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Check, Please!

Readers give our food critic something to chew on.

Q: Recently I ate at a very nice restaurant and had the smoked-salmon appetizer. The appetizer was thinly sliced, velvety in texture and had a very nice flavor. It was just like lox. So my question is: What is the difference between smoked salmon and lox?

A: Back in the '20s, salmon shipped to the mainland from Alaska was heavily salted in order to preserve it, since there was no such thing as refrigerated air shipping. To remove the brine, the fish then had to be soaked in cold water. The result was called lox, either after the German word for salmon, which is lachs, or the Scandinavian word for it, which is lax.

Nowadays, lox is supposed to be salmon that has been brine-cured and then cold-smoked — a process that calls for exposing the salted, water-soaked salmon to smoke at temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees for a long time (anywhere from one day to three weeks). Since the fish has already been brine-cured, you don’t need heat; the smoking at this point is mostly for flavor. In fact, the smoke in a cold smoker is pumped through a filter that keeps heat from being a factor.

Smoked salmon, on the other hand, is supposed to be salmon that’s been hot-smoked — a process that calls for smoke at above 120 degrees. Hot smoking takes anywhere from six to twelve hours, and this fish can be salted first, too.

"Nova" or Nova Scotia salmon usually refers to lox that has been brine-cured and then cold-smoked and is usually less salty than lox, but it also can refer to salmon that’s simply been cold-smoked. The problem is that this country is pretty lax with its lox regulations, and sometimes hot-smoked salmon is labeled "nova" as well. Further confusing matters are restaurants that say they have "house-smoked" salmon, which can mean anything from curing it with some type of marinade, such as salted tequila or honey-sweetened lime juice, to the use of an actual cold or hot smoker in the kitchen. And then there’s the ever-popular gravlax, salmon cured Swedish style, with dill, salt, sugar and peppercorns.

When ordering, your best bet is to ask how the salmon was smoked, and that will tell you if it’s going to have a soft, supple, slightly oily texture and a sweeter flavor (as in lox or cold-smoked nova) or a consistency similar to that of a cooked piece of salmon and a heavy smoky flavor, which would be more in keeping with the drier, hot-smoked variety.

 
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