Lox vs. Smoked Salmon: What's the Difference?

They're easy to confuse because they look nearly identical.

November 03, 2022
Homemade Bagel and Salmon Lox with Cream Cheese and Dill

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Homemade Bagel and Salmon Lox with Cream Cheese and Dill

Photo by: bhofack2/Getty Images

bhofack2/Getty Images

By Dana Beninati for Food Network Kitchen

Dana is a host, chef and sommelier.

Some would argue a fresh New York City bagel is sorely incomplete without salmon. The hustle and bustle of a classic deli doesn’t allow time for questions at the counter. When you step up to order, you must be fully prepared, which includes the knowledge of what type of salmon should top your bagel – salmon spread, Nova lox, gravlax or smoked salmon. Keep reading to learn what separates these styles of salmon, how to distinguish them by look and what your tastes prefer.

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Photo by: Lucian Smoot / 500px/Getty Images

Lucian Smoot / 500px/Getty Images

What Is Lox?

Lox is salmon fillet that has been salt cured. Curing is simply the practice of using salt to draw the moisture out of an item, thereby preserving it. This process was created by our ancestors long ago, who did this to preserve many foods prior to refrigeration, especially proteins like meat and fish. In a process known as “dry curing,” salt is mixed with sugar, herbs or spices and packed around the protein for some time, usually a few days. It is then rinsed away, resulting in an item with increased flavor and shelf life. This is the process behind some of our favorite savory items like ham and pepperoni. In the case of salmon lox, we often see the salt flavored with dill or lemon zest.

Salmon fillet with coarse ground pepper, grilled over a cedar plank.  This cooking method gives the salmon great cedar smoke flavor and color.  Shallow dof.

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Salmon fillet with coarse ground pepper, grilled over a cedar plank. This cooking method gives the salmon great cedar smoke flavor and color. Shallow dof.

Photo by: Fullerene/Getty Images

Fullerene/Getty Images

What Is Smoked Salmon?

Smoked salmon is just that – salmon that has been smoked with wood to enhance its flavor and texture. It is easy to mistake smoked salmon for lox, as the two look very similar. This oversight is perpetuated by the fact that some smoked salmon is cured before smoking (for even more flavor enhancement). Whether cured or not, smoking can be completed in one of two ways – cold or hot. Both cold and hot smoked salmon carry the flavor of the smoke, so their differing texture will likely be the determining factor of which you prefer.

Cold smoking is the process of creating smoke from wood chips and letting it cool (to below 85 degrees Fahrenheit) before it meets the salmon. Cold smoked salmon strongly resembles lox as both share a characteristic shine and are served thinly sliced. Like lox, cold smoked salmon is raw.

In contrast, hot smoked salmon (pictured above) is prepared under direct contact with warm smoke (around 150 degrees Fahrenheit), so the fish is cooked during the process. This leads to a flakier salmon, that looks dull and meaty.

Gravadlax slices with Dill, lemon and coriander

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Gravadlax slices with Dill, lemon and coriander

Photo by: PhotographyFirm/Getty Images

PhotographyFirm/Getty Images

What Is Gravlax?

Just as the name suggests, gravlax is a style of salmon lox. “Grav” is Swedish for grave. The name hints at how the dish was originally made in Scandinavian countries of the past. Historically, sides of salmon were buried under salt, often outside under mounds of snow. Much like a grave, the salt and snow kept the salmon well protected as it cured, hence the name. Nowadays, the term gravlax is interchangeable for lox at most delicatessens.

Bagel brunch board with smoked salmon and fresh vegetables.

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Bagel brunch board with smoked salmon and fresh vegetables.

Photo by: arinahabich/Getty Images

arinahabich/Getty Images

What Is Nova Lox?

Nova lox is named after Nova Scotia, a Canadian region most famous for its wild Atlantic salmon. This style of salmon is both cured and cold smoked. Nova lox is arguably the most popular topping to a classic New York City bagel and has a robust flavor that is both salty and smoky.

Lox vs Smoked Salmon: What's the Differences?

While lox is cured in a salty spice blend, smoked salmon may or may not be cured but is always smoked and has a slightly smokier flavor.

  • Sight: Lox and cold smoked salmon are both glossy and thinly sliced. Hot smoked salmon looks like poached fish. It is meaty and easily flakes into large pieces.
  • Smell: Lox and smoked salmon both have pungent, yet pleasant aromas. The smell of smoke is easily recognizable and can help you distinguish cold smoked salmon from lox, as the two look so much alike.
  • Touch: All are served chilled. Lox and cold smoked salmon are a bit slimy in feel. Hot smoked salmon is firm and meaty.
  • Flavor: Lox is generally saltier than smoked salmon. Both can be herbaceous, briny and pleasantly fishy. Smoked salmon will have an added boost of savory flavor provided by the wood chips.

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