When visiting a salumeria, the word “cured meat” is often used in reference to the offerings behind the counter. Associated with such meats as prosciutto, pancetta, coppa, and bresaola, the curing process refers specifically to the way that the meat has been preserved.
In Italy, curing originated with the Ancient Romans. Searching for a way to preserve their fresh meat, the Romans became increasingly interested in the process of curing, defined as the treatment of muscle meat with salt and sodium nitrite. The preserving effects of the salt allowed for meat to last without refrigeration.
Rubbing, smoking, and brining are all typical methods of curing meat. Usually, whole cuts are cured, but specific parts can be put through their own process. During the curing process, small amounts of nitrite, usually in the form of dry salts or a salt solution in water, is put in contact with the muscle tissue. This contact creates a specific reaction within the tissue that preserves the meat. The entire process of curing includes the curing, drying, fermentation, and ripening stages. Only at this point is the meat ready for consumption.
There are two specific genres of cured meats: cured-raw and cured-cook. Cured-raw is defined as a meat that does not undergo any heat treatment while being manufactured. One of the most famous cured-raw meats is prosciutto crudo, or Parma ham. Cured-cooked, as the name suggests, has a heat treatment at either pasteurization or sterilization temperatures. Prosciutto cotto, or “normal” ham, is one of the best examples of a cured-cooked meat.
Though modern conveniences of cooling and freezing make the curing process less necessary, the color (pink-red) and the flavor that is created through the curing process makes cured meats a specialty in many Italian salumerias. These meats have a special place within the Italian culinary tradition.