Speck is a smokin' variation of prosciutto

During a cruise this summer with stops in 10 Mediterranean ports, I was intrigued by some delicious, new-to-me foods. One intrigued me so much that I bought more on the big post-vacation Giant Eagle shopping trip the night we got home.


In Italy, I noticed "speck" on signs and menus, "speck" on pizza and pasta and antipasto plates, "speck" in risotto and between slices of bread.

What the heck is speck?

As I could see when I ordered it, speck is very thinly sliced ham, like prosciutto. But unlike prosciutto, it's smoked. And, as I've learned through more research, it's cured in a very interesting way.

The result is a treat that I like much more than I like most prosciutto, which by comparison seems relatively mushy and less flavorful.

According to "The Oxford Companion to Italian Food," speck, which has earned a "Denominazione di origine protetta" or protected origin designation for the Alto Adige region of Italy, is raw ham deboned (unlike prosciutto) and marinated for two weeks in brine flavored with black pepper, pimento, garlic, a little sugar and, distinctively, juniper berries. Then it's dried and lightly smoked for two or three more weeks and hung in a cool place for four to five months.

Families have their own methods for making it at home, using juniper and other piquant woods for smoking, and producers make and sell their own non-DOP versions, so there's a range of types.

Like bacon, the term speck "creates cross-cultural confusion," writes Heather Lauer in the new "Bacon: A Love Story' (William Morrow, $17.99). "Speck is the direct German translation of the word 'bacon.' "

Germans make it, too, but German speck can range from like bacon to like Italian lardo, or smoked fatback. Think of it this way: In the North (Germany), hams tend to be smoked; unsmoked and uncooked prosciutto is more of a Southern (Italian) thing.

Speck is a melding of both, having originated in part of Northern Italy that borders Austria and Switzerland. But these days, speck is popular all over Italy and beyond, and I think you're going to be hearing more about it.

The brand I first found at Market District is Citterio USA, which has been making charcuterie in Pennsylvania's Poconos since 1974. For 4 ounces of thinner-than-paper slices, I paid $7.29, which works out to nearly $30 a pound. Market District also has Citterio speck sliced to order, for $14.99 a pound.

Pittsburgh's own Parma Sausage Co. makes prosciutto but not speck. However, you can find speck in the Strip District at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., where David Sunseri says it has been sold for years. Pennsylvania Macaroni imports Recla from Alto Adige. It's $19.95 a pound, sliced to order. (I also found Recla speck at John McGinnis & Co., in Castle Shannon, for $17.99 a pound.)

I ate my first package of thinly sliced speck as antipasto, but you can cook every which way with speck, which traditionally is cut into thin sticks. The Web site for Speck Alto Adige, speck.it/44.html, gives recipes for hot and cold dishes, main courses and that region's traditional snack of Brettljause: slab speck, sausages, cheese and pickles served, on a wooden board, with crusty bread and hearty wine. (Find more recipes on Recla's site, recla.it/en/suedtiroler_speck.php.)

In Susan McKenna Grant's "Piano Piano Pieno: Authentic Food From a Tuscan Farm" (Rookery, 2006), she gives a regional recipe for a simple Green Cabbage Salad With Speck, which she fries to a bacony crisp (caraway seeds are optional).

In her forthcoming cookbook "Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy: A Feast of 175 Regional Recipes," written with her daughter, Tanya, restaurateur Lidia Bastianich offers a similar salad, made with Savoy cabbage, as well as this speck recipe for a food that's new to me: canederli, or bread dumplings.

"Like many of the most enduring dishes in Italian cooking," she writes, "canederli were born out of frugality, when the poor but clever women of generations past fashioned a tasty new dish from the chunks of old bread that they always saved. In Trentino-Alto Adige, the bread was soaked until soft, bound with flour, formed into balls and cooked -- but of course they would give it great flavor with something from the pantry, herbs or spices, cheese or cured meat. And here canederli have become the essential starch dish used to mop up sauces, as pasta, polenta and rice are in other locales."

Dumplings with Speck (Canederli di Speck)

PG tested

This recipe may look daunting, but it's not, and the results are absolutely delicious.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

  • 2 ounces thick-sliced speck (or bacon or prosciutto)
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 3 cups 1-inch cubes of hearty white bread, day-old but not stale, crusts removed
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 eggs, beaten with a pinch of salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Recommended equipment
  • 9- or 10-inch skillet
  • Wide 8-quart pot
  • 12-inch or larger heavy-bottom skillet or saute pan
  • Rimmed tray or baking sheet

Cut the sliced speck (or bacon or prosciutto) into strips about 1/3 inch wide; chop the strips crosswise to form little square bits of meat.

Pour the olive oil into the smaller skillet and set it over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook until it starts sizzling. Spoon a tablespoon or 2 of water into the pan (so the onions soften without coloring) and cook for 3 to 4 minutes more. Scatter in the chopped speck and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until it has rendered its fat. Scrape the onion and speck into a large bowl and let cool.

Put the bread cubes in another bowl and pour in the milk. Toss cubes so they're all drenched, then let them soak up the milk for about 10 minutes, until completely saturated. By handfuls, squeeze the bread, discarding the excess milk (or saving it for your cat!).

Loosen the compressed bread, tearing it into shreds, and toss into the bowl with the speck. Add the grated cheese, chives, parsley and salt and toss everything together. Pour the beaten eggs over the bread mixture and stir to blend. Finally, sprinkle on 1/2 cup of flour and stir it in to form a moist, sticky dough. Pick up a bit and form it into a ball; if it is too soft to keep a shape, stir in more flour, a tablespoon at a time.

Fill the wide pot with about 6 quarts water, and add 1 tablespoon salt; heat to a boil. Melt the butter in the big skillet over very low heat; turn off the flame but leave the skillet on the burner.

Spread 1/2 cup flour on the tray or baking sheet. With floured hands, scoop up a small portion of dough (a scant 1/4 cup or so). Shape the dough into a 2-inch ball, tossing it from hand to hand and patting it lightly into a round -- don't press or squeeze it. Lay it in the flour and roll the ball to coat it all over. Set it on one side of the tray and form round dumplings from the rest of the dough the same way.

With the poaching water at a steady boil, drop in the dumplings, one at a time but quickly. Handle them gently and don't stir them. Bring the water back to a boil, then adjust it so it simmers steadily. Don't let it boil vigorously, which can break apart the canederli.

Let the dumplings cook, without stirring, until all have risen to the surface of the water. Simmer them for a couple of minutes, then scoop one out and cut into it to check that the center is not wet and the dough looks uniformly cooked through.

Meanwhile, have the big skillet with melted butter warming over very low heat. Lift the cooked dumplings with a spider, let drain over the pot for a few seconds, then gently drop them in the butter. Spoon butter over the canederli and serve them right away -- on individual plates or a platter, family-style, topped with grated cheese.

If you are serving them as an accompaniment to braised or roasted meat, drizzle the pan juices over the canederli. You can also arrange the buttered canederli around the meat on a platter, letting them slowly absorb the juices or sauce.

Makes about 14 canederli, serving 6 or 8.

From "Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy: A Feast of 175 Regional Recipes" by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2009, $35)

Cabbage Salad with Speck (Insalata di Speck)

PG tested

Lidia Bastianich recommends using a mandoline slicer to thinly shred the cabbage, which "makes a wonderful salad with great, resilient texture. Crisp rendered strips of speck (or bacon or prosciutto as alternatives) are a great complement, and the hot vinegar dressing is delicious."

I've seen a version of this salad that includes caraway seeds.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

  • Small head of Savoy cabbage, 1 pound or slightly larger
  • 1/2 pound thinly sliced speck (or bacon or prosciutto), cut into 1/2-inch strips
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup red-wine vinegar

Core the cabbage and cut it into 2 or 3 wedges. With the mandoline or knife, slice the wedges into fine shreds and heap them in a large bowl.

Cut the speck (or bacon or prosciutto) into 1/2-inch strips or ribbons. Set the skillet over medium heat, pour in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and scatter the strips in the pan. Cook the speck, stirring and spreading the ribbons, until they've rendered their fat and are crisp on the edges, about 5 minutes. Blot them on paper towels, then toss in with the cabbage. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over the cabbage, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, and toss again.

Set the empty skillet over high heat, pour in the red-wine vinegar, swirling the pan to deglaze it, and bring the vinegar to a boil. Cook rapidly to reduce the vinegar by half. Immediately pour it over the salad and toss well. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6.

From "Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy: A Feast of 175 Regional Recipes" by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2009, $35)

Food editor Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930 .


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