capitola Garden Feast in 2018, I found I could cook all the salmon I wanted, pairing it with fine chardonnays from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Some of my favorites are Beauregard, Wrights Station, Lester, Bargetto, Alfaro and Stockwell Cellars on the west side of Santa Cruz.
The most important aspect of salmon is freshness. It’s not always easy to find high quality fish all the time, even though we live right by the ocean. Sometimes I go to Aloha Seafood in San Francisco, but you have to be there at 4am. Locally, I get fish from Ocean2Table, Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing and The Fish Lady in Capitola, where I trust the freshness and quality.
Many species of salmon work for curing. In order, my favorite kinds are: 1) silver coho salmon; 2) king or chinook salmon (local season usually starts May 1); 3) cherry masu salmon; and 4) red sockeye salmon. Salmon has crucial nutrients our bodies need to be healthy and happy, like omega fats, vitamins C, B-6 and B-12, and of course it’s a good source of protein. If you eat salmon, you’ll live forever.
Before you cure your fish, make sure it’s de-boned, which means pulling the fish bones out one by one with tweezers.
Iodized table salt may be used, but the iodine can cause a darker product and a bitter taste. I don’t use iodized salt for anything! I simply use high quality sea salt on the salmon. This can be “fleur de sel” also called “sel gris” from the Camargue in France, but I use local sea salt from Capitola’s Salt Saloon.
Nitrates are often used in commercially prepared salmon, but for curing salmon at home, just work cleanly, wash your hands often and make sure to store it below 50° F.
Sugars are sometimes added when curing salmon and they can take many forms, including honey, maple syrup, molasses or malt extract. Adding sugar contributes to the growth of beneficial bacteria like lactobacillus by feeding them, but is not crucial. To me sugars are more of a flavoring.
My two favorite salmon curing methods today are Dill and Spices and Genus Ulva, also referred to as sea lettuce. Another method I shared on Capitola Garden Feast’s Instagram page is curing with spirulina. I offer lessons in cold smoking and air drying salmon, but perhaps start with these two recipes.
Dill and Spices Cured Salmon
RECIPE: Martin Hoellrigl
Salmon has crucial nutrients our bodies need to be healthy and happy, like omega fats, vitamins C, B-6 and B-12, and of course it’s a good source of protein. If you eat salmon, you’ll live forever.
Genus Ulva Cured Salmon
RECIPE: Martin Hoellrigl
My two favorite salmon curing methods today are Dill and Spices and Genus Ulva, also referred to as sea lettuce.
Martin Hoellrigl is an Austria-born chef, sommelier, hotelier and gardener, who currently lives in Capitola and runs Capitola Garden Feast—a catering and special events company. Martin and his team offer fun DIY dinners with personal instruction for groups of eight of more. “Our events bring teams and families closer together, because cooking connects our hearts,” he says.