Smoked salmon, lox, Nova—they’re all the same, right? Nope. These various categories of cured fish have about as much in common as bread and pasta or salad and pickles. Translation? They can be made with the same raw ingredient, but once manipulated, they’re totally different foods. 

As someone who grew up on lox (I literally ate it by the pound as a small child), or what I called lox, I was kind of 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 actual lox was so salty and smoked salmon was so much more palatable to me? Definitely not.

Enter Matt Ranieri, technical services director at Acme and holder of a Ph.D. in Food Studies from Cornell University. 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 smoked fishes. Ready to dive in? Ranieri shared some of his expertise with us, so you, similar to this lox-and-bagel-loving New Yorker, can successfully identify your favorite cured fishes in the supermarket and beyond.

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 when executed with precision, capture and enhance the natural flavors of fish.” 

The difference between smoked salmon and lox 

“In traditional processing, lox is never smoked. It is cured in lots of salt for months. Then, when the texture peaks, reaches a silky, buttery mouthfeel, salmon fillets are rinsed and ready to slice,” Ranieri explains. “In contrast, smoked salmon is lightly cured with salt and always smoked.” Meaning, if you taste a super salty cured fish, it’s likely lox. And on your bagel, you likely prefer smoked salmon. 

Types of smoked 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 is a silky, rich texture. Chilean and Norwegian fish are slightly more lean, although still [have] two to three times the fat content of any wild salmon species. 

Smokehouse: The smokehouse a smoked fish originates from 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. 

I always see sable on deli menus, what is that? 

“Sable is a delicious wild-caught species, line-caught from Alaskan waters. The texture is what really stands out—it’s flaky and buttery,” Ranieri says. “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.” Writer’s note: I tasted sable and now I can’t stop eating it. 

And what’s with those whole smoked whitefish? Smoked salmon and sable have filets, but whitefish is usually shown with its head and tail… 

“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, if filleted they could easily dry out during smoking. So to maintain a tender flesh, and deliver a balanced smoke flavor, whitefish are smoked whole.” There’s also another benefit to the silver skins too: “Ultimately, smoking with the skin on helps retain moisture and preserve the flaky texture. 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,” he says. 

Share your smoked fish

Smoked fish is one of those foods that’s 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. 

Storing cured fish

While curing preserves fish, unfortunately, it doesn’t leave fish without a shelf life. A lot depends on where a product was purchased and how it’s packaged, but Ranieri’s general guideline is that vacuum packaged fish should last about two weeks with proper refrigeration (less than 38°F). If the product is wrapped in deli paper, it’s generally good to consume it within 3-5 days. 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.

Originally published in