Lox is salmon that has been cured in salt brine or a mixture of salt and sugars or spices. The thinly sliced meat traditionally comes from the belly of the salmon, which is considered the fattiest part of the fish and provides the rich flavor and silky texture. Lox is well known for its role in Jewish-American culture and cuisine, in which it is used as a bagel topping with cream cheese (also known as "shmear") and capers. Lox can also be garnished with a tomato or sliced red onion.
The word lox can be traced back to the Yiddish word "laks," meaning "salmon." However, long before it was given this name, lox was being produced in Scandinavia. Fishermen needed to preserve their fish, including salmon, so they began placing their catch in a saltwater brine. Native Americans were also using a similar technique an ocean away.
Jewish immigrants brought lox to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a popular meat because it was a cheaper option and kept well without a refrigerator, which was important because home refrigeration only became available in the 1920s, and many immigrant families didn't immediately have access to a fridge.
The marriage of lox and bagels is a New York City invention. Though an exact date or inventor is unknown, by the 1950s Jewish immigrants were using the term "lox and bagels" to insult their peers who had become too Americanized, so the food was created sometime before then. By the 1960s, lox on bagels was flourishing throughout the city.
Wherever the combination came from, no one is complaining. In the middle of the 20th century, the streets of Manhattan were lined with what used to be known as appetizing stores -- stores that sold only fish and dairy (a kosher combination, mind you). Those stores are no longer as common in the city, but the popularity of lox, particularly with bagels, cream cheese and capers, has not lost its appeal. Today, the combo is a popular dish throughout the U.S. and not just in the Jewish community.
As mentioned, traditional lox comes from the belly of the salmon, the fattiest (and, some would argue, most delicious) part of the fish. It is then cured with salt for three months, which leaves it salty and silky -- but not smoky.
Smoked salmon, on the other hand, is just that: salmon that has been smoked. It can come from anywhere on the salmon, not just the belly. After its curing process, the meat undergoes a smoking process that traditional lox does not. It can either be hot smoked or cold smoked, and each way gives the fish a different texture. Hot-smoked salmon is smoked in temperatures of about 145 degrees, which leaves its texture much firmer and even flaky. Cold-smoked salmon is more similar to lox -- it is smoked at 80 degrees and ends up with a lox-like texture.
This so-called distinction may leave some wondering if there is actually a difference and if that difference matters. Traditionalists would say that if the meat isn't from the belly of the salmon, it isn't actually lox. The additional smoking process after the curing may also leave some claiming that smoking salmon means the meat cannot be considered lox.
Aside from the classic favorite breakfast of lox, bagel, cream cheese and capers, there are plenty of other uses for lox in cuisine as well. It goes great with soft-boiled eggs in a breakfast bowl with kale, brown rice and mushrooms. It can top a tasty white wine and dill pasta dish. It even goes great with hummus, especially if you add a little dill and red onion. The options are limitless.