Whether you’re entertaining or just looking for a snack, cured meats make for an easy, elegant option. Sometimes called “charcuterie” or “salumi,” this class of foods was the ingenious human response to the problem of spoilage before modern refrigeration — if you added salt to your meat and then let it rest in the right environment, time would coax flavor out of it, rather than turning it into something dangerous.
While there are hundreds of styles, each with its own story, most cured meat products fall into one of two categories: whole muscle or salami. Whole muscle meats are just that — a leg, a cheek, a shoulder, or any other muscle group cured with salt and occasionally some herbs or spices. Salami, meanwhile, is cured meat that has been ground, usually with the addition of herbs, spices, or additional fat, then stuffed into a casing and cured.
But not all salumi is salami: The French use the term charcuterie to signify the class of cold cured, smoked, and cooked meats, and the Italians use “salumi” to mean the same. Salami is a product within the salumi category.
It’s always worth trying to find cured meat from its European birthplace, but there are also some excellent American producers, including La Quercia, Olympia Provisions, Olli Salumeria, Creminelli Fine Meats, Brooklyn Cured, and Trois Petits Cochons.
Read on for six of the most popular types of salumi, plus what to drink with each.
Technically, “prosciutto” just means “ham” in Italian. What we think of as “prosciutto” in the U.S. is “prosciutto crudo” or cured ham, as opposed to “prosciutto cotto” or cooked ham.
Prosciutto from Italy has many regional variations, including Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto Toscano, and comes from the thigh or leg of a pig. Many of these prosciuttos are covered by a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), meaning they must come from a certain place and have been cured a certain way in order to be called by that name. Salt and time are typically the only ingredients, plus some special help from the cold, dry environment in which the ham cures.
Drink: A dry Lambrusco or Italian table wine — red or white.
Jamón Ibérico, or “Iberian ham” is a Spanish or Portuguese ham, traditionally from the hind leg of the black Iberian pig or “pata negra.” The most famous (and expensive) version of Spain’s cured hams is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, made from free-roaming, black-footed Iberian pigs who glutted themselves on acorns (bellota).
For cured Spanish ham that’s not $100-plus per pound, opt for Jamón Serrano, which is usually from the leaner Duroc or Landrace pig breeds. That said, springing for Ibérico is an incredible treat.
Drink: Dry fino sherry, which hails from Spain, is the traditional — and perfect — pairing.
Bresaola’s birthplace is Valtellina in the Italian alps. Usually made with beef, but occasionally horse or venison, Bresaola is made with top round and is leaner than many other whole muscle cured meats. Before air-drying, Bresaola is rubbed with a spice blend that usually includes black pepper, juniper, and cloves. True imported Bresaola wasn’t available in the U.S. until 2000, though there are many producers in the U.S. making their own beef-only version of it. For the authentic stuff, look for “Bresaola della Valtellina.”
This Spanish-style salami typically consists of ground pork, sweet and/or smoked paprika or “pimenton,” and garlic. There are hundreds of regional variations, though, which can incorporate other herbs and may be smoked. This is not, by the way, the same thing as Mexican chorizo, which is raw ground pork flavored with vinegar and chili peppers.
A couple noteworthy variations include Chorizo Riojano, which includes both sweet and smoked paprika, and Chorizo Ibérico, made from the same black pig as Jamón Ibérico, though usually much more affordable.
This traditional French salami (or saucisson) is flavored simply with garlic and black pepper. If you walk into a French charcuterie shop and ask for a salami, this is what you’ll get — a version with rich porky flavor with a bit of spicing. Each region of France has a variation on a saucisson — in Arles, it’s Saucisson d’Arles with pork and salt, in Alsace, they make Saucisson d’Alsace with clove, nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon.
Drink: Côtes du Rhône or any red French regional wine.
Finocchiona is a typical salami from Italy’s Tuscany region and flavored with fennel (finocchio in Italian). Made here since the Middle Ages, it originates from a time when black pepper was expensive and wild fennel grew throughout the countryside. Thus, the fennel was used as a flavoring.
Drink: Chianti or another Sangiovese-based Italian red wine. These wines are often added to flavor Finocchionas.