What the heck is “Speck”?

Originally posted onto Tabelog.com 4/20/16

 

For those of us who troll the isles of delis, butcher shops, or anywhere meat can be sold elsewhere than a local super market, we may have come across a delicious and familiar looking package labeled “Speck”. Below is a look into what this delicious looking cut is, how it’s made, and where you can utilize it best.

 

How it’s made

The process of curing meat has always been one that many people just mention and move on, but many don’t understand what exactly it is about curing meat that can make it so delicious.

The process of curing meat, in particular speck is that a large hunk of meat is obtained, such as a hock of ham or pork or sometimes beef, and then the meat is engulfed in a brine that is more often than not salt. The salt is best because it adds that special flavor that we all know so well from cured meats, but most importantly, the salt acts as a de-bacterializer.

Salt works as a way to extract moisture from within the cells of the meat, which is where the bacteria that could prove to be harmful to us humans would be. The small holding areas of water that each individual cell holds (called a vacuole, if you can remember all the way back to your 8th grade life science class days) is a potential breeding ground for harmful bacteria to grow, and when the salt is added to the surface of the meat, the salt acts as a kind of suction that extracts and draws out all of that water residing within those water holdings. Who would have thought that salt was so darn helpful past just adding flavor to bland foods?

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Once the water is drained out from the meat and the meat is set up to be baked, or smoked, or whatever preferred method of cooking your meat is undertaking, a chemical compound is often added into the mix called nitrates, or nitrites when it is introduced to the body and its natural compounds.

These nitrates/nitrites are added for two reasons: when introduced to meat by the meat curers, a color reaction takes places. The meat turns a pinkish and/or reddish coloring which results in what you may instantly recognize as “ham-color” (you know, that very deep pink color that your sandwich ham or fancy prosciutto is when you pick it up at Costco).

The second reason that nitrates/nitrites are added to the recently cured meat is the more important reason over what color your meat is, and that is to stop the recently drawn out bacteria from coming back to the once was their home inside the meat. Once the water is removed and the bacteria has nowhere else to go, who is to say that water can’t be reintroduced or that bacteria cannot find a home elsewhere on or in the recently cured meat? The nitrates/nitrites see to it that once the bacteria is evicted, that they have no chance of returning.

 

What makes “Speck” so special?

After all that meat curing, you may still be thinking: “That’s great and all, but I still don’t know what speck is!” Well hold your horses, because here it is: you know when you eat bacon, and your bacon strip has two main parts? One part is pinkish-red and meaty, and the other is an opaque and fattier white? Well the opaque and fattier white part is speck! That’s right! That portion of the bacon that tastes so ridiculously delicious has a name, and it is actually a lot more useful than you may realize.

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Essentially it is bacon fat, which contributes to most of the grease that sloshes around in the pan once you remove the freshly fried bacon and serve it up. Speck however, is not limited to just bacon, but to any cured meat that is closely connected to the meat itself.

Before you run off and tell all of your friends that speck is just another word for bacon, know now that it isn’t quite the same. Yes, it does come from the same animal (pig), but the process and the region of the world that is it is derived from are very different in creation processes. Speck is a much slower, much more methodical, and much more glorified method of curing and cooking that can take up to a period of several months to get to the final product! Bacon has potential to take several months to reach its possible peak, but not necessary.

Coming from the caboose of the pig (its hind leg quarters), speck is the fattier part of what many of us call fancy Italian bacon, or in correct terminology, “prosciutto”. The loose definition of speck is a piece of fat that may or may not have some meat on it. That being said, prosciutto that is fattier in ratio of meat to fat content qualifies as speck. However, if you want to be as purist as possible with your speck experience, then you need to go all the way back to the Tyrol region in the north of Italy. It was said that the only true speck comes from this part of the world due to its unrivaled fresh mountain air and local pig population. These things in combination make the speck that comes out of here hands down, the best speck in all of Italy, and even the world.

 

It’s pretty much bacon

Speck is an ingredient used all the time in many Italian dishes. Although you may not have hunks of bacon covering your plate, chances are that speck, or at least the fat that comes from speck, is present somewhere in your dish due to its very generous flavor contributions that it offers just by being near a pan.

Melt it down, toss some pasta in it, rub down your meat with it, or just use it to prep your pan before you start frying up a storm– there is all kinds of ways that you can intermingle speck into your Italian dishes. Not sure if you are going to like speck even after all we talked about today? Well how do you feel about bacon or prosciutto? If you answered positively, then why wouldn’t you want to expand your pork horizons? Head over to your local deli or butcher shop today and pick up some speck to incorporate into your next dish. You won’t have any complaints, trust us.

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