As far as cured meat products go, salami is definitely one of the most famous and beloved in the world. It’s one of those ubiquitously popular products that almost every country in the world has managed to give a unique twist and somehow make its own. Europe, in particular, is fond of its salami and salami-like cured meats: most countries, from South to East, have given salami a spin and now have a signature product (or few) that’s a staple of their breakfast table to midday snacks to fancy charcuterie boards.
At Yummy Bazaar, we host a thoughtfully curated assortment of Italian cured meats, including various kinds of premium-grade salami, made by some of the most renowned manufacturers using traditional methods.
Now, let’s get down to the main topic of the business: what makes all these salami varieties like Genoa and soppressata different from one another (and which one should you try first)?
Salami the Term vs. Salami the Sausage
If you’ve ever ordered a charcuterie board at a restaurant or have tried to build one on your own, you already know that not all salami is made equal. The difference in a flavor profile of a high-end gourmet product and run-of-the-mill supermarket salami is as vast as between the sea and the sky. But did you ever wonder if there was another explanation for the disparity in flavor profiles between what you call salami and what a chic, high-end restaurant tends to serve its guests?
The most obvious answer is the production process, which does, indeed, play a part. But another, not so oft-thought reason is that salami is an umbrella term that encompasses more than one type of cured sausages. So the salami you might’ve deemed heavenly when tasting the charcuterie board selection and are now looking for everywhere might not even be made with the same cuts of meat or created using the same technology as the ones you’re buying, not to mention herbs and spices used during the curing.
Pepperoni, for example, is technically salami. So is soppressata, one of the most sought-after Italian cured meats. And so is Genoa salami, which is actually called salami, unlike many others. Even though they’re all made using different cuts of meat, seasonings, and techniques, they’re all a type of salami, Italian salami, to be more exact.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that while most of Europe has some kind of salami to offer, it’s once again Italian cured meats that take the crown. In fact, even the name salami, now nigh-universally used to describe European cured meats, comes from Italian world salame. Once used to describe all Italian cured meats (yes, it used to be even more confusing than it is now), now salame is a name for Italian cured sausages specifically.
What is salami?
As we discussed above, salami is pretty much an umbrella term for cured sausages made with fermented and air-dried meat. If we speak numbers, the estimates claim there are roughly 150 varieties of it.
While pork is the most traditional choice of meat for salami, it can freely be (and is) made with most other meats, with veel, beef, and lamb being common choices, but the likes of bison, elk, and even wild boar not considered unorthodox.
Salami usually has a distinct appearance regardless of what meat it’s made with. It’s a shade of red, has distinctive white marbling from fat, and, when uncut, is of an elongated round shape.
That said, if we set aside technicalities, what we most often tend to call salami is a dry-cured hard pork sausage with dark red color and generous white specks of fat. This type of salami is sometimes called hard salami.
How is salami made?
The process will look quite similar unless we’re talking about a very distinct type of salami (ex., Soppressata Toscana). Lean and fatty meats will be mixed at a “correct” proportion (the salami variety determines the proportions), then cured with salt, and flavored with additional seasonings. The seasoning blends differ by type, region, and establishment. Many artisanal shops have signature recipes for seasoning blends that you aren’t likely to encounter anywhere else. Traditionally black pepper, red pepper, peppercorns, rosemary, basil, garlic, and clove are common ingredients, and at least several are used to flavor the meat. Ground nuts, olives, and even truffles aren’t uncommon, though they’re not considered what one would call traditional ingredients for salami.
After the meat is seasoned correctly, it’s finely chopped (unless the specific recipe calls for coarse chopping) and stuffed into a casing made from thoroughly cleaned animal intestines.
Salami can be left to ferment and dry anywhere between a few days and a few years.
Types of salami:
Technicalities aside, certain types of cured sausages are called salami, specifically. The most common example would be hard salami, i.e., the salami variety that’s most often labeled as such when packaged by large manufacturers.
Hard salami is made from either exclusively pork or a pork and beef mixture. There are no specific requirements for meat composition, but it’s supposed to have a moisture and protein ratio of around 2:1 (moisture ratio can sometimes be slightly lower, at about 1.9). Hard salami is cured and fermented using classic techniques.
The second variety that sports the word salami on the labels would be Genoa salami. Unlike hard salami, the origin of which is hotly disputed, Genoa salami is 100% of Italian origin. It’s most commonly made with pork, but veel and beef are possible. Unlike hard salami, Genoa salami doesn’t mix different meats. The ratio between meat and fat is typically 3:2.
Seasoning is a prominent characteristic of Genoa salami: it’s commonly flavored with peppercorns or grainy black pepper, garlic powder, and wine. Genoa salami is smoked with oak or chestnut for a few days and left to dry for a couple of months.
Genoa salami has a bright pink color, a very tender texture, and a distinct smoky aroma.
Best uses for salami:
Both traditional hard salami and Genoa salami can be served as an appetizer on their own, used for a sandwich ingredient, a bruschetta topping, or a pizza topping.
The more distinct and savory the salami flavor, the better it’ll be able to act as a flavoring for other, more complex dishes, like pasta, frittata, or polenta.
What to pair with salami:
Like other Italian cured meat products, most salami varieties pair well with strong cheese and sweet ingredients like honey and fruit.
If you’re unsure which cheese to pair the salami with not to overwhelm it, go with something softer with a creamier taste, like ricotta or mozzarella. But strong melty Emmentaler or gouda will pair well with savory salami in a hot sandwich just fine.
Egg-based dishes are another great option. Genoa salami can be a great addition to a frittata with some strong salty cheese or act as a substitute for your usual meat of choice in a pasta dish.
What is soppressata?
I guess we already answered the what is soppressata question above: it’s a type of Italian cured sausage. So the real question is: what makes soppressata different from other salami varieties?
Soppressata is a dry salami that can be either cured or uncured. Its main distinction from other salami varieties is the cuts of meat used in production. Soppressata is made chiefly with leaner, high-quality cuts of pork like haunch and ham, mixed with a fattier pork shoulder cut.
Traditional soppressata is supposed to be spicy akin to pepperoni, but mild or sweet versions aren’t uncommon. Soppressata is typically bright red, but depending on the seasonings, it can go as dark as purple. It has a coarser texture than traditional salami and a robust peppery aroma.
How is soppressata made?
Meat cuts for high-quality soppressata are carefully selected, thoroughly cleaned, and coarsely ground. The meat is then heavily seasoned with some combination of salt, chile peppers, peppercorns, rosemary, cinnamon, garlic, clove, etc. It’s important to note that there’s no universal recipe for a soppressata spice blend: each manufacturer, from a large brand to a local artisan, has their own recipe and may add or subtract certain seasonings. Salt and some kind of pepper, however, are universal.
The seasoned meat is then stuffed into a thick intestine, tied off at the top with a thread, and left to dry. Soon after the drying process starts, soppressata is pressed (traditionally between two linen sheets) to rid the meat of air bubbles and left to finish the drying process.
Due to the pressing, soppressata has a more oblong shape rather than round like most salami varieties.
Types of soppressata:
Soppressata is divided into two major types:
The first, Soppressata di Basilicata is a cured soppressata variety, traditionally made in Basilicata, Apulia, and Calabria. The only variety of this soppressata type that has earned a protected designation of origin is Soppressata di Calabria.
Soppressata di Calabria is made from pigs bred exclusively in Calabria that are over eight months old and weigh over 308lbs by the time they’re used for production. The meat cannot be frozen beforehand. The meat mixture must only be from ham and shoulder, with lard from the front of the loin. It’s the most tightly controlled soppressata manufacturing guideline in the country.
The second, Soppressata Toscana, also known as Sopressa, is traditional to Tuscany and Liguria. It’s very different from cured soppressata in that instead of carefully picking the meat cuts, it’s designed to use the maximum amount of leftover pig products. Often this means using the entire head, including the tongue. The meat is chopped, seasoned, stuffed in a casing, and covered in cooking liquid high in gelatin. Then the meat is hung until the liquid binds everything together. Soppressata Toscana is typically much larger in shape than traditional salami, light to dark pink in color, with extensive white marbling.
Sopressa Vicentina, made the province of Vicenza, has protected designation of origin, similar to Soppressata di Calabria.
Soppressata can also be distinguished by the pepper varieties used in seasoning:
White soppressata is soppressata that has only been flavored with black pepper or peppercorns, along with traditional spices.
Sweet soppressata is soppressata that has only been flavored with red pepper, cardamom, and rosemary.
Spicy soppressata, as the name indicates, spicy soppressata is the soppressata that has been flavored with hot chili.
Best uses for soppressata:
Soppressata, whether cured or uncured, is traditional deli meat and best used according to its initial purpose. It makes a great filling or topping for any sandwich, particularly when paired with a cheese accentuating its flavor profile. It also makes a great pizza topping, and the spicy variety of cured soppressata, in particular, can be an excellent substitute for classic pepperoni.
And, of course, due to its bold flavor profile, it makes a great addition to any charcuterie board. Most Chefs tend to slice it thicker than traditional salami to highlight the coarse grind of the meat.
What to pair with soppressata:
Soppressata, itself intensely flavorful, pairs well with other strong flavors. It makes a great pair with most cheeses, aside from the highly salty ones (and even that opinion is controversial). You might want to skip most blue cheeses, but it’ll pair well with anything milder, from soft milky mozzarella to sharp and flavorful provolone. Add a bit of a sweet element to it, like honey or a bit of jam, and you’ll have an ideal sandwich on your hands (especially if you use fresh focaccia).
Its coarse texture and intense flavor lend themselves nicely to more substantial dishes as well. Swap your usual meat of choice for soppressata in a risotto or a pasta dish, and enjoy.
So what is the big difference between soppressata and salami?
Traditional soppressata (aside from the Tuscan variety) uses leaner cuts of meat, while the sausage we call salami is fattier and chewier. Accordingly, salami has a more tender texture, with generous white marbling. Soppressata, while also marbled, is noticeably drier.
Salami, while generously seasoned with some kind of pepper, is usually relatively mild, while soppressata is often close to pepperoni in spice levels.
Last, but not least, soppressata has a more oblong shape than salami’s round one due to the “pressing” stage of the production process.
Which is better, soppressata or classic salami?
The answer depends entirely upon your tastebuds. Some prefer soppressata due to its more robust flavor and coarse texture. Some, on the contrary, prefer milder salami varieties with a more fatty texture.