Lox, Smoked Salmon, Nova, and Gravlax: Here's What Makes These Bagel Companions Different

Bagels and lox? Or bagels and Nova? Learn which salmon delicacy you want for brunch.

lox on toast
Photo: AnnaPustynnikova / GETTY IMAGES

Nothing goes better with a bagel and schmear than lox—unless you prefer to heap your breakfast bread with smoked salmon or Nova, venture off-script with gravlax, or use a wedge of kippered salmon. Hold on—is there really a distinction between these salmon specialties? The short answer is yes: each has its own unique flavor characteristics. We turned to some fish experts to find out more and learned that sometimes, the divide is wide. As to which one will satisfy your craving? Well, you may have to sample the goods.

Lox vs. Smoked Salmon vs. Nova

Many fish fans lump lox, smoked salmon, and Nova into one amorphous category, having never been schooled in what sets each apart. "When people ask for a bagel with lox, they overwhelmingly mean Nova," says Peter Shelsky, the co-owner of Shelsky's of Brooklyn: Appetizing and Delicatessen and Shelsky's Brooklyn Bagels in New York (he works alongside his business partner, Lewis Spada). "Belly lox is, shall we say, assertively salty (read aggressively). I love it so much, but it isn't for everyone."

And while the terms lox and smoked salmon are often used interchangeably, they are not one and the same, says Elizabeth Mattes, director of sales and marketing for Samaki Smoked Fish Co., a small, Hudson Valley, N.Y.-based company she runs with her husband, Jason Marrian. The former is cured, while the latter is (as its name suggests) smoked. We'll explain where each variation lines up (and where gravlax and kippered salmon fit in).


Lox is salmon that's cured, not smoked—and there's more than one way to cure it. "Lox can be cured just in salt, or salt and sugar, or a brine of just salt, or a brine of salt and sugar," says Mattes. Curing methods include salt rubs or wet brine, sometimes upgraded with spices.


Another (cured) epicurean standout is gravlax, which originated in Scandinavia and can be prepared in several ways (even at home). "We cure ours by first bathing it in lemon juice and aquavit," says Shelsky. After three days of curing, the salmon in a sugar-and-salt brine with fresh dill, the mixture is brushed off, and packed with more fresh chopped dill. "It's herbaceous, and thus, it differs vastly from the Nova smoked salmon and the salty belly lox," he says.

Smoked Salmon

Smoked salmon is, of course, smoked—so its flavor is smokier than lox. But first, it's dry-cured with salt or salt and sugar. How subtle or intense the smokiness is hinges on variables including "which wood is used, how long it was smoked for, the size of the salmon (fat content and ambient oven temperature), and the humidity," says Mattes.

Samaki's artisanal process uses traditional brick kiln ovens to smoke the fish, encompassing a brick room and a wood stove, to generate smoke.

Cold-Smoked vs. Hot-Smoked

Cold-smoked and hot-smoked salmon are also relevant to the smoked fish discussion. Cold-smoked refers to salmon that's smoked at a temperature below 86 degrees Fahrenheit, while hot-smoked salmon is cooked through at a temperature above 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

The distinction is evident at the appetizing counter. "Cold-smoked salmon is what we slice thinly (so the customers can read the paper through it) and put on a bagel. It's basically smoked at room temperature," says Spada.

Hot-smoked salmon, a departure, flavor- and texture-wise, is sold in thick chunks. "Hot smoked (or kippered or baked salmon) is cooked while it's smoked. It's flaky and outstanding," Spada says.


Traditional Nova is a form of smoked salmon. It is made from a large salmon, then brine-cured for several days in sugar and salt before the smoking process begins. It's slightly sweeter than other smoked salmon.

"The term 'Nova' comes from Nova Scotia, referring to the region and style of smoked salmon," says Mattes, noting that the Gaspé Peninsula in particular became famous for its brine-cured smoked fish. "Today, Nova is used to describe a smoked salmon that is mildly cured, adhering to the old Nova Scotia traditions," she says. But it doesn't need to hail from Nova to be called by that name.

Appetizing Stores

Supermarkets usually stock packaged cured and smoked fish. But appetizing stores, which specialize in Jewish delicacies, offer a more personalized experience. "An appetizing shop, in its simplest form, is a store that sells that which you put on a bagel—smoked salmon, lox, cream cheese, smoked whitefish, sable, pickled herring, and more," says Shelsky.

Appetizing stores took root in New York City during the first waves of Jewish immigration in the early to the mid-20th century. The newcomers were primarily poor and observant. "Their poverty resulted in a culture of smoking, curing, and pickling their food to make it last longer and go further, and because they largely kept kosher, meat and dairy could not be sold in the same place. So, the New York delicatessen and the appetizing shop were born," says Shelsky.

Thick or Thin Slices

No matter how you slice it, lox, Nova, and smoked salmon are delicious. Still, there's a solid preference for slicing it thin, to the point where some skilled practitioners behind the appetizing counter have garnered legendary status among smoked fish disciples. Spada brings it back to earth: "It'd be romantic to say there's an art to it," he says.

But Mattes has a different perspective: "Slicing smoked salmon is an art and a skill," she says. "Appetizing and bagel stores keep their slicers for decades (or for their whole career) because it isn't something anyone can do!"

How to Use Lox or Smoked Salmon

Move over, bagels. Top-quality cured or smoked salmon can elevate the most humble snacks or fancier indulgences. "Let the salmon be the star of the dish," says Mattes. She likes smoked salmon on English cucumber slices, water crackers, latkes with sour cream and onions, or dark pumpernickel with butter and fresh dill. "It's wonderful in crepes with crème fraîche or mixed into scrambled eggs. One of my personal favorites is to serve it with a peppery greens salad of either arugula or watercress," adds Spada. Whether you're eating lox, smoked salmon, Nova, or gravlax, one thing is clear—each is a nosh worth savoring.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles