Cured meats are not really a big part of our culinary history in the U.S., but they're quickly making their way into our high-end restaurants and supermarkets. And we should be thankful for this meat migration. These meats, Europe's answer to the cold cut, are rich and savory, complex and refined in flavor. European cured meats have been processed the same way for hundreds of years -- which means they've been perfected.

The curing process is different for each type of meat, but it generally involves washing and salting the meat, and hanging it to dry. This process will take at least several months, and can even take a couple of years. And while many European cured meats are still made the old fashioned way, some of them have changed with the times (which is not always a good thing). This means that nitrates, nitrites and sodium, which are pumped and loaded in most American deli meats, can unfortunately often be found in many of these cured meats.

In Europe (particularly in Spain, Italy and France), cured meats are commonly served as tapas, part of an antipasto plate, or at an aperitif, though they also find their way into recipes. These deli meats can make a simple pasta dish exciting or make a green salad feel more substantial -- essentially, they can make almost any dish feel like a satisfying meal. That's why cured meats are the perfect answer for a quick dinner.

If you find yourself with a lack of time, but some prosciutto on hand, you've pretty much got dinner ready. You can serve it with cheese, bread and a salad. Add it to pasta or eggs. Whatever you can throw together can be made better with the addition of cured meats. There are a wide variety of meats to choose from too -- guaranteeing that you'll never tire of them. Click through the slideshow below for a quick tutorial on what's what, and some suggestions on where to find them.

Recipes using cured meats:
Greek Salad Sandwiches
Grilled Goat Cheese Sandwich
Tomato, Prosciutto and Gruyère Sandwiches
Crispy Wrapped Pork Loin with Mustard and Orange Sauce
Pasta with Prosciutto, Lemon and Olives

This post has been updated to include more information about other cured meats in Southern Europe.

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  • Coppa

    Also known as capocollo or capicolla. Coppa is a traditional, rustic Italian cured meat. It tastes similar to prosciutto, and can be used interchangeably in recipes. The difference between the two meats is that coppa is made from pork shoulder or neck and is cured whole; prosciutto is made from the thigh and buttocks. Coppa makes a great addition in hot or cold sandwiches. <strong>Sources:</strong> <a href="http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/olli-salumeria-coppa/?pkey=cfood-meat-poultry" target="_hplink">Williams Sonoma</a> <a href="http://www.caputosgourmetfoods.com/creminelli-capicola/" target="_hplink">Caputos Gourmet Foods</a>

  • Speck

    Just like prosciutto, speck comes from the hind quarters of the pig. The difference between the two however is the way that it's prepared. While they're both cured, speck is cured with spices such as garlic, bay leaves, juniper berries and nutmeg. Once cured, speck is then cold smoked which also adds an additional depth of flavor. Use speck as you would prosciutto, in an omelette, sandwich or on top of pasta; but keep in mind that its flavor is more potent so be sure to pair it with flavors that can stand up to it. <strong>Sources:</strong> <a href="http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/olli-speck/?pkey=cfood-meat-poultry" target="_hplink">Williams Sonoma</a> <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Speck-Alto-Adige-Parmacotto-lb/dp/B0049IJVOK" target="_hplink">Amazon</a>

  • Prosciutto

    Prosciutto is a popular cured meat from Italy (also known as presunto in Portugal and Spain), and it's well known in the U.S., too. It's made from the hind leg of a pig or wild boar and is left to cure for nine months to two years. It is often served as an antipasto, a top of pizzas, in simple pasta dishes and as the star ingredient in sandwiches. With a little prosciutto on hand, you've got a meal just minutes away. <strong>Sources: </strong> <a href="http://www.salumeriabiellese.com/curedpork5.html" target="_hplink">Salumeria Biellese</a> <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Prosciutto-Imported-Parma-Sliced-Pastacheese/dp/B000BICL9O" target="_hplink">Amazon</a>

  • Soppressata

    Soppressata is an Italian pressed sausage that varies largely from region to region. Some soppressata is made from the best cuts of pork meat, while others (notably from Tuscany) are made of the leftover cuts -- more specifically, the head, tongue, belly and stomach. <strong>Sources:</strong> <a href="http://www.salumeriabiellese.com/curedpork5.html" target="_hplink">Salumeria Biellese</a> <a href="http://www.mondofood.com/columbus-sopressata.html" target="_hplink">Mondo Food</a>

  • Bresaola

    While most other cured meats are made from pork, bresaola comes from beef. It's an air-dried, salted beef which has been aged for a couple of months. It's soft and tender, and made from the top round part of the cattle. Bresaola is best when served thinly sliced, at room temperature or slightly chilled. It makes a great addition to an antipasto plate, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice. And would make a great fresh sandwich when paired with arugula and parmesan. <strong>Sources:</strong> <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Bernina-Bresaola/dp/B00348H60M" target="_hplink">Amazon</a> <a href="http://www.salumeriabiellese.com/shoponline.html" target="_hplink">Salumeria Biellese</a>

  • Serrano Ham

    Serrano ham (or Jamon Serrano) is a Spanish dry-cured ham. It's very similar to Italian prosciutto (and the French jambon de Bayonne). The difference is that serrano ham is normally made from a specific breed of pig -- Landrace breed of white pig. Iberico ham is processed in the same way as serrano ham and prosciutto, but its name is given based on the pig it comes from -- the Iberico pigs. This ham comes from either acorn, pastor or Compound-fed Iberico pigs. <strong>Sources:</strong> <a href="http://www.tienda.com/food/products/jm-01.html" target="_hplink">Sliced, at La Tienda</a> <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Campofrio-Bone-Serrano-15-17-pound-Package/dp/B0056CDR7A" target="_hplink">The whole leg, at Amazon</a>

  • Lomo

    This is a popular cured meat in Spain. It's a dry-cured pork tenderloin. There are many versions of it, all dependent on the breed of the pig. But most versions have very little fat. It's delicious when eaten sliced with a piece of Spanish cheese and a side of salad. <strong>Sources:</strong> <a href="http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/olli-lomo/" target="_hplink">Williams Sonoma</a> <a href="http://www.salumeriabiellese.com/products4.html" target="_hplink">Salumeria Biellese</a>

  • WATCH: How To Cure Meat