Well, I guess we should answer what it is before we consider what it is not, right? Okay, so first of all, what is ‘nduja? ‘Nduja is spreadable, spicy, fermented, aged and sometimes smoked sausage¹. ‘Nduja is made from the soft fats and off cuts that typically are not used in the production of other salumi² when a family has processed a hog. These other salumi include lonza, prosciutto, fiocco, coppa, pancetta, guanciale, spallaccia, a few others including salsiccia, and yes, sopressata and salame.
Not all salumi are typically fermented. ‘Nduja is fermented. You can identify fermentation in a cured meat by the taste of acid. Acid produced by bacterial activity lowers the ph to the point that pathogens find the meat inhospitable. It is one way (or in HACCP speak, a critical limit) that salumiere use to help keep the product safe and even shelf stable³ for consumption.* Nduja is cured, but uncooked. This occurs during the aging process, when the sugars in the sausage mix are metabolised by the cultures present, producing lactic acid. When These can be added, like a powder, they can be present enough in fermented products like wine which can be used to inoculate the sausage mix, or they can be incorporated through a process called back slopping**.
‘Nduja is spreadable. That’s an easy one.
‘Nduja is spicy. Now there is merit to the debate that nduja should only use calabrian chilies. However, I think that argument does not consider the practicalities of production and somewhat dishonors an essential aspect of Italian cuisine. Is it practical or efficient to acquire only calabrian chilies for the production of a calabrian style product here in America? Well, if you want to get down to the nitty gritty, I would say that’s argument is a slippery slope to the conclusion that outside of calabria, or any specific place a traditional product is made, you cannot possibly replicate a dish, or food product, or anything really. There are components that cannot be replicated, like the air, or the water, or the feed that was given to the animal, or the specific breed of animal, or even the materials used to produce that product. You have to draw the line somewhere, and for me, they type of chili used should approximate, or improve to your palate, the heat level and balance you aim to achieve. Also, various types of chilies are now grown in Italy, and certainly in Calabria. I really like cayenne. I like it’s balance on the palate, and I like it used in all types of spicy salumi. Is that wrong? Maybe we disagree. That’s good. Everyone should come from a place if informed opinion. And that’s why I hope there will be various excellent ‘nduja produced in America someday. That is very different from using the term “‘nduja” as a marketing scheme to sell either extra scraps of finished product, or emulsified hot sopressata and ketchup. Such a product is not ‘nduja.
Nduja can be smoked. That is a point of practicality if you are using smoke in the process of curing, or smoke could simply be your flavor preference. Regardless of intensity: strong, light, or non-existent, it’s still ‘Nduja to me.
Now, this is basically for home or restaurant production. I don’t know of any artisan retail producer that doesn’t already understand this, but of course you need to source good pork. Why? Sure, you could say that we are using off cuts and soft fats, and who really cares about how good the pork is when there’s all that acid and spiciness to obscure the nuanced flavor brought by using good pork? If that’s your opinion, you are ignorant. Sorry, but first of all you should understand that you cannot achieve good results without good ingredients. And, as a hobbyist or chef, if you are unwilling to experiment with a quality ingredient that is still less than $9 per pound, then you are in the wrong game, on the wrong side of the isle, and/or simply don’t care enough about animal welfare. Listen, off cuts are super cheap, even from heritage breeds that are raised humanely. However, I don’t suggest coming out of the blocks with your first nduja experiment having loaded up on the kidney and liver meat. It will probably just turn you off the ‘nduja thing, all together. Get jowl meat, belly meat and supplement with shoulder, but get from a well raised animal. No need to necessarily source a heritage breed right away, or really at all. (Although, if you produce for the market, it is likely that you do whole muscle cuts and various other cured pork products that will only be viable in a quality market if they are of quality breeding. This is because of the percentage of hard fats, the distribution of those fats, and how the flavor of those fats are influenced by what the animal is fed) So heritage breeds aside, the animal should always be raised and processed humanely and in a clean and economically fair environment. The goal is to be informed of these aspects of farming and processing so that we can collectively achieve a more wholesome food system. Relating to the product’s organoleptic qualities, it will taste better if you use humanely treated pork. When pork is fed crap, your meat will taste like crap, no matter how much chili and salt you use. If you aren’t sure what it was fed, then you don’t really know the potential for flavor. When pork is stressed during or before slaughter, the meat becomes exudated due to a depletion of muscle glycogen. This will make your ‘nduja gummy. Gummy meat always sucks. I probably already have belabored the point, but to finish it off, the more you know about the source, given some knowledge of what you are looking for, you will understand that, like milk†, pork is not pork. (I sense another post just around the corner…)
Lastly, To reiterate what is NOT ‘nduja, nduja is not just a catch all marketing term for meat spread. It is a traditional product that has a long heritage and comes from a specific place in and around Spilinga, in the province of Catanzaro in Calabria We should make it here in the USA, but we should give a little respect to where it came from by honoring, as best we practically can, how it should be produced. In the same sense that reducing red wine vinegar and grape must is totally NOT Aceto Balsamico Traditionale, you can not emulsify production scraps with whatever other ingredients, squeeze that into a tube, or jar and call it salumi, let alone ‘Nduja. ‘Nduja is fresh, high quality pork, salt, cultures and chilis, with enough soft fats emulsified so it will still be spreadable once it ages for a few months. In this case, be wary of what you see on the shelf that is labelled “‘nduja”. Look at the ingredients. It still may taste delicious to you, but understand that just because it is marketed as “‘nduja”, does not mean it is ‘nduja.
¹In place of sausage, some would insert sopressata, or salami. In this case I am not. I have spent years working with both sopressata and salame and one thing I have learned is that though it may be reasonable to throw around labels based on taste or appearance, there are few people that agree on what defines either. So, in this case I am saying sausage. Sausage is ground meat. There are few disagreements on that. A square is a rectangle, and ‘nduja is sausage
²Salumi is the Italian word for preserved meat. This can be accomplished by cooking or curing uncooked meat, usually pork.
³Shelf Stable is a term the USDA use to guarantee that a product can be safely held indefinitely at room temp, like on a shelf at 70ºF.
*Another critical limit control is lowering the water activity (aw), otherwise known as the excess water which may be available to support things like pathogens. Kinda how dry, salty or sugary something is, but that’s a very simplified way of understanding the concept. For more info on developing a HACCP plan, go to the FDA: HACCP Principles & Application Guidelines
**Back Slopping is a traditional way of ensuring a consistent cure, and end product, by adding some material from a previous batch to your current batch of sausage mix. This is not allowed in the USA, and is a sure fire way of having inspectors make you toss your entire inventory. However, in my opinion it is safe. Yeah, duh, you have to know what you are doing, but go ahead and try curing something with powdered culture and pink salt without knowing what you are doing and see what happens (Don’t do that! I was being facetious. You could kill someone for crying out loud). Back slopping tastes better for the same reason that Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, Parmigiano Reggiano, and adding yogurt cultures in cheesemaking produces more complex flavors. You get much more diversity in types of bacteria, which are responsible for a spectrum of flavors. When the original cultures used in back slopping came from the flora in the air, like in lambic style Belgian beers, you create a consistent result every time which has the flavor characteristics unique to the place where it is, and always has been made. Terroir, right?