Like music, art, and movies, there are key words in food, and charcuterie in particular, when you hear them, you know that you are talking to someone who knows. To me, when I heard someone talking about nduja, regardless of how they pronounce it, I knew that I was talking to someone when knew. The thing is, even those who know do not have access to enough examples to really assess what is good, bad or other – myself included. Lately however, it has popped up in more spots to results that have not met my limited expectations of what nduja should be – a spreadable Calabrian pork product made with a heavy dose characteristically red Calabrian chilis that bring serious red color and major heat.
Of the 7 or 8 versions that I have tried over the past few years, I have thought most were decent, but in all of the reading that I have done, only two really fit the bill for what I expected from nduja. The first was made by Rob Levitt, while at Mado, which featured the right texture and face-melting heat, but not the deep red color that I expected (likely because Rob opted for local chilis instead of the Calabrian variety) and the other was made by Craig Deihl and Bob Cook at Cypress in Charleston, which featured the texture, color, and flavor that I had in my mind every time that I searched out nduja. Other versions lacked heat, spread-ability, or flavor generally, but in every case, an nduja sighting became a Paul Revere-type announcement within the appreciative community.
When I first tried Cypress’s nduja, I had, just weeks before, finished hanging these chubs of nduja for a three month rest. I had been, for about a year, starting and stopping the nduja making process every three months or so – sabotaging my own efforts by making excuses like the chilis weren’t right, the bactoferm was expired, the casings were too narrow or the sun was in my eyes. I had finally acquired beef middles, bactoferm and what seemed to be a metric ton of Calabrian chili powder from sausagedebauchery.com, and once the sun went down, I had no excuses.
Traditionally sausage is made from the front shoulder, but in this case, I had a bunch of scraps from the sirloin and ham cap of a big hog, so I opted to utilize those pieces as well as some fat back. Since I was taking my first crack at making nduja, I worked to be extra precise in separating lean from fat. I also was extra careful with temperature doing most of the work outside in sub-freezing February temps.
Starting with the recipe from Sausage Debauchery and varying it as I saw fit, I gathered all of the ingredients. Given the sheer volume of the chili powder, I wondered if I had misread where the decimal was, but after going back and looking, I moved forward reluctantly.
From this point, it was easy. Lots of sitting around and waiting. After stuffing, the nduja fermented in the oven (with the light on for three days). The great aspect of this move was that the casings went from a yellow slimy appearance to something closer to how a sausage should look. The force meat was an appealing red-orange color.
Next came the cold smoking. In regards to cold smoke, I had a few irons in proverbial fire, so I had been planning on adapting my last bourbon barrel into a smoker. The only problem was finding a hole saw big enough. While I waited for delivery, I started to tinker around with an old Smokey Joe that I found in the alley and my Webber Smokey Mountain smoker. Using some ductwork and a little elbow grease, I came up with a design that would work for this occasion very well. Using the Smokey Joe as my fire box and the WSM as a smokehouse, I smoked the nduja over pecan hulls and apple wood for 36 hours continuously with temps never getting above freezing. Sure, the front yard looked like a meth lab, but only for a few days.
Finally the four chubs of nduja were labeled and hung up for drying. Nearly three months later, I cut the first one down. I was not ready to try it alone, so I brought it to a trusted taster. One that would be gentle, but not so gentle as to allow me to make the same error twice without at least knowing about it.
The color of the nduja was a deep brick red and, even after nearly three months, the smell of chilis and smoke from the pecan hulls wafted from the bag in which I carried the nduja to the tasting. The moment of truth came when he cut the chub open and spread the nduja on the bread. Spreadable. So at least from sight, smell, and touch, I was in the clear.
The taste aspect was, embarrassingly enough. my secondary worry after spread-ability. I had a bit of nduja from a Chicago producer in April that honestly could have been whipped meat product of any kind. There was little heat, no fermentation related funk, and little porkiness. Despite all of that, people went crazy for it. Maybe that phenomenon of low expectations conditioned me. However, the flavor exceeded my wildest expectations. It was hot. Not “chew-cough-chew-drink-swallow-drink-cough” hot, but audible hoots of hotness were heard.
Granted the sausages are a little one-dimensional. There is still funky, smokey pork, but the seasoning is so simple and so voluminous that you aren’t going to get the complexity of some of the other Italian dry-cured arsenal. Nduja just is not that. Nduja is not about restraint. It is straight up hedonism. Put the mustard back in the fridge door. Put up the pickles. Neither help you here. Get a handkerchief and a great glass of wine.
Your first bite of the good stuff, go to Cypress in Charleston, bug Rob to make some again (he cures his for a year, so be patient), or make your own, will make you forget all of the versions that made you wonder what that small group of evangelists were harping on about. The difference is remarkable. Even the versions close to the middle are foodstuffs that do not have readily available comparators and give a hint to how good nduja could be and sometimes is.
Adapted from Scott Stegen
- 250 grams Pork meat
- 750 grams Pork fat
- 0.5 grams bactoferm
- 15 grams water
- 200 grams calabrian pepper
- 50 grams sweet pepper powder
- 28 grams kosher salt
- 3 grams curing salt #2