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Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today: a primer on cured meats.
Meat. Fat. Spice. Salt. Time.
Those five simple things are all it takes to make those fancy-sounding meats at the butcher, on a menu, at a dinner party -- the soppressata, the coppa, the proscuitto, the saussicon sec, all the other light-on-the-tongue words that make your eyes grow wide, your fingers twitch. The history of charcuterie -- a mélange of the French words for flesh (chair) and cooked (cuit) -- dates back to before humans even cooked food with heat, when they needed a method to save something now for later; a way to preserve.
Today, we call this method "curing": cooking with salt and time.
Cured meats -- the whole parts of an animal, and the ones ground with salt and spices -- are a part of the charcuterie family, a family of sausages, confits, pates, terrines, and other delightfully fatty, salty ways of preserving. While it may only take five real ingredients, the art of curing meats properly is difficult to master; curing rooms must be “seasoned” with the proper kind of (edible!) mold, like one seasons a cast iron pan.
Whether you buy your cured meats or make them at home, they're best served sliced and on a board with bread, cheese, mustards, or pickles.
Then, eat them all with your hands: an homage to those earliest humans that brought you the art of the cure.
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Call it proscuitto, call it jambon cru, call it jamòn; we're talking about the whole back leg of a mature hog (read: a giant cut of meat). These legs are packed in salt and layered on top of each other to press the water out, usually for one day per pound; the salt reduces the chance of spoilage and concentrates the ham’s flavor. After being salted, the hams are aged (read: hung out to dry). The more fat in the leg, the longer it can be aged; the best hams are aged for over a year.
So what differentiates jamòn iberico from Proscuitto di Parma, a Smithfield Ham from a Benton’s Country Ham? Diet and location. The diet of the pig is the biggest factor in its flavor; Iberian hams, for instance, roam free in oak forests and feast on acorns. Some people also believe that the air of a region imparts flavor into a ham.
Like their ham counterparts, cured sausages use salt and time to their advantage; a mixture of around 70% meat and 30% fat is ground, seasoned, stuffed into casings, and hung to dry. Seasonings can range from simple black pepper to red wine, cinnamon to orange zest -- the possibilities are endless. Unlike a typical hot dog or bratwurst, cured sausages are rarely emulsified. Instead, you can differentiate between the fat and the meat once it’s sliced and plated.
Here are some factors that differentiate cured sausages:
Size of the grind: While the major components of sausages are the same -- meat and fat -- the way that they're worked into the casing together is determined by the size of the grind. The coarser the grind, the larger the chunks. Some charcutieres grind their meat and fat together, while some grind the fat separately to keep the chunks larger; soppressata, for instance, has larger chunks of fat than a typical Tuscan salami.
Spices: Sausages can be sweet, spicy, garlicky, porky; like any kind of cooking, spice is key to a sausage's flavor. A Spanish chorizo, for instance, is always flavored with smoked Spanish paprika; a sausage from Tuscany, however, is often spiced with fennel seeds. Some sausages, like a French saucisson sec, keep the spices to a minimum -- so that the porkiness of the meat can shine.
Age: Like a ham, the age of a sausage is key to determining its flavor, its depth, its funkiness. Most sausages are cured once they're stuffed into casings; coppa, however, is made from chunks of pork that are cured before they're stuffed. The thinner the sausage, the shorter the amount of time needed for it to get "ripe." Fresh sausages are also great, too -- just make sure to cook them before you eat them!
What are your favorite types of cured meats, and how do you serve them?
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