A Guide to Italian Salami, Charcuterie and Cold Cuts

Italian salumi
Italian salumi. John Anthony Rizzo/Getty

Italian cold cuts are often made from pork: salami, prosciutto, salsiccia, ​finocchiona, pancetta, and so on, which are collectively referred to as  salumi. In the past, these were all made when hogs were butchered in late fall or early winter and set aside to guarantee a supply of meat during the warmer months when uncured meats would spoil rapidly. Since their names vary considerably from place to place within Italy, we'll begin by saying what these terms mean in Tuscany, which is where I live:

Salami

It's a large (3-4 inches across) sausage made with ground pork and cubes of fat, seasoned with garlic, salt, and spices, and stuffed into the pig's large intestine. It's smaller cousin is salamino, with a similar filling (the fat may be ground somewhat finer) but only 1-inch thick. The town of Felino, in Emilia Romagna, is famed for its salamino. Salamino piccante, spicy salamino, is made with enough red pepper to give it that familiar orange cast; in the US it's known as pepperoni.

Prosciutto

People have written books about Northern Italy's cured raw hams. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two categories, dolce (sweet), and salato, casalingo, or Toscano (salty, homemade, or Tuscan). The former is more refined and more expensive.

The most common varieties of prosciutto dolce are Parma and San Daniele. Both should have deep red meat and pure white fat. The former are rounded and rather stubby, while the latter are pressed to give them their characteristic "Stradivarian" shape (by women, according to the Consorzio -- men lack the necessary touch).

Prosciutto salato, on the other hand, is more heavily salted and is also rubbed with a spice mixture called agliata, made with garlic and pepper. The meat is frequently darker in color, and the fat can be pinkish.
Incidentally, in Italy, prosciutto crudo refers to raw, salt-cured ham. Cooked ham, which was introduced in the '60s, is called prosciutto cotto -- except on pizzeria menus, where it's simply prosciutto and the true prosciutto is called prosciutto crudo.

Salsiccia

Link sausage, made with ground pork, cubed pork fat, spices, and herbs. They are consumed in three different ways.
Raw when fresh, in a sandwich (they have to be very fresh, and one has to be a great fan of raw pork to eat them this way -- more of a fan than I usually am).
Cooked when fresh -- either as-is on the grill or with the casing removed, as an ingredient in other dishes (for example, try slipping a couple of skinned sausages into the cavity the next time you roast a whole chicken).
Thinly sliced, once they've aged for a couple of months. In this case, they're much like salami and can be a real treat.

Finocchiona

It is a variation on salami that supposedly owes its origins to a thief at a fair near the town of Prato, who stole a fresh salami and hid it in a stand of wild fennel. When he returned for it, he discovered it had absorbed the aromas of its hiding place and had become fit for the Gods. There are two kinds of finocchiona.

One is called finocchiona, and is made of finely ground pork and fat, laced with fennel, and aged for a while; it's fairly firm.

The other is called sbriciolona, a word that means crumbly, and though the mixture is the same, it's much fresher -- so fresh that it simply crumbles unless sliced about a half inch thick.

A good sbriciolona is an amazing treat, especially on a slice of schiacciata (A Tuscan flatbread similar to focaccia).

Pancetta

Also known as rigatino (little lined one) and carnesecca (dried meat), this is made from the same cut used to make bacon. However, it's not smoked (actually now it is available in two varieties: dolce [sweet] and affumicata [smoked]), and there's no sugar involved. Just garlic, salt, and spices, in particular, a liberal dose of freshly ground pepper. It's almost always used as an ingredient in other dishes, sometimes providing flavor, and other times taking a commanding role, for example, pasta alla carbonara or a rich pasta all'arrabbiata. Pancetta can also be sold rolled and tied, at which point it's called pancetta arrotolata.

Capocollo

Also known as coppa, this is cured shoulder butt.

Again raw, and prepared with salt, herbs, and spices.

Lardo

The word translates as lard, and that's what this is, thick fat with some thin streaks of red meat, cured with herbs, pepper, and salt. The best-known Italian lard is from a town called Colonnata, which is perched on a ridge between two marble quarries in the Apuans above Carrara. There it is aged in slabs of white Carrara marble.
Lardo can be used as a flavoring ingredient in other dishes (in small chunks, or thinly sliced and wrapped around the other cut of meat), but if it's very good, it's divine served as-is, sliced paper-thin and served on toasted bread. If your cholesterol count can take it, this is one of the finest antipasti there is.
Rendered lard that's used for cooking, as a grease, is called strutto.

Soppressata

In Tuscany, this is a sausage made primarily from leftover pork cuttings -- cartilage, snippets of meat, and so on, which are stuffed into the skin of the animal and cooked. Therefore, in appearance, it somewhat resembles a porchetta, the roast pork done whole over a spit. However, the taste is quite different and rather particular; people make sure their guests like it before offering it.

Trichinosis, you wonder? It's virtually unknown in Italy. The salt and the aging process, I've been told, takes care of the parasites. In terms of times, you should age your meats, except for sausage, for at least 40 days, and with many, for example, prosciutto, the seasoning times will be much longer. People commonly age their prosciutto for up to a year, either hanging them up in a cool well-ventilated place or under hardwood ash.

WHAT WILL YOU NEED TO MAKE COLD CUTS AT HOME?

  1. The meat, which should be top quality lean pork, if possible from an animal that was raised organically.
  2. Pork fat. Again, top quality and quite fresh.
  3. Garlic.
  4. Salt. I'd go with sea salt. In Italy, it's called Sale Marino and is sold in coarse and fine grinds. Non-marine salt will work so long as it's pure salt, without additives. The fine grind will likely be better in fillings; when you're salting a cut from the outside either will work though I might go with fine.
  1. How much salt? Norcini (experts in curing pork) I have talked to say to use 2.5-2.8% by weight when making salami or other cold cuts that should go into casings. So if you have 100 pounds of salami mix, you will need 2.5 pounds salt. For sausages that will be boiled, for example, cotechino, they increase the salt to about 3%, again by weight. Without boiling 3% would make the meat too salty, they say, while with less than 2% the meat can spoil.
  2. Spices, which can include whole peppercorns, nutmeg, fennel seeds, cinnamon, and cloves, depending on the recipes.
  3. A meat grinder. The crank-operated kind will work fine, though you will want a motorized grinder if you're working with larger volumes.
  4. Sausage casings. According to Cassandra Vivian, casings are sold packed in salt, and an open package will keep for a year or more so long as they're covered in salt. To use them, she says to rinse them well and soak them for 5 minutes.

    A word on the stuffing process: pack the stuffing down firmly. While you don't want to overpack and split a casing, you don't want any air spaces to remain either, because if an air pocket remains, it will be a site for spoilage.
  5. A pricker (what is called a pettinino in Tuscany -- a disk with many slender nails sticking up from it, used to puncture the casing after it's stuffed.

Recipes and Advice

Salame Toscano
Delicately aromatic, seasoned with garlic, salt, and a little spice.
Pancetta
An indispensable flavoring agent in a great many dishes.
Prosciutto Toscano
Tuscan cured ham is one of life's true delights.
Finocchiona
Similar to salami, but delightfully flavored with fennel.
La Salsiccia di Lucca
Classic Tuscan sausages.

Interesting info, a couple of good recipes, and health pointers too. From La Lama Family Secrets.

[Edited by Danette St. Onge on May 26, 2016.]