What Is Cotechino?

Dan Harkins

For New Year's celebrations, many Italians traditionally eat a charcuterie of cotechino con lenticchie, or cotechino with lentils. One of the country's most popular prepared meats, cotechino is made of boiled pork sausages with a precise combination of ground fat, rind and butt. Like salami, this charcuterie is preserved with various curing agents like nitrites, and then spiced with a range of ingredients that vary by region — from cinnamon, nutmeg and wine to cloves, garlic and thyme.

Red wine vinegar, which is sometimes used to make cotechino.
Red wine vinegar, which is sometimes used to make cotechino.

Derived from cotica, which is the Italian word for skin, or rind, cotechino might be spelled in a few other ways like coteghino or cotecchino. According to its modern manufacturers, it dates back to the Italian village of Gavello in the early 16th century. Several regions of Italy, particularly in the north, have popularized versions of the meat, with distinctive tweaks in spices and proportions. The city of Modena and other cities in the regions of Modena, Zampone, Lombardy, Veneto and others all have unique recipes.

Garlic is used in some cotechino recipes.
Garlic is used in some cotechino recipes.

The proportions of meat and spices vary, but not much. One recipe for 6 lbs. (about 2.7 kg) of links, provided by chef Len Poli at Sonoma Mountain Sausages, uses just 0.33 lb. (about 149 g) of fat and 1.5 lb (about 680 g) of rind for 3.75 lb. (about 1,700 g) of pork butt. The meat is ground and then cured with salt and other curative agents like dextrose and amesphos.

What makes the links unique is the exact combinations of spices that chefs will add to the meat. Typical constituents include white wine, cinnamon, garlic powder, salt, pepper, marjoram, nutmeg, cloves and thyme. After being finely mixed and sitting in a refrigerator for a day, the meat is stuffed into cow-sized casings to make fat, hand-length sausages. These can be hung on a hook to dry in the air — sometimes for several weeks. A simple boiling brings them ready to be sliced and eaten.

Perhaps the most traditional way to eat cotechino is to make it the star of a lentil stew. Italian chef Mario Batali's recipe, available at his Babbo Ristorante in Enoteca, Italy, lays discs of sliced cotechino over a bed of black lentils spiced with garlic, sage, salt, pepper, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Cotechino is perhaps among the more palatable Italian charcuterie to make use of lesser pig parts. Another storied sausage called salama da sugo uses spiced spare parts and organs, from tongue to lung, that must be boiled for five hours before they are ready to eat.

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