How-To & Diy

All About Cured Meats

November 15, 2012

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.

Salumi board

Meat. Fat. Spice. Salt. Time.

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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.

Jamon Iberico

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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.


Cured sausages

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?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • celia younger
    celia younger
  • angel
  • cucina di mammina
    cucina di mammina
  • Amy Farges
    Amy Farges
  • walkie74
Brette Warshaw

Written by: Brette Warshaw

I'm a reader, eater, culinary thrill-seeker, and food nerd.


celia Y. April 25, 2016
yam yam yam.... sooo good.. I miss them all.
angel April 25, 2016
that looks good!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
celia Y. March 18, 2015
jamon de bellota or Serrano (spanish ham) chorizo, salchichon and longaniza( similar to Italian soppressata & saucisson), lomo etc... all of these are the Spanish types ( and are not Mexican, puertorrican, cuban etc...) very similar to the Italian.
cucina D. March 26, 2014
My famiglia has made proscuitto, olive oil dry cured sausages and sopressata my whole life. Since moving to Florida I can no longer make these as the warm weather does not all it; I love to visit my relatives in upstate NY and Italia and fill my plate with all their homemade cured meats from their cantinas. Wonderful article, thanks for reminding me of my love for this incredible food.
Amy F. November 27, 2012
Just a note from our charcuterier, Charles Ventre. Transatlantic Foods produces artisanal charcuterie, which is different from industrial hams and sausages in many ways, beginning with the diet of the hogs and ending with the aging period. Industrial product is produced in a way to get it from factory to table, vite, con prisa, bistra! It is boiled with additives such as nitrates to speed things up. With artisanal sausage, the raw ingredients (no artificial additives, ever!) are stuffed into natural casing (unless there are no intestines that are the right fit for a particular variety), and hung to dry. Period. Please look us up under the brand names Aux Délices des Bois and (Whole Foods) Chestnut Valley Charcuterie. Thanks for letting us share!
walkie74 November 15, 2012
...aaand now I'm hungry...dangit...