Getting to Know: Cured Meats
Curing was invented as a method of preservation, but by happy accident, salt, sugar, smoke, and seasonings also work wonders on the taste and texture of meat. Today, refrigerators make preservation unnecessary, yet cured meats are more popular than ever.
Making prosciutto involves seasoning, curing, pressing, and air-drying a pork thigh for as long as two years. The process gives the hams an incredibly dense, silky texture and a delicate, “nutty” flavor. The Italians invented prosciutto—traditionally, it comes from Parma and San Daniele—but in a test kitchen taste-off, we voted for La Quercia Prosciutto Americano, a pricey artisanal brand made in . . . Iowa. Heat toughens prosciutto, so add it at the very end of cooking or eat it raw (with melon or cheese), sliced paper-thin.
The Spaniards call it jamón serrano, literally “mountain ham,” because the sheds where it’s hung to dry are at high elevations. “Woodsy” and “earthy,” serrano is also “super-porky,” with a “sharp subterranean aftertaste,” our tasters said. The best hams are firm yet very tender. Serve thin slices with aged cheese (Manchego is traditional) or ripe melon.
This lean smoked pork (usually sold presliced) resembles ham. Sweet and subtly smoky, “it tastes like un-bacon,” one taster noted. Our favorite brand is Applegate Farms. Since Canadian bacon is already cooked, just warm it through. We also like it brushed with barbecue sauce and grilled.
Country cured hams are dry-cured (ordinary hams are wet-cured) and originate in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Virginia. Smoked over hardwood and aged anywhere from 3 months to 2 years, these hams come cooked or uncooked, boned or bone-in, sliced or unsliced. Most are very salty and much drier than traditional ham and are served in small portions, sliced very thin. Harper’s, in Kentucky, produces our favorite brand.
Bacon is at home on a burger, wrapped around a date, or sprinkled over chowder. Most supermarket brands are sliced; our favorite is Farmland Thick Sliced Bacon. For less mess, “fry” bacon in the oven: Arrange slices on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. Lately, bacon has extended its reach even farther—showing up in chocolate bars, cookies, and ice cream.
While both pancetta and American bacon are made from the belly of the pig, pancetta is never smoked and is sweeter than bacon. They also look a little different as pancetta is often rolled into a log before being sliced. To substitute bacon for pancetta in dishes like spaghetti bolognese or risotto, blanch uncooked bacon in boiling water for two minutes to mellow some of its smokiness.
Made from the shoulder or neck of a pig, capicola is seasoned with wine, garlic, herbs, and spices before it’s cured and hung for several months. The process creates complex flavors that our tasters found “mustardy” and “cheesy.” Buy sweet or hot and try it in sandwiches or calzones. The boys in the TV series The Sopranos pronounced it “gabagool.” However you say it, it’s delicious.
American kids love it because it’s soft and mild, but while it’s kid-friendly, our tasters didn’t find it adult-friendly. They described this finely ground pork sausage as “spongy,” “wiggly,” and “overly processed.” Baloney, which is based on Italian mortadella, can be all pork, all beef, or a combination. Go ahead and spell it Bologna, if you’re feeling fancy.
Salamis are a huge family of cured, boldly seasoned sausages, pepperoni among them. “Peppery perfection,” one taster wrote after nibbling a sample. They’re also characterized by rich, fatty meat. Softer, larger salamis can be sliced at the deli like sandwich meat, while small, hard ones are usually sold whole.
Bresaola (brehsh-ay-OH-lah) comes from Lombardy, Italy, and its “clean, delicate” flavors put tasters in mind of flowers and honey. It’s too lean for cooking (it’s made from beef tenderloin or top round). Instead, enjoy bresaola the traditional Italian way: Drizzle paper-thin slices with olive oil and lemon juice, or pair with fruit and cheese.
Its name suggests its French origin, but we look for this spiced pork sausage in Louisiana—think gumbo and jambalaya. Andouille (an-DOO-wee) has an assertive garlicky flavor and coarse, “snappy” texture. It’s traditionally smoked over pecan wood and sugarcane. You don’t have to cook andouille, but in the test kitchen, we’ve found that sautéing enhances its flavor.
Trappers and cowboys have long prized jerky as a portable, high-protein snack with an almost indefinite shelf life. Originally, it was thinly sliced strips of beef left to dry in the sun. Now the meat may be ground and come from all sorts of animals—turkey, salmon, even ostrich. One taster likened its chewy texture to “beef chewing gum.”