Chorizo 101

Chorizo 101

Many of us were introduced to chorizo with our first taste of paella. It was a prize to find small slices of garlicky cured pork that were cooked until their surfaces crisped and glistened with paprika-tinged flavor tucked among the shrimp, chicken and rice. Maybe like me, you will hungrily dig out these salty, savory discs, eating them before anything else in this classic Spanish mash-up.

Discovering chorizo via paella made me believe, erroneously, that this spicy sausage was Spanish. Not necessarily. In fact it is a sausage found in many cuisines:  Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Puerto Rico, throughout South America, and in America's Tex-Mex flavors, plus versions in Goa and the Philippines. Although to my palate, the flavor and allure of chorizo is decidedly Iberian.

You might be familiar with the dry chorizo we know from paella and other rice dishes but it can also be fresh or semi-cured, smoked, lightly spiced or picante.

What all chorizos have in common is that they're seasoned with chiles, garlic, and smoked paprika -- seasonings that not only add flavor but also a red tint. Most are made with pork but there are versions, found usually in Mexico, that are made with venison or beef, there are kosher ones made with beef, and there are even vegan chorizo.

Buying Chorizo

Fresh chorizo is increasingly easy to find at butcher shops, groceries with good meat departments, and also neighborhood markets in Latin neighborhoods. What distinguishes fresh chorizo from another pork or Italian sausage are its spices and a good butcher will know what's been used in those he's selling.

Fresh chorizo is usually sold in large links using hog casings and should be cooked within 4 or 5 days of purchase, although it can be frozen for up to two months.  

Dry cured chorizo sausage, often referred to as Spanish chorizo, is usually sold in long thin links, often with a string tie at the end, packaged in plastic, and sold unrefrigerated. There are both mild and hot versions (picante or caliente) -- the package label will tell you -- but all are slightly salty and many also have a smoky flavor from the paprika. In well-stocked deli departments it is also sold in thick links and cut by the slice, the way you'd buy salami. Boar's Head makes one that is quite good and it's an appealing addition to a sandwich, a panini, or an antipasto platter.

Dry chorizo does not need to be refrigerated and can be kept in its package at room temperature until you're ready to cook with it. I recommend, however, that if you buy slices of deli chorizo, to keep it refrigerated and use it within 5 days of purchase, similar to how you'd keep and use any sliced cured meats.

Some of the best dry chorizo is made by La Palacios, which is imported from La Rioja in Spain, and there are other local and regional brands -- both made in the US and imported from Spain. Local producers are increasingly making their own version of this traditional sausage, adding the distinctive spices and flavorings -- chile, garlic and paprika. In the New York area, Chestnut Valley makes a medium-spicy fresh version that's nitrate-free and made with pork without hormones or antibiotics that they sell through NYC-area Whole Foods stores.

There is also a semi-cured chorizo that has the intense flavor of the dry but it must be cooked before eating. And from Mallorca, there is semi-soft chorizo that is fully cooked and spreadable, with the consistency of a coarse paté.

Cooking With Chorizo

Fresh chorizo can be sautéed or grilled as whole links or used in recipes. The meat mixture can also be taken out of its casings and cooked in smaller amounts, as patties, or rolled into small meatballs.

When made with other ingredients in recipes, chorizo is a wonderful addition to chili, it can take the place of other sausages in classic dishes like jambalaya, adds flavor to huevos rancheros or a meatloaf mix, or is a key part of the classic combination of chorizo, egg and potatoes.

Dry chorizo is also versatile. You can add it to a plate of tapas, alongside a piece of manchego cheese or with briny olives. Slices can be browned and served with eggs in place of bacon, added to beans -- it's a common ingredient in Brazil's national dish, feijoada -- or added to a sandwich or tacos. It is included in most paellas and other iconic Spanish dishes, including fidelios, a dish similar to paella but made with noodles instead of rice. Here is a recipe for paella from La Tienda, an excellent source for Spanish ingredients.

Another way to use dry chorizo is to give smoky flavor to beans or vegetables.  In a recipe by David Tanis for Garbanzos and Greens With Chorizo, only six ounces of the chorizo gives flavor to a soupy mix of chickpeas (garbanzos) and greens, which could be kale or Swiss chard. If you substitute canned garbanzos for the dry you could make this recipe in 15 minutes.  See the link below.

One of my favorite ways to cook with dry chorizo is also one of the easiest. I toss cooked green beans or haricots verts with thin slices of chorizo that I've sautéed just long enough to crisp the surface and release some of the spicy red oiliness from the sausage. It's simple to make and produces a dish that is special enough for company, maybe served alongside a whole roasted fish. See our recipe.

Making Fresh Chorizo

If you've never made your own sausage, chorizo could be a good first one to try since the ingredients are all easy to get and you'll need no special equipment other than a food processor. In this recipe adapted from Victoria Wise in her excellent small cookbook, Sausage: Recipes for Making and Cooking with Homemade Sausage (Ten Speed Press, 2010), she credits a flamenco guitarist named Anzonini for the recipe.

This recipe makes 2 1/2 pounds.

2 ancho or dried red chiles, stems and seeds removed
1 cup water
8 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
6 ounces salt pork, finely chopped
2 1/2 pounds ground pork
3 tablespoons chile powder, preferably ancho
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

  1. In a small saucepan combine the dried chiles and water and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium and simmer until the chiles are quite soft, about 5 minutes.
  2. Remove from the heat and let cool in their water for 10 minutes.
  3. In a food processor combine the cooled chiles, 1/4 cup of the cooking water (don't discard the rest; reserve it), and the garlic and process to a fine paste. Add the salt pork and process until combined.
  4. Place the ground pork into a large bowl, add the chile mixture from the processor, chile powder, black pepper, 2 teaspoons of the salt, and the remaining chile cooking water, and using your clean hands, mix until completely combined.
  5. Cook a small piece and taste. If needed, add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the mixture and again use your hands to mix it in.  
  6. Cover and refrigerate overnight to blend the flavors. Use the sausage in bulk, shaping it into patties or meatballs depending on the recipe. Or stuff it into hog casing.   
  7. The sausage mixture can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 5 days or in the freezer for two months.

Even if you're not up to making your own chorizo, a few thin slices of dry chorizo, fried until the edges brown and some of its oily flavor begins to glisten, added to a bowl of vegetables, a salad, or maybe to a pan of quickly sautéed wild shrimp, can add a satisfying Iberian flavor to almost anything.





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