THE word “salumi” ( or its singular, “salume”) seems to be popping up more on restaurant menus, Instagram feeds, even at some deli counters. Maybe you‘ve been wondering what exactly salumi means, as opposed to salami, or charcuterie, or….?
A little 101 on the topic: Salumi is the category of high-quality cured meats that includes salami, prosciutto and others, many of them pork-based. The definition of salumi is subjective and evolving, and producers are stretching the old boundaries.
Traditionalists limit the definition of salumi to cured meats, made in Italy, while others are using the term to describe meats preserved in various ways — including cooked — and produced around the world.
Emilia-Romagna is the region of Italy most renowned for its salumi, prosciutto in particular, though cured meats are produced throughout the country.
Charcuterie is the famous French cousin of salumi — also a wide range of cured meats, also mostly made from pork.
Salumi was born out of necessity to preserve meat before there was refrigeration, and to use all parts of the pig. Now, there are many manufacturers of commercially packaged salumi available at supermarkets. (Some good, readily available brands include Olli, Gusto, Coro, Creminelli and Daniele.)
Across the U.S., producers and food business are ramping up their salumi games. Northern Waters Smokhaus in Duluth, Minnesota, is a destination for cured meat, featured in sandwiches, while in Pittsburgh, Salty Pork Bits makes cured meats that can be shipped nationwide.
“For a long time options for salumi in the U.S. were very limited,” says Cesare Casella, an Italian chef and expert in salumi. “Then they slowly started to import some products from Italy. Now, in maybe the past five or so years, many more producers are showing up — a lot more small producers showing up and experimenting.”
Many people don’t understand that salumi is a cured product, Casella adds.
“It is not ‘raw’ and you do not need to cook it. It’s cured, so just like pickles, the fermentation process makes it safe (and delicious) to eat,” he says.
The world of salumi is vast. Just a few of its greatest hits:
Salami is the type of salumi many of us are most familiar with. In America, it’s generally seen as firm-textured, dry-cured and sausage-style, sometimes made of beef, and sold either in a whole piece or sliced. It’s a huge category, with many types of salami available, and within each type many variations, influenced by region.
Salamis are mostly made with chopped or ground meat that has been salted and seasoned, stuffed into a casing, and hung to cure and dry. There are also cooked salamis and soft cured salmis. In many cases, you’ll want to remove the casing before eating salami.
Sopressata is a dry-cured pork salami that uses virtually all parts of the pig. Its shape is long and slightly flattened, and it’s usually got some kick from chili peppers, black pepper and other spices. It can be sliced thick or thin.
Mortadella is a pink, smooth, lightly cured and cooked salami made throughout Italy. It is flavored with different seasonings and sometimes includes pistachio nuts. It’s usually served in thin slices.
’Nduja (en-DOO-ya) hails from the Calabrian region of Italy, and is distinctive in that it is a spreadable meat, hot with peppers. It’s often served with a knife to be spread on bread as an appetizer or snack.
WHOLE MUSCLE SALUMI: INCLUDING PROSCIUTTO, SPECK, GUANCIALE
Many of these kinds of salumi are dry-cured with salt, seasonings and wine. They are made from the whole muscle of the animal, not ground or combined. This salumi is usually eaten thinly sliced and uncooked (but sometimes cooked), often as an ingredient in other dishes.
In the most perfect world, you would purchase these kinds of salumi sliced to order at a store with high turnover, but you can also find packages of them in the grocery store, often by the fine cheese section or near the deli counter.
The most familiar is probably prosciutto, a whole category unto itself. And the most common type of prosciutto is salt-rubbed whole pork leg, cured for at least 400 days in cool dark rooms. Prosciutto is usually sold in paper-thin slices and has a salty, funky flavor, a silky texture and a delicate toothsomeness.
Italian or Italian-style speck is somewhat similar to prosciutto but with a bit more oomph, seasoning and smokiness, and a bit denser. It can be eaten as is or used in recipes.
Pancetta is essentially the bacon of Italy, a cured version of pork belly that is often sold rolled into a cylinder, sometimes sliced and sometimes diced. It can be eaten as is, but is often sauteed and used in all kinds of dishes from braises to pasta sauces to salads.
Guanciale is made from the pig’s jowls, seasoned with bay leaves, pepper and juniper. It’s also usually sold rolled and then sliced, and is most famously used in pasta sauces like carbonara and amatriciana.
Coppa or capicola is from the top of the pig’s shoulder and is seasoned differently throughout Italy. It’s usually quite flavorful — often made with wine and bright red, smooth in texture, fatty in the best way.
The best way to start to get to know the wide world of salumi? Taste them!
If you have a good gourmet or Italian market near you, hit up the deli counter and ask to try some samples. Remember, you can buy a quarter of a pound of lots of different things. Keep salumi in the refrigerator but bring it to cool room temperature (in the 60°F range) for the best eating experience.
Casella thinks we should all be eating more salumi: “Every Italian household probably has a few types of salumi in the refrigerator that can be pulled out to make a quick meal.”
Sounds like a plan.