Italian Cured Meats: How the Sausage Gets Made

We’ve all seen meat counters stacked with cured meats, sausages, and salumi tied with string. It’s amazing to think that the wide array of Italian cured meats is all made with the three ingredients of meat, salt, and time. Every region has its own recipes and styles of Italian cured meat. From the delicate, melt-in-your-mouth guanciale to the mysteries encased in a fermented salami, let’s take a look at some Italian cured meats, how they’re made, and how to best enjoy them!

 

Prosciutto & Culatello

Truly Italian excellence, prosciutto crudo and the smaller culatello are made from the cured hind legs of adult pigs. Both coming from the Emilia Romagna region. Prosciutto is sometimes smoked and seasoned heavily, but the more traditional ones are seasoned only with salt and carry sweet and nutty notes.

The gold standard is Prosciutto di Parma, which is made according to strict legal guidelines to control quality. The entire process of salting, curing, and aging can take anywhere from 18 to 40 months. The long time is worth it though when you have a bite of perfectly made prosciutto.

Culatello takes less time–about 12-16 months–to make since the cut of meat is smaller. Culatello is made from the best filet hand cut from the thigh and encased in a pig’s bladder before salted, cured, and aged.

prosciutto on a plate

Serving suggestions for prosciutto and culatello

Prosciutto can be eaten on its own and is often used as an ingredient in other dishes like sandwiches, pizzas, or wrapped around melon for a delicious summertime appetizer. Culatello is so prized and sweet in flavour that it is served on its own with bread or fried dough, paired with a dry sparkling wine such as lambrusco.

 

Pancetta & Guanciale

Similar to American bacon, pancetta is the salty, juicy marbled pork fat from the belly of the pig. Guanciale is another fatty and marbled cured pork product, but it comes from the jowl.

To make pancetta the pork belly is well salted and seasoned in brine with other spices like black pepper, garlic, juniper, rosemary, and myrtle for 10-14 days. Then the pancetta is rolled into a tight spiral and encased before undergoing a short heat treatment for about one day, and then refrigerated to dry for 3-4 weeks.

Guanciale is cured for a longer time compared to pancetta, which deepens the flavour while also making it more delicate for that wonderful melt-in-your-mouth texture. To make guanciale, the jowl is rubbed with salt and spices and left to cure for about three weeks.

You can find these specialties in many different regions of Italy.

guanciale topping a plate of pasta

Serving suggestions for pancetta and guanciale

Pancetta and guanciale are most often used for cooking, but they can be eaten uncooked in small amounts. Guanciale is the primary ingredient in traditional dishes like pasta carbonara and amatriciana, but pancetta can be used also.

 

Capocollo

Also called “coppa,” capocollo is the dry-cured neck muscle of the pig. Sometimes considered a gourmet product, capocollo is more delicate in flavor with a fatty, tender texture.

To make capocollo, the whole meat cut is lightly seasoned often with red wine, garlic, and herbs and spices. The meat is then salted, stuffed into a natural casing, and hung for up to six months to cure.

Serving suggestions for capocollo

Capocollo is a wonderful addition to any charcuterie board, and it’s great in sandwiches like a muffaletta, a famous sandwich made with sesame bread.

 

Mortadella

Mortadella is the pale pink cooked cured pork product originating in Bologna, Emilia Romagna. The making of mortadella brings to mind the practice of using every part of the animal.

Meat, fat, and tripe are ground together with salt and spices to form a paste. The mixture is encased and baked at a low temperature until it’s fully cooked. Traditionally, mortadella is not smoked, but modern producers are experimenting with smoke, other meats like Chianina, and fillings like pistachio, olive, vin brule, and truffle for delicious new takes on a classic recipe.

Serving suggestions for mortadella

Mortadella is fully cooked so enjoy it plain and sliced very thinly. As sandwich meat, try quickly frying both sides so that it lays flat. Mortadella is also a great pizza topping!

Salami

Salami is a fermented and air-dried sausage, usually made from pork. Born from the tradition of never letting food go to waste, salami has been enjoyed as a rich and delicious protein source for centuries, perhaps even millennia.

Salami is made by coarsely grinding raw meat and mixing it with salt, sugar, spices, pepper, and yeast. The mixture is then inserted into casings, and hung in warm and humid conditions for 1-3 days to encourage the fermenting bacteria to grow. After this the salami are moved to a cooler environment to continue fermenting, imparting the typical tangy flavours we enjoy. Finally, the salami is dried so that the casing can harden and become more or less airtight, further protecting and preserving the meat inside.

 

Serving suggestions for salami

You simply must have a classic, smoked, or spicy salami as a part of your charcuterie board. Salami pairs very well with salty and creamy cheese like provola, and is great in sandwiches or as a pizza topping.

 

When enjoying slices of delicious Italian cured meats and cheese, we don’t always think about all the work that goes into making these products. We hope you learned something new and got a little hungry! Invite your friends over for charcuterie and try some of these Italian Delights!

 

Until next time,

Verity

 

[Cover photo by: Maeve Mugglebee]