More than just another sausage – a chorizo primer

Chorizo is a bit like pornography. You’ll know it when you see it, but it’s a bit hard to define in the abstract.

That’s because there are several hundred varieties of this sausage made across at least three continents, and many bear little resemblance to the others. Making matters worse, chorizo makers in the U.S. are a pretty freewheeling bunch. No matter what the packages say, it can be hard to know what you’re getting.

The good news is that you don’t need to sift through all that to understand why this meat is well worth working into your dinner repertoire.

At its most basic, chorizo is a sausage made from chopped or ground pork and a ton of seasonings, often including garlic. The flavors are deeply smoky and savory, with varying degrees of heat. Most are assertive and peppery, but not truly spicy.

The three main producers of chorizo are Spain, Portugal and Mexico. Spanish and Portuguese chorizo (the latter known as chourico) are m ost common in the U.S., but for many of the products sold here that’s a distinction without a difference. In Spain, chorizo has a distinct red color thanks to ample seasoning with paprika. It is available in two main varieties – cooking and cured.

Cooking chorizo is coarse, crumbly, deliciously fatty, and jammed with spices (which vary by region). The meat can be smoked or plain. To use cooking chorizo, the casing must be removed. The meat then is crumbled and added to other meats or soups, or sauteed.

Cured chorizo is similarly seasoned – including the paprika – but is cured for at least two months. During this period, bacteria and salt work their flavor magic on the meat. The result is a salami-like sausage with big, bold, peppery flavor. Cured chorizo traditionally is thinly sliced and eaten at room temperature. It also can be finely chopped and cooked. Most chorizo sold in the U.S. is the cured style.

Portuguese chourico adds wine to the flavoring mix, and often is smoked. Most varieties can be thinly sliced and eaten as is, though it also can be cooked.

Mexican chorizo is made from fresh (not smoked) pork, and generally sports the seasonings we associate with Mexican cuisine, including chilies and cilantro.

While there are some cured varieties of Mexican chorizo, most should be cut open (discarding the casing), crumbled and cooked. Use the meat in just about any Mexican dish calling for meat (and big, big flavor), including nachos.

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