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Tasso is a type of pork or meat used in Cajun-style cuisine. Though it’s often referred to as tasso ham, it technically isn’t ham. Tasso is made from the pork shoulder butt instead of the more traditional pork shoulder leg. Typically used as an ingredient in a Creole-style dish such as gumbo, jambalaya, or even a breakfast casserole, this smoky pork shoulder is rarely eaten on its own. Highly seasoned with Cajun spices, tasso is relatively hard to get outside of Louisiana.
To cure this Louisiana-based dish, chefs and manufacturers use an array of curing ingredients. While everyone has his own special touch, typical elements include kosher salt, brown sugar, onion powder, bay leaves, cloves, and allspice. The pork is then left to cure for about four hours until it is ready to be rubbed with the Cajun spices.
Traditionally, Cajun cooks rub the cured pork shoulder with a variety of spices such as garlic, cayenne and very importantly, filé powder. Filé powder is made from ground sassafras tree leaves. This seasoning is Creole and it’s mostly found throughout New Orleans and Louisiana.
Other ingredients for a somewhat sweeter, tangier rub might include granulated sugar, honey, and nutmeg. The meat is then smoked for up to 48 hours with this seasoning on it, allowing the seasoning to infuse with the meat. The end product is a moderately tangy, slightly spicy, very smoky meat.
Relatively firm and often cut into chunks or slices, tasso is used in traditional Louisiana recipes such as gumbo, jambalaya, or red beans and rice. Because it’s quite fatty and it comes from a muscle area often used by the pig, this spicy piece of pork is quite flavorful even without the addition of spices. Like ham, the tasso is pink in color with darker edges. It is often sliced thin like pancetta or lunch meat, otherwise it is cubed. It adds a colorful, flavorful kick to any dishes, from breakfast to dinner.
When used as a base flavor in dishes like jambalaya, the tasso is accompanied by other ingredients such as chicken, andouille sausage, vegetables and tomatoes, seafood such as shrimp or crawfish, rice, and stock. In some cases, andouille or smoked sausage or even crumbled chorizo may be used in place of tasso where the pork shoulder is unavailable.
I was in Baton Rouge and ate with a friend. She had jambalaya that tasted wonderful. I asked her the secret and she said it was tasso. It was delicious.
I have to wonder how difficult tasso would be to make at home, if you had a smoker. Pork butt is easily available around here, and I wonder if it's possible to even approach the tasso texture and taste at home. I'd like to try, if I could find a recipe that looked like it might work. It might take some effort, but I'd like to give it a shot for that awesome tasso flavor!
I make red beans and rice with turkey kielbasa since I don't live in Louisiana and can't get tasso very often. However, when I do manage to find some, I can so tell the difference in the dish! The tasso gives it a deep, smoky flavor that you just can't duplicate any other way. Even liquid smoke doesn't do what tasso does.
Then, when you get the beans and rice and a spicy little tasso chunk, it's heaven on earth!
People really tout boudin as being the meat to eat from Louisiana, and it's good, but tasso makes everything taste better. If it's savory, it could probably be improved by adding a little tasso.