Salumi 101: Your Guide to Italy's Finest Cured Meats

Salumi refers to Italy's vast array of cured meats. But what exactly are they, and how do they taste? Get to know your salami, prosciutto, 'nduja, and more.

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Photographs: Vicky Wasik

I have a little food dance I like to do when the mood strikes. It goes like this: I scrunch my face and wiggle my butt while pumping my fists up and down like pistons. I call it "the ham dance," but pretty much any fancy sliced meat will get me going. And I've been doing it a lot lately, thanks to the tower of salumi—the umbrella term for a vast realm of prepared Italian meats—that I've been collecting as I write and research this story. Every few minutes, I gingerly peel open a package and bury my nose in it, take a bite or two, type out a few notes on my laptop, and do my little dance.

I've been dancing to salumi for as long as I can remember. Deeply savory, tantalizingly aromatic, often fatty and rich, salumi are a testament to the unstudied opulence of Italy's so-called peasant foods. They are, at turns, funky, fiery, delicate, bold, smoky, tangy, and sweet. And each salume (that's the singular for you) speaks to a unique collision of geography and tradition, a centuries-long history of human innovation.

My only problem? From sweetly hammy and smooth mortadella to spicy, spreadable 'nduja to lean and beefy bresaola, salumi come in so many forms that it can be a struggle to answer one basic question: What, exactly, are they?

Certainly salumi refers to meats prepared in an Italian fashion—not to be confused with other European traditions, like French charcuterie or German delikatessen. And we can safely say that, like most pre-industrial modes of food preservation, salumi-making was born first and foremost out of necessity, as a way to extend the shelf life of precious nutritional resources.

But beyond those qualifiers, rules—and their exceptions—abound. Many experts limit their definition of salumi to cured meats, while others include cooked items, served either hot or cold. Some talk exclusively about pork, while neglecting the myriad domesticated and wild game animals that continue to make their way onto the plate. Still others consider salumi an evolving tradition, identified more by whether it appears on platters and panini than by its actual physical or culinary traits.

My personal definition includes any seasoned Italian meat product that's sold ready to eat and traditionally served in slices. (In other words, I won't be diving into salsicce, the fresh sausages you'd cook at home on the stovetop or grill.) And, though there are many potential caveats, I divide the canon into two roughly delineated groups: salami, or processed meats stuffed in a casing, and whole-muscle cuts, which have been seasoned and either cooked, smoked, or cured. You're welcome to stick with my criteria, but the very best advice I can give you is to eat your way through these classics and come up with a definition—and maybe even a dance—of your own.

The Salami Family

They may sound awfully similar to one another, but salami is not the same thing as salumi. Or, in the words of veteran specialty-meats purveyor Aaron Foster, "A salame is a salume, but a salume is not necessarily a salame." Even so, this subset of the salumi family encompasses a tremendous array of products—anywhere from 300 to upwards of 600 different types, depending on whom you ask.

American shoppers are likely most familiar with the sausage-style dry-cured, or hard, salami—the porky, oblong soppressata of southern Italy, the charmingly diminutive cacciatorini once favored by hunters, Tuscany's fennel-scented finocchiona, even "pepperoni"—though, in Italy, an order of peperoni will get you sweet peppers, not the salame piccante you're probably after. These hard, fat-marbled salami are often made with pork, but everything from beef to cinghiale (wild boar) to goose, donkey, goat, and horse has found its way into the mix at one point or another.

Across the board, these meat fillings are chopped or ground, at times very finely, and often enhanced with additional fat. The mixture is then salted; seasoned with spices, herbs, or aromatics; and occasionally splashed with wine. Finally, it's stuffed into casings—traditionally made from natural animal membranes, like intestines and bladders—and hung to cure, ferment, and dry.

This controlled curing and drying of the meat prevents spoilage while simultaneously improving texture and taste. "When meat is dry-cured, it loses 30 percent of its weight in water; like a stock reduced by one-third, meat reduced by a third is rich, dense, and intensely flavorful," write Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn in Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing. But salting and drying meat does more than just coax out moisture and concentrate flavor: "It also dehydrates the microbes that cause decay and spoilage and other potentially hazardous bacteria, killing them or inhibiting their ability to multiply," Ruhlman and Polcyn add. Crucially, though, curing also allows good bacteria and mold to survive—those that protect the meat and deepen its characteristic fermented flavor. In fact, by the time it's ready to eat, you could say your salame is alive, the site of a thriving ecosystem of microorganisms that simultaneously prevent harmful bacterial growth and lend distinctiveness and funk to each bite.

Of course, not all salami are dry-cured and hard—there's also a realm of cooked salami (hello, bologna!), not to mention soft varieties like 'nduja and semi-hard products that fall somewhere in between. In the vast majority of cases, you'll probably want to remove the membranous casing beforehand, even if it's natural. "Casings form a membrane that allows the meat to ferment and dry at the right pace," Foster explains, "and it collects mold, which helps the curing process. But I find that even natural casings often taste musty and stringy." Simply run a sharp knife along the salame and strip off the casing before serving—no stabbing or wrestling required. The major exception to this rule is spice-encrusted sausages, which are almost universally intended to be eaten with the membrane (and spices) intact. Foster's rule of thumb? "Go with your gut: If it looks like you'd want to eat the rind or casing, go for it. If you like it, it's more salami for you." Once your salame is sliced, you'll want to let it sit out for a bit—you'll perceive the flavor better when it's served at a warmer temperature, but if it gets too warm (say, 68 to 70°F), you risk letting all those delicious pockets of fat break down and dissolve.

Mortadella

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Given its similarities to bologna, it's no surprise that most food historians trace mortadella's origins to the north-central Italian city. But you can find variations aplenty across Italy, distinguished by custom spice blends or additions like pistachio nuts. In all cases, unlike the hard, air-dried salami we're accustomed to seeing on salumi platters, mortadella is a mildly cured, cooked product.

The pork, pale pink and studded with cubes of fatback, has a remarkably smooth, almost creamy texture and a hammy flavor inflected with pepper and spices like myrtle and coriander. That smoothness is thanks to an extraordinarily fine, emulsified grind—historically done with a mortar and pestle—that was originally intended to make tough or stringy meat from older animals more palatable. "In fact, you could say mortadella is the original peasant salumi," says Lou Di Palo, owner of Little Italy's acclaimed Italian food shop Di Palo's Fine Foods. These days, though, you're looking at much higher-quality pork, infused with tradition. Enjoy it thinly sliced on its own, tuck it into a sandwich, or try it stirred into scrambled eggs.

'Nduja

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Say it with me: "en-DOO-ya." Then, go buy some—this spreadable Calabrian pork salame has experienced a surge of stateside popularity for a reason. Hot and peppery, laced with garlic and citrus, it's an incredibly bold, dynamic way to eat meat. Typically a finely ground blend of pork parts, including shoulder, belly, jowls, and offal, 'nduja has a smooth, almost saucy texture that's best enjoyed at room temperature. Foster recommends smearing it on bread or treating it like a ready-made pasta topping, but I'll admit to eating it with a spoon when the mood strikes.

Whole-Muscle Salumi, Explained

If salami is one major branch of salumi, whole-muscle cuts are the other. But don't be fooled by the word "muscle"—there's plenty of delicious fat to be found on most of these products. As with all salumi, a single cut of meat can take on drastically different forms and flavors depending on where in Italy it's made. And, while most whole-muscle salumi are dry-cured with salt, often in conjunction with sugars, spices, aromatics, or wine, it may surprise you to learn just how many are also commonly served cooked. Others, like pancetta and guanciale, are so fatty or mildly cured that, though they can be eaten as is, most consumers prefer to use them for cooking. "Anything that's called salumi can be eaten raw," says Foster, "but that doesn't mean we necessarily want to—certain meats have become integral parts of recipes, and tend to be thought of as culinary cured meats, or culinary salumi, versus what we might call eating or snacking salumi."

When you're shopping for whole-muscle salumi, Di Palo recommends seeking out a shop that slices your meat to order and, ideally, does a brisk enough business to guarantee regular turnover. Unlike the hardier salami, many whole-muscle salumi have a short shelf life once they're sliced, so we advise taking home only a supply that'll last you a few days. As for the thickness of those slices: "It's a very personal question," says Foster. "I prefer a little tooth to my charcuterie and salumi—you don't want it to string out or get caught in your teeth or be difficult to chew or swallow. It should be thin and diaphanous, but not so thin that it shreds and tears." If you're not quite sure what to ask for, just request a sample slice at the outset—if it makes you happy, that's all that matters. Once home, you can enjoy any of these cuts thinly sliced on their own, cooked into stews and braises, or slapped onto sandwiches or salads.

Prosciutto

For most Americans, prosciutto conjures an image of whisper-thin slices of cured pork leg. But in Italy, the term actually encompasses a wide range of hams, all classified as salumi. Most notable is prosciutto cotto, or cooked ham, which is often generously seasoned before it's roasted, boiled, or smoked. In other words, it's quite similar to American, or deli-style, hams, though Di Palo notes that "it's on the lighter side, almost white, and usually made with an entire leg." "Prosciutto" can also refer to other cuts from the leg, like culatello, another Parma specialty that's made from the boneless muscle mass in the rear leg of the pig, which is prized for its more concentrated flavor and tender texture.

Both whole-leg prosciutto and sub-cuts like culatello also come cured and uncooked, sold as crudo. Technically, this translates to "raw," but these meats have been cured for a year or longer, at which point there's nothing raw about their texture or flavor. The prosciutto crudo in most stateside supermarkets is modeled after prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto di San Daniele, both of which refer to whole, bone-in leg of pork that's been cured and seasoned with nothing but salt. Elsewhere in Italy, though, seasonings like garlic, rosemary, juniper berries, and carefully guarded spice blends are often introduced into the curing process as well. The hams are almost universally hung in cellars to mature and dry, for a tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture and a sweet, faintly funky flavor that balances out the salty cure.

Speck

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In Germany, speck is a rich delikatessen specialty made from pork fatback or belly. But Italian speck actually falls under the prosciutto umbrella—a cut from the pig's hind leg that's been salt-cured; seasoned with spices like peppercorns, juniper berries, and rosemary; and smoked before it hangs to dry for several months. The result is a mildly smoky product with a pleasantly sweet, spiced flavor and a texture and fat line more comparable to that of prosciutto crudo. Eat it raw to fully revel in the nuance or take a cue from Di Palo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy and try it "sliced thin into almost any kind of pasta, added to omelets and quiches, on top of pizza, served with greens and shavings of cheese drizzled with a little olive oil, or tossed in warm vegetable salads."

Coppa

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With its vivid red color and heavy marbling, coppa (also known as capicola in the US or capocollo in southern Italy) is a sight to behold. Each province treats the meat differently, but the cut—from the back of the neck and top shoulder of the pig—remains more or less consistent. It's typically sold in the US in "hot" or "sweet" varieties, but in Italy, variations extend to more precise seasoning blends—nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves in Piacenza; little more than salt in Parma; a rub of fiery chili in Calabria; and so forth. Many recipes incorporate wine, garlic, herbs, and spices in varying quantities before the meat is sealed in a natural casing for a roughly six-month cure. With the smooth, gossamer texture of prosciutto, but a more substantially fatty mouthfeel and seasoned flavor, it provides a welcome counterpoint to the more delicately flavored components on your typical salumi platter.

Pancetta

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Often hailed as the Italian bacon, pancetta is a cured cut of pork belly common throughout Italy. Typically rolled into a cylinder and tied with twine as it cures, pancetta has a pronounced salty flavor, often complemented with pepper or other spices, and offers a generous fat-to-meat ratio. Thinly sliced, it makes an excellent cold cut, though it's frequently treated as a culinary meat—thick slices or cubes can be rendered in a pan to yield a porky, salty base for pasta sauces, braises, or sautéed vegetables. Use it where you would bacon, but I recommend taking a nibble first to gauge the salt level, which can vary from one producer to the next.

Guanciale

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Like pancetta, guanciale is commonly used for cooking. The rich and tender pig jowls are cured with salt, but producers often add pepper, bay, and juniper to the mix as well. With its high fat content, it renders easily and adds excellent, but not overpowering, flavor to countless cooked preparations—many consider it a crucial element of carbonara and amatriciana sauces. Though some Italians enjoy it raw, Di Palo suggests doing so only at your own risk. Besides, he says, "guanciale is the best cooking fat. It stays crispy, but doesn't get too hard." He prefers a rolled guanciale, which has a tendency to stay moister, but you can also find flat preparations that will produce drier, chewier meat when cooked.

Lardo

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Given that lardo is literally lard—that is, spiced and cured pork fatback—your first inclination might be to cook with it. Don't. This smooth, meltingly tender cut is delicious (if artery-clogging) plucked straight from the plate. The buttery, slightly tangy flavor is complemented by a spice rub that recalls American-style barbecue; Di Palo recommends serving it thinly sliced on fried dough or a toasted piece of crusty bread, where it will warm until translucent.

Bresaola

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The vast majority of Italian salumi are made with pork, but beef is the star in this cured whole-muscle cut from the leg or round. The lean, ruby-red meat has a somewhat floral aroma, salty but not so much that it overpowers a pronounced jerky-like beef flavor. It has a great deal in common with Swiss Bündnerfleisch—no surprise, given that bresaola (breh-ZOW-la) hails from the Valtellina valley, just a stone's throw from the Swiss border. In both countries, the beef is cured in a mixture of salt and pepper and then hung to dry for several months; some purveyors also lightly smoke the product to complete the maturation process.

Serve it thinly sliced, either on its own or condita (seasoned). I like it on a bed of arugula, dressed in lemon juice, olive oil, a shower of freshly ground pepper, and perhaps some flakes of a hard cheese, like Parmesan or Pecorino Romano. Or, for a change of pace, drizzle it with olive oil and raw egg yolk, followed by pepper, oregano, and lemon juice.