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Capicola is a type of cured Italian meat that is frequently used like a lunchmeat on sandwiches or in dishes such as pasta and antipasto. It is distinct from cured ham because, while curing, it is coated in either black pepper or hot red pepper powder. The taste of capicola is defined as either being sweet when cured with black pepper or hot when red pepper is used. The curing process is usually dry, with cold smoking for more traditional preparations, but it also can be cured after being brined or cooked. This meat product is one of many food items recognized and protected by the European Union as being important to the history and heritage of Italy; this means that, within Europe, only capicola produced in certain regions are able to be sold under specific names, similar to the way Champagne is regulated in France.
The authentic type of meat that is used to make capicola is either the shoulder or the neck of a pig, although non-traditional recipes sometimes use leaner cuts of meat for the sake of convenience. The meat from these areas is used because it is particularly tender and because of the fat content. The marbled fat inside the meat is very important to the final flavor, largely because it helps to temper the intense flavor the spices impart.
Both the hot and sweet varieties of capicola begin with preparing the meat for the aging process. This can involve covering the meat in salt and letting it sit for up to a month or placing the meat in a salty brine to achieve the same results. The brine in which the meat is placed sometimes contains wine.
Once the first step is completed, the salt is wiped away and the meat is washed to remove as much salt as possible and clean the surface. Some recipes call for the meat to be rinsed in a good amount of wine, although the exact reason for this is not really clear. One idea is that the alcohol in the wine could act as a disinfectant, killing any harmful bacteria that might have settled on unsalted surface areas.
The cleaned pork is liberally sprinkled with hot red pepper or black pepper along with paprika. Milder versions can be made by using less intense or lesser amounts of red pepper. The entire piece of meat is then wrapped in a natural casing and hung for anywhere from one to three months or longer. Cold smoking can occur during this time. The finished capicola has a very spicy flavor and the skin and outer layers of meat can become stained by the paprika and red pepper, giving it a bright reddish tint.
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