A Guide to Mortadella: The Gourmet Baloney Worth Your Time

mortadella Italian bologna

A Guide to Mortadella: The Gourmet Baloney Worth Your Time

Look, there’s no other way to cut it: Baloney sausage isn’t what comes to mind when talking about gourmet food. It just isn’t. Baloney sandwich is as cheap and accessible as a meat product gets (unless they’re having a special event or another at McDonald’s, or you’ve got a Costco membership and can get hands-on their iconic hotdog).

It’s highly processed, full of fats and salt, and yet somehow manages to be one of the most mellow-flavored deli meats around (unless, of course, fried in even more fat and paired with Cheddar and fresh vegetables, which turn it into an instant classic).

Baloney is just a dependable working mule of the sandwich industry, to put it crudely. You know what it tastes like; maybe sometimes you even crave it when nostalgic (or, let’s be honest, drunk), but I’ve yet to meet anyone who’d name baloney as their favorite deli meat. 

Which is why it’s so frustrating to see it get confused so often with Mortadella: one of the oldest and most famous Italian deli meats, a seminal product that influenced about a dozen (if not more) sausage varieties all across the world - including our friend, American baloney.

But where imagining baloney as a gourmet or artisanal product can be hard, Mortadella is one of the most iconic Italian salume with plenty of gourmet options. To understand how it works and why there are such stark differences, let’s first delve into what is Mortadella

What is Mortadella?

Mortadella is one of the oldest Italian deli meats, originating from Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna. A slab from the 1st century AD is preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Bologna depicting pigs with pestle and mortar, which is believed to point to how proto-Mortadella was made. 

Mortadella is a cooked (or “heat-cured,” if you will) type of sausage made exclusively from high-quality pork meat, with at least 15% of the mass comprised of pure pork fat. The strict guidelines for Mortadella production were established in 1661 by Cardinal Girolamo Farnese as an attempt to maintain the high quality of the product, which, by that time, had been viewed as a delicacy. It was established that only in Bologna could authentic Mortadella be produced, and only by authorized pork butchers, who had to mark the product with a waxed seal.

Mortadella is a large and round sausage, always a light pink in color though the shade can vary from very pale and almost translucent (when thinly sliced) to more robust, bright pink. It’s peppered throughout with white dots of fat, varied in size. It has a soft and silky texture, with only slight chewiness, but it’s not as delicate as, say, prosciutto.  

The flavor is mellow but still distinctly meaty and often more complex than one expects from such a light product. Its strong flavor undertones are determined by various spices used during the manufacturing, as well as additional flavoring ingredients (like olives or pistachios) often added to the meat mix to add robustness to Mortadella.

How is Mortadella Sausage Made?

A high-quality Mortadella is made with a combination of various lean trimmings and fat at around a 6:4 ratio. Typical Mortadella meat mix would combine pork shoulder, ham (pork cut, not the deli meat), pork belly, tripe, and around 15% (over 20% in higher-quality Mortadella) of pork neck fat or fat of pig’s cheek.

To prepare the mix, the first leaner cuts are finely minced and turned into a smooth paste. The fat is cubed and combined with the meat mince in a way that maintains its structural integrity instead of mixing homogeneously. Then the meat mix is flavored with salt and the butcher-specific spice blend, that’s some combination of black pepper, chili, myrtle berries, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and coriander. Frequently other, more robust, flavoring elements are added, with green olives and pistachios being the most common.

Once the meat paste is ready, it’s stuffed into a giant casing (the sausage tends to reach about 30lbs in weight, with some butchers producing Mortadella that weighs over 110lbs) and hung into a spacious oven to cook for about 24 hours. Once the meat is fully cooked, Mortadella is cooled down with cold water and is ready to be packaged!

Types of Mortadella:

There are several regional varieties of Italian Mortadella, and while they all look similar, there are slight but undeniable distinctions setting them apart:

Mortadella di Bologna is undoubtedly the most famous one, the one from which the American baloney gets its name. It’s the seminal pale pink sausage dotted throughout with white dots of fat. Mortadella di Bologna has a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status in the EU and must adhere to strict production guidelines for meat cuts and the cooking processes. However, the production area is vast: not only can it be produced outside Bologna, but in multiple regions aside from Emilia-Romagna.

Mortadella of Campotosto is an Abruzzo province specialty and the most visually distinct. It’s arguably not Mortadella at all but a type of salami (as it’s salt-cured and smoked, not cooked), but the name stuck. It’s dark red with a stark white center from a whole bar of lard inserted in the heart of the meat mixture.

Mortadella di Cavallo is a Lazio specialty, mainly produced in Alban Hills. It’s made of horse meat and is thus a much darker shade, almost purple, but with Mortadella-typical white dots of fat.

Mortadella di Prato is another PGI-protected variety, this time from Tuscany. It resembles Mortadella di Bologna but with a more robust taste that comes from garlic and Alchermes (a spicy-sweet Italian liqueur) being mandatory flavoring ingredients.

What Does Mortadella Taste Like?

Mortadella di Bologna, the seminal Mortadella, is pure pork in flavor but relatively mellow, even when the meat is blended with spices. 

The more robust varieties typically have a stronger flavor element added like peppercorns, olives, pistachios, and, a modern classic, summer truffles.

Mortadella vs. Baloney: Is Mortadella Just Fancy Bologna?

It may seem like Mortadella is just an Italian version of American Bologna, but there are significant differences between the two that are responsible for the distinct differences in texture and flavor. In fact, most people who don’t know about the connection between the two would have a hard time guessing that Bologna took inspiration from Mortadella (even if it’s named after an Italian city).

First of all, unlike Mortadella, baloney isn’t an artisan food restricted in the cuts of the meat that can be used in the production process - or, indeed, even the source of the cut. While Mortadella is a product made exclusively from pork, Bologna can be made from pork, beef, turkey, chicken, or some kind of mix of these meats. 

Secondly, unlike Italian Mortadella, American Bologna doesn’t have any white specks of fat. What’s more, it’s not allowed to have them. According to U.S. regulations, baloney sausage must be uniform in texture and visuals, made from finely ground meat and without any visible fat pieces. While Bologna is often flavored with the same spices as Mortadella (black pepper, nutmeg, allspice, and coriander are all common), the paste is made entirely homogenous, without any added ingredients (like olives or pistachios).

Thirdly, the simplified production process for baloney results in a less soft and silky but rather heartier texture. 

Is Mortadella Safe to Eat Raw?

Yes, Mortadella has already been cooked before packaging, so you can eat it right out of the package, as is, without any detriment to your health. Thinly sliced Mortadella is often added to charcuterie boards and eaten as a cold appetizer or added to sandwiches that require no toasting or grilling.

Can You Cook with Mortadella Sausage?

Despite already being cooked and often consumed as a cold appetizer, additionally cooking Mortadella, either for more complex dishes or simply to add more texture and flavor to the sausage, is pretty standard.

The one crucial trait Mortadella does share with baloney is that being fried brings out more flavor, turning the delicate salumi into a more robust and meaty one. Plus, the added crunch only adds to the appeal. 

What Do You Use Mortadella Sausage For?

Aside from being a charcuterie element or a sandwich ingredient, Mortadella is often used to add a more pronounced pork flavor to certain meat-based dishes. 

Some traditional Italian dishes cooked with Mortadella sausage are:

Spuma di Mortadella: possibly the most famous and iconic Mortadella-based dish. Spuma di Mortadella (It. for Mortadella Mousse) is a paté-style spread made by blending Mortadella with heavy cream and soft cheese (typically Ricotta).

Polpette: small fried Italian meatballs usually made with beef or veal (though sometimes pork is also used). They’re kneaded with eggs and flavored with parsley, garlic, chopped Mortadella, and grated Parmigiano Reggiano (sometimes). Polpette is a popular snack, especially among children. In America, they’re sometimes served with pasta, but in their native Italy, they’re usually served as an independent appetizer.

Tortellini (or Cappelletti) in Brodo: a famous Italian dish consisting of various stuffed pasta types in a light broth. In northern and central Italian regions, using Mortadella as a pasta filling is common. In Bologna itself, tortellini, the smaller pasta with thinner dough, is more common. Cappelletti, a larger pasta with thicker dough, is overall more popular in Emilia-Romagna as it originates here. 

Polenta Ticinese: a polenta variety from the Italian-speaking Ticino region in southern Switzerland, it’s a thick cornmeal porridge with lots of butter that’s traditionally garnished with Mortadella and various types of cheese.

Muffuletta: not strictly Italian, but instead created by Lousiana-based Italian immigrants, Muffuletta is a loaded sandwich, alternating layers of Mortadella, Salami, Emmental, classic ham, Provolone, and garnished with olive salad.

How Long Does Mortadella Last?

The upside of commercially packaged Mortadella is that it’s usually vacuum-sealed, dramatically improving its shelf-life. Commercial packaging will also have an “expiration date” or “best by” date printed on the label, which makes it easier to determine if Mortadella is fit for consumption. 

Once the meat has been unsealed, it should be used within the following ten days at most (better if it’s used up within a week).

If you’re buying your Mortadella at an artisan store, you have to treat it as recently-opened and consume it within a week - unless the butcher has an option to vacuum-seal your Mortadella on the spot, in which case it can last up to a month.

Can I Freeze Mortadella?

Yes, you can freeze Mortadella to extend its shelf life once the packaging has been opened. Mortadella can last up to three extra months in a freezer. 

However, thawing may damage its texture, making it dryer, so it’s better to fry it before adding it to various dishes rather than eat it raw.

Visit Yummy Bazaar’s Online Store for More Artisan and Gourmet Products:

Yummy Bazaar hosts a large selection of artisan food at our online store. Check out the assortment of cheese and cured meats from all over the world, including other Italian staples like salami, salchichon, prosciutto, soppressata, and more!

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