The Science of Salami

The Science of Salami


A closer look at one of the most delicious charcuterie specialities: salami. Why is it so irresistible? Science answers.

The flavour of salami, according to its more expert enthusiasts, eludes any precise definition: spicy, sweet, hot and savoury. What can be defined without any shadow of a doubt is the satisfying sensation perceived by our taste buds when we pop a slice of it into our mouths. What is the secret behind so much enjoyment if we are not even able to describe its flavour accurately?

First of all, salami owes its wide spectrum of flavours to the way it is made, which consists of minced pork mixed with sugar, spices and saltpeter. The latter ingredient is a compound that was known long ago to the ancient Chinese and Greek populations, even though its use in food only became widespread in the Middle Ages. It is actually Potassium Nitrate (KNO3) and in charcuterie products it acts as a preservative, as well as enhancing the processes and flavours of “curing”. Apart from that, it prevents unwanted microorganisms from spoiling the taste of preserved meat.

The rest, of course, depends on the other ingredients. At the INRA (National Institute of Agronomic Research) laboratory of Clermont-Ferrand, scientits have been interested in salami from an analytical point of view and, after carrying out various tests, they have discovered that its complex taste derives from at least one hundred organic substances, largely attributable to the enzymes of the minced meat and to the bacteria making it ferment.

For this precise reason, the quantity of fats greatly impacts the final taste of the salami, since it is the oxidation of lipids which determines most of the aroma. If something goes wrong in the process of lipid oxidation, for instance, salami has a peculiar rancid aftertaste which causes discerning palates (and not only) to bin it immediately. This is why, to reduce the risk of failure, many producers tend to go overboard with the sugar content.

In fact, the degradation of sugar could lead to acetic acid being released and, in this case, the taste would tend to be vinegary, or 2.3-butanedione which offers a softer buttery flavour. In either case, the flavour is sufficiently pronounced to cover the rancid taste. Quality salami made from a well-balanced mixture of prime materials subjected to a long slow curing process obviously does not require the addition of too much sugar.

On the subject of curing, it is incorrect to think that salami reacts in the same way as ham. Neither is it true to say that the longer it is cured, the better it is. Excessive curing, in fact, tends to dry the salami and much of its aroma evaporates with the moisture. So, here is a useful tip for preserving the fragrance of salami and facilitating the formation of butanedione, making the flavour of your salami even more buttery: simply store it wrapped in cellophane. It may seem heretical but this will slow down the evaporation of moisture and “surgically” prevent the degradation of its sugar content.

Now if you are wondering if it is better “with or without garlic”, it is useful to know that, personal tastes apart, garlic confers sulphate molecules which also enhance its other flavours. So, generally speaking, it is better with garlic.

Finally, if you wish to use salami in your recipes, remember that this type of charcuterie, contrary to what most people believe, does not take kindly to being cooked. The meat hardens, the fats separate and the experience is not a particularly memorable one. It is preferable therefore to use it in fillings.

Have you ever tried making salami fritters for instance? Cut some salami into fairly thick slices and prepare a batter using 150 grams of flour, 200 ml of milk, 1 egg, and a pinch of salt. Dip the salami slices in the batter and fry them for one minute. The result is amazing.