Bagel and lox platters with tomato, onion, and cream cheese, orange juice on the side. It hits on all cylinders of my family’s palate – salty, pungent, umami, hearty, kick-starting a Sunday morning nap. I always ate my sandwich too fast, and looked on wistfully as my family laughed around the table and went on passing plates.
Quick definitions to start:
Smoked Salmon: any kind of salmon, first cured and then either hot-smoked or cold-smoked.
Lox: salmon cured in a salt-sugar rub or brine and never cooked or smoked, so it has a silky rich texture and translucency.
Curing: any method of meat preservation. It can be salting, brining, aging, drying, smoking, or canning. The goal is to prevent the growth of microorganisms that will make you sick if you eat them.
Cold-smoking: slow exposure to smoke in an 80 degrees environment for several hours. Cold-smoked products are held in an unheated chamber through which smoke is pumped. Fish doe not get cooked but stays moist and silky. Only food that is professionally made and has been cured in some way should be cold-smoked, since between 40-140 degrees microbes can reproduce rapidly.
Hot-smoking: smoking fish in the same chamber as the burning wood, thus cooking the fish, resulting in a flaky texture and smoky flavor
Nova lox: made from salmon hailing from Nova Scotia, that has been cured and then, as an exception to the rule, cold-smoked. This is what you’re probably getting when you order a bagel with lox – but it’s not actually lox – it’s smoked salmon.
Gravlax: Scandinavian preparation of lox, where lots of fresh dill and spices like juniper berries and pepper, and sometimes liquid, are added to the curing process. Not smoked!
We shouldn’t forget that lox is raw fish. Thankfully, my favorite condiment can also save us from bacterial infection. Salt is important in the curing process. In a dry rub or wet brine, salt draws the moisture out of microbial cells by osmosis, due to the higher concentration of salt outside the cell. When a cell is immersed in a solution with a greater concentration of solutes than inside the cell, the tendency is for water to flow out of the cell to balance the concentration of solutes. A cell cannot survive without water. Salmonella is inhibited by salt concentrations as low as 3%, staphylococcus requires 20% to kill.
Smoking meat additionally helps prevent spoilage by helping seal the outer layer of food, making it more difficult for bacteria to enter or for air to cause rancidity in fats.
Salting is one of the oldest methods of food preservation and remained the primary method until the advent of the refrigerator in the early 10th century. The earliest recording of salt preservation was found in Egyptian tombs dating to before 2000 B.C.
Eastern European Jews married lox to the bagel in early 20th century New York City. They most likely learned the practice of fish curing in medieval Germany and carried that knowledge with them eastward during a middle Ages migration. Fish was popular among Jews, for it could be eaten with meat or with dairy. In the late 1800s they migrated to the United States and set up fish-smoking shops along the East Coast.
Bagels most likely originated among Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Poland in the early 1600s. The ringed bread was given to women during childbirth. Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought the bagel to America as well.
Unlike in Europe, in the United States salmon was plentiful. Captured in the Pacific Northwest, packed in barrels of salt and shipped via the Transcontinental Railroad to the East Coast, salmon, or its German word lachs, piqued the taste buds of Jews who had a strong affinity for cured and smoked fish.
Lox was easy to keep because it did not require refrigeration. Home refrigeration was available starting in the mid 1920’s but new immigrant families could not yet afford such an appliance. With refrigerators, heavy salt preservation was no longer necessary and was replaced with a shorter brine period.
The bagel and lox combo became institutionalized in the 1950s, thanks to New York delis.