Cured Fish: Smoked Salmon and Lox Are Just the Beginning

Here’s the ultimate guide to cured fish.

smoked salmon on bread
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When talking about cured fish, smoked salmon, lox, and Nova are often tossed into the same category. But these types of cured fish have about as much in common as bread and pasta. Translation? They can be made with the same raw ingredient but are totally different foods once manipulated.

As a lox-and-bagel-loving New Yorker, I wanted to know more. So I reached out to Matt Ranieri, Ph.D. in food studies from Cornell University and technical services director at Acme. While he oversees research and development as well as food safety and processing at the multigenerational family-owned fish company, Ranieri has a new title to add to his role: teacher.

Recently he launched a Smoked Fish 101 class, which lets students taste a range of Acme's products to understand the difference between types of smoked fish, especially lox vs. smoked salmon. Ranieri shared some of his expertise with us so you can successfully identify your favorite cured fish in the supermarket and beyond. Ready to dive in?

What Is Cured Fish?

"When we cure fish, we are preserving [it] with salt, dehydration, or smoke, sometimes a combination of all three methods," explains Ranieri. "These methods not only delay spoilage but capture and enhance the natural flavors of fish when executed with precision."

A Cured Fish Misconception

As someone who grew up on lox (I literally ate it by the pound as a small child), I was baffled to learn during a recent visit to Brooklyn's Acme Smoked Fish that the product I've been referring to as lox my entire life is actually smoked salmon. Yes, I'm a food writer and a proficient cook, but did I know that lox was so salty and smoked salmon was so much more palatable? Definitely not.

"In traditional processing, lox is never smoked," Ranieri explains. "It is cured in lots of salt for months. Then, when the texture peaks and reaches a silky, buttery mouthfeel, salmon fillets are rinsed and ready to slice. In contrast, smoked salmon is lightly cured with salt and always smoked." If you taste a salty cured fish, it's likely lox. And on your bagel, you likely prefer smoked salmon. This particular cured fish is also delicious on a flatbread or sandwich and goes well with eggs.

Types of Cured Fish

Salmon and Lox

Smoked salmon and lox range in fish species, provenance (where the fish was caught or farmed), special seasoning, and smokehouse. There are so many types that even knowledgeable consumers can feel overwhelmed, Ranieri warns. Here's how to break it down:

Species: Wild salmon is often firmer in texture, lower in oil content (all that swimming in the wild burns fat!), richer in flavor, and brighter in color (thanks to a naturally sourced diet in waterways). Ranieri recommends trying Wild Alaskan Sockeye or King Salmon for wild-caught products. The alternative to wild-caught salmon is farmed salmon, often dubbed Atlantic Salmon.

Provenance: Wild-caught species like Sockeye, Coho, and King Salmon are likely from Alaska or the Pacific Northwest. "The catch is seasonal and limited to ensure future generations have access to these species," Ranieri says. For farmed Atlantic Salmon, common descriptors include Chilean, Norwegian, Irish, and Scottish. "These regions have developed advanced systems to farm salmon," he says. "Often, Irish and Scottish salmon have the highest fat content, resulting in a silky, rich texture. Chilean and Norwegian fish are slightly leaner, although they still [have] two to three times the fat content of any wild salmon species.

Smokehouse: The smokehouse from which a smoked fish originates determines which methods are used for curing and smoking. "At Acme, we employ a mix of dry curing [salt cast by hand across fillets] and wet-curing [a slow, gentle brining bath for large fillets]," Ranieri says. "We then smoke our fish naturally using a blend of hardwoods. Our smoke level is intentionally mild to complement the flavor of fish." Other smokehouses may opt for smokier flavors.


"Sable is a delicious wild-caught species, line-caught from Alaskan waters," Ranieri says. "The texture is what really stands out—it's flaky and buttery. Think of it as the croissant of smoked fish. With a light salt and smoke, it's an elegant product on its own or a stand-out on a smoked fish platter."

Whole Smoked Whitefish

"Whitefish is another wild-caught specialty, coming from the Great Lakes. It has a mild flavor and flaky texture when smoked properly," Ranieri says. "Because whitefish are small, they could easily dry out during smoking if filleted. So to maintain a tender flesh and deliver a balanced smoke flavor, whitefish are smoked whole."

Another benefit to the silver skins: "Ultimately, smoking with the skin on helps retain moisture and preserve the flaky texture," he says. "Whitefish has to be one of the more challenging fish to smoke; it's a narrow window to find the perfect balance of texture and flavor."

How to Share Your Cured Fish

Smoked fish is certainly better with friends and family, particularly on weekend mornings. "Like most great foods, smoked fish is meant to be shared," Ranieiri says. His suggested serving style: Make a platter with sliced tomatoes, onions, capers, cream cheese, and your favorite bases, like rye bread, sourdough, bagel, cucumber slices, or crackers, so everyone can personalize their own snack.

How to Store Your Cured Fish

While curing preserves fish, it doesn't remove its shelf life. A lot depends on where a product was purchased and how it's packaged, but vacuum-packaged fish should last about two weeks with proper refrigeration (less than 38 F). If the product is wrapped in deli paper, consuming it within three to five days is generally good. About to miss the cut-off? Consider your freezer.

"While fish can be frozen, it's often detrimental to the texture and flavor," Ranieri warns. Eat defrosted cured fish within two months, preferably as an ingredient in a cooked dish, like a quiche, omelet, or pasta sauce.

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