A Guide to 'Nduja: Italy's Funky, Spicy, Spreadable Salume

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I can almost taste the salty, spicy-sweet bite of 'nduja now, as I write this. Try it once, and the flavor of this buttery, spreadable salume is forever committed to memory. Because it is so soft and practically melts when warm, it’s possible you’ve enjoyed 'nduja in dishes before, without being able to pinpoint exactly where that ever-so-slightly funky, meaty taste was coming from. Of late, 'nduja—pronounced en-DOO-ya—has become quite popular in American restaurants, dolloped onto pizzas, spread on crusty bread, and mixed into pasta sauces, where its fiery red hue blends imperceptibly with that of tomatoes and fresh peppers.

'Nduja's rise in popularity has also made it easier to procure. Ten years ago, you had to "know a guy" in order to get your hands on it in the States, or smuggle some back with you from a trip to Italy. These days, you can find 'nduja in plenty of specialty food shops, so you and no longer need to break any international laws or dine at a fancy restaurant to enjoy it. That’s a good thing because there are so many delicious ways to incorporate this unique Italian salume into your day-to-day cooking. Whether you need to get better acquainted with 'nduja or would like some ideas for putting it to use in the kitchen, we've put together this guide that covers everything you should know about this Italian specialty that has the power to change the way you cook—seriously.

What Is 'Nduja?

A pizza with 'nduja baked in the Breville oven.

'Nduja is a soft, spreadable fermented pork salume, spiked with fiery Calabrian chilies. It originated in Spilinga, a Calabrian municipality with a population in the low thousands. The name 'nduja might seem similar to the French andouille, and that’s likely because of the influence of the Angevins, who ruled over Calabria in the 13th century—though there are plenty of other theories about where it got its name. The sausage itself also bears many similarities to Spanish sobrasada, with possible influence coming from the Aragonese, who later controlled the region as well.

While its full origin story remains a bit of a mystery, we do know that ‘nudja was born out of poverty and necessity—a cured pork product for those with limited resources. Poor farmers who raised and butchered pigs would sell the most expensive prime cuts of pork to royal and upper-class families who could afford them. What the farmers were left with was a mixture of offal, excess fat, and meat trim left over from the butchering process. On their own, these scraps (known in other parts of Italy as the "quinto quarto," or "fifth quarter," in reference to the four primal cuts on an animal) weren't a delicacy on their own, but they could be transformed into something delicious (and resistant to spoilage) when blended together, seasoned assertively, stuffed into a casing, and cured for a long period of time.

Cross-section of a sliced 'nduja.

The cross-section of a halved 'nduja.

In those days, in addition to fatty cuts of pork from the belly and back, 'nduja also contained organ meat such as lungs, which would otherwise have gone to waste. Though modern 'nduja-makers might include other ingredients, at its simplest 'nduja contains little more than ground pork, salt, and a mouth-numbingly spicy dose of Calabrian chilies, which gives the salume its signature red glow.

How Is 'Nduja Made?

To learn more about the ins and outs of making really good 'nduja, I got in touch with the good people at Tempesta Artisan Salumi, a family-owned, Chicago-based producer that has been making the spreadable salume for five generations, originally in Calabria, before emigrating to the American Midwest in 1970. Matt Reilly, the company's national sales director, started by explaining that 'nduja's special spreadable texture comes from its meat-to-fat makeup. Dry-cured salumi, like soppressata, typically contain a ratio of roughly three parts lean muscle to one part fat. 'Nduja inverts that ratio: Its composition is three parts fat for every one part lean muscle.

“We're using jowl. We're using the belly, the top of the shoulder. And then sometimes there's going to be leg in there,” Reilly told me. “Calabrians actually do grind the leg more often than other areas of Italy because they don't generally make prosciutto,” he adds. Prosciutto-curing requires cool temperatures and a humid environment, making its production better suited to more northern regions of Italy, like Reggio Emilia. Calabria's hot and arid environment requires a different approach to cured pork.

Hanging

To make 'nduja, fatty ground pork is mixed with varying amounts of ground Calabrian chilies (roughly 30% of the total weight of the sausage) along with salt. In the most traditional Italian preparations, the mixture is stuffed into a hog middle cap—a durable portion of a pig’s large intestine, known as an orba. 'Nduja cased in orba can weigh upwards of seven pounds—more sausage than most people like to keep in their fridge at home. For that reason, 'nduja packaged for retail sale in the States is usually stuffed into smaller collagen casings.

After being cased, the salumi are then fermented in a warm, climate-controlled chamber, where they begin to take on the slightly sour flavor that distinguishes 'nduja from most other Italian salumi. “The time could be as short as maybe 12 hours. It could be as long as 36 hours,” says Reilly. “But essentially, it's somewhere around 24 hours for the acid to get up to the point it needs to, which is the most important because that's what makes ['nduja] shelf-stable.” Once the 'nduja is done fermenting, the salumi is moved to a cooler chamber, where it’s hung to age for a longer period.

Traditionally, long before science offered clear guidelines on how to ensure a product remains shelf-stable, 'nduja was smoked to ward off spoilage. What was once a matter of life or death (literally) is now more a matter of flavor preference. If 'nduja is being smoked, the stuffed salumi go through that process after being fermented but before they're hung to age. You’ll find some 'nduja that has been heavily smoked, while others, like the ones made by Tempesta, aren't smoked at all.

Large and small 'nduja together, on white background.

On the left, a small, commercially available Tempesta 'nduja. On the right, an enormous orba hung to age for much longer.

During the aging process, as the flavor of the sausage begins to deepen, 'nduja professionals, like those at Tempesta, closely monitor the water content of the hanging salumi. A large orba-cased 'nduja can age as long as seven months, until the water activity is low enough, and acidity high enough, that the 'nduja is shelf-stable and doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Smaller 'nduja aged in commercial casings will typically be ready in four to six weeks.

While most other salumi will continue to firm up the longer they are hung, 'nduja stays soft and pliable even after months of hanging. Because of its extremely high fat content, and the way the Calabrian chilies soften and break down pork fat, these hung salumi will never become firm or sliceable at room temperature. Instead, you’re left with a wonderfully spreadable salume, with a funk and flavor that is different from most dry-cured, sliceable salami.

Because of its high fat content, 'nduja remains spreadable even after hanging to age for weeks or months. On the left, a smaller 'nduja, aged for less time, remains a brighter red. The orba 'nduja on the right ages longer, becoming a deeper red.

While curing time doesn't change the texture of 'nduja as drastically as other cured sausages, it does have an impact on its flavor and appearance. 'Nduja that is hung for just a few weeks will be a more vibrant paprika-like orange-red than a longer-aged 'nduja, which has a more subdued, brick-red hue. Those color differences are also reflected in terms of flavor: The younger sausage is brighter, with an acidic, chili-forward bite, while longer-aged 'nduja has a mellower heat and sourness, which allows the nuanced flavors of the pork and smoke to shine through. Regardless, both versions are delicious.

Where to Buy 'Nduja, and How to Choose the Good Stuff

Stirring 'nduja into a pan of white onions.

Some Italian products and dishes—certified Pizza Napoletana, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Prosciutto di Parma, just to name a few—are protected by governing bodies that ensure they are made to certain standards, oftentimes only in the regions where they originated. The same is not true for 'nduja, though it's steeped in history and brings great pride to those who still make it. “The name ['nduja] has no protection. There's no standard for identity in America—there isn't one in Italy, either,” says Reilly. This means you’ll have to do a little bit of detective work when you’re searching for a good 'nduja. Some companies will make their “'nduja” by grinding trim and scraps from other salumi, such as prosciutto—which has its own signature dry-cured texture and flavor that is entirely different from that of 'nduja—along with more fat, and stuffing the mixture into casings. These products don't come close to the flavor of 'nduja made following traditional methods.

So how can you spot the difference between imitation versions and real-deal 'nduja? Start by looking at the ingredient list. The good stuff won’t have more than three or four ingredients: pork, salt, Calabrian chilies, and in America, often lactic acid (an ingredient required by the FDA for fermented sausages; it lowers pH levels and inhibits spoilage and the growth of potentially harmful bacteria). “We don't even add any nitrates," says Reilly of the Tempesta 'nduja. “We don't need to. It's already shelf-stable without us having to protect it with additional nitrates.... If you were in Italy—specifically Spilinga, you wouldn't see the lactic acid either. It would really just be the three ingredients.”

When it comes to purchasing 'nduja, you can buy it online, directly from a purveyor like Tempesta, or you can often find it at well-stocked shops that carry cured meats and cheeses, high-end grocery stores, or Italian food markets like Eataly.

How to Cook With 'Nduja

A ramekin of 'nduja mayonnaise.

Asking how to use 'nduja is a lot like asking how to use chili crisp or XO sauce. The answer is that you can—and probably should—be incorporating this stuff into almost everything you cook. Because of its texture, and its tendency to essentially dissolve when it comes into contact with heat, 'nduja is uniquely easy to mix into dishes both at the beginning and end of cooking. We always have 'nduja in our test kitchen fridge, but Sasha makes sure to always have some on hand at home, too. "It’s a great ingredient to keep in your fridge," he says. "I use it all the time for weeknight meals because it keeps forever, and it has such great depth of flavor. Its unique soft and spreadable texture allows it to meld into dishes really nicely—whether that’s stirring it into a quick tomato sauce for pasta or folding into mayonnaise for weekend breakfast sandwiches. It’s really versatile.”

The simplest way to enjoy 'nduja is spread on toasted, crusty bread—a preparation we’ll never turn down. But if you have a little more time and patience, consider cooking with it. One of our favorite ways to use 'nduja is in Sasha’s easy, weeknight-ready white bean and kale stew, where the fatty, spicy 'nduja bumps up the earthiness brought by the lightly wilted greens and cuts through the creaminess of the beans. In this stew, and in so many other dishes, too, 'nduja amps up meaty, savory flavor, without requiring the addition of too much meat. "I don’t end up cooking a ton of meat during the week because it’s more of a hassle, with a steeper grocery bill, and usually there's extra cleanup after cooking" Sasha adds. "Using 'nduja is a great way to do more vegetable-forward cooking. I use it the same way I would use XO Sauce, where you get that richness and meatiness, without having to use a lot of it. Unlike XO sauce, it’s something you can buy, and you don’t have to think ahead and spend time making it in advance.”

Closeup overhead of a bowl of white bean and kale stew with 'nduja.

Some recipes call for adding 'nduja to a hot pot or pan up front, where the meat and fat in the sausage “break,” with the oil and protein separating as heat breaks the emulsion. This method tames much of the 'nduja’s funkiness and blooms the Calabrian chili in the sausage's own fat. This infuses an entire dish with the rich, deep flavor of pork and chili. But if you’re looking for the tart, fermented flavor that raw 'nduja brings, you’ll want to fold it into a dish at the last minute.

Throughout the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing many more 'nduja-focused recipes and updating this post as they come.

The Best Way to Store 'Nduja

We keep quite a lot of 'nduja at the ready in our test kitchen fridges because it pairs perfectly with so many dishes and because it virtually never goes bad. We can freeze it in pre-portioned slices for long-term storage (more for space-saving reasons than for spoilage concerns—fridge space is always in high demand for dry-aging ducks and whatnot) and defrost it as needed. Though this might be seen as sacrilegious by some, 'nduja’s extremely high fat content means it stands up quite well to this treatment. “Most people would be fine with freezing it,” Reilly says. “I'd just be a little more hesitant if I knew I was just going to be eating it as it is.” If you do plan to spread it on toast or eat it with a spoon (I’m not judging you), you might prefer to leave your 'nduja in the refrigerator, where it will continue to taste fresh for months. If you do go this route, just make sure to wrap the exposed side of the 'nduja tightly. Fat is more prone to absorbing surrounding flavor than lean protein, so don’t store your 'nduja next to a half-used onion unless you’re looking to infuse it with the flavors of your produce drawer.

After your 'nduja has sat in the fridge for days or weeks, you might also notice that the exposed surface has darkened several shades. “You'll notice it turns a kind of a brown color as opposed to that bright red color,” says Reilly. “I wouldn't feel like I was going to be hurt by that. Because it's already shelf-stable, there's nothing that can grow on it.” That said, the oxidized fat may take on a slightly unpleasant taste, so Reilly advises slicing off any bits that don’t look bright and fresh before continuing on.

Overhead of two serving bowls with steamed mussels and a side of charred bread.

Follow these guidelines, and you’ll always have a stash of salty, funky, buttery 'nduja on hand. Spread on bruschetta, it’ll save the day when you forget friends are coming over after work, and paired with steamed mussels, it gives even a quick 20-minute weeknight meal a luxurious vibe. And since 'nduja doesn’t need to be refrigerated before you slice into it, you might even want to keep an extra pound hidden away on a top shelf, just to be sure you never run out.