The Italians are the masters of preserving pork. Their savory sausages run the gamut from prosciutto to mortadella meat. While you can find imitations of mortadella all around the world, including the American bologna and the Russian doctor’s sausage, I personally think that when it comes to mortadella, the Italians do it best. Sometimes misspelled as mortadello or mortadela, this simple cold cut has quickly become a staple in my sandwiches.
In order to explain why, let’s take a minute to dive into the background of mortadella and cured meat in general.
What is Mortadella Meat and What Is It Made Of?
Mortadella is a cooked cured sausage that’s made from finely ground pork meat. While the exact seasonings used in mortadella vary, it’s almost always flavored with myrtle berries, salt, and pepper. One of the defining characteristics of true mortadella is the addition of a small amount of high-fat pork late in the mixing process, usually from the pig’s neck. This added fat gives mortadella a unique marbled look despite the fine, even grind of the bulk of the pork.
While mortadella is often cured for some time, it’s also cooked for several hours in a low-temperature oven before it’s shipped and sold. This means that mortadella is “safer” than other cured meats, since the inside of the sausage tends to reach 160 F. While mortadella is often cooked in a low-temperature oven, some manufacturers turn to sous vide to ensure more precise temperature control.
If you’re familiar with other cold cuts, you might have noticed that this sounds a lot like bologna. That’s because it is! Mortadella is quite similar to bologna in many ways. In fact, the biggest difference between Italian mortadella and American bologna is that bologna omits the added fat. With a bit of searching, you can find high-quality bologna that’s very comparable to Italian mortadella in pretty much every other way.
Should you decide to purchase or make your own mortadella, be prepared to answer questions about the meaning of mortadella in English.
Mortadella, meaning “mortar ground sausage,” specifically refers to a finely ground pork sausage that’s flavored with myrtle berries and added pork fat. That said, it’s usually easier to simply say it’s Italian bologna.
In order to get an idea of how mortadella is used, here’s a quick recipe for a classic Italian-style mortadella sandwich. This simple masterpiece shows off mortadella’s bold, simple pork flavors with just the right set of fresh, flavorful additions.
2 pieces of your favorite high-quality bread
1/4 lb mortadella, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp olive oil
1 tbsp mayonnaise
1/4 cup basil, loose
2 thin slices mozzarella (or other cheese)
Brush the bread with oil and lightly toast. Spread with mayo, then top with mortadella, basil, and mozzarella. Fold into a sandwich and serve.
While this simple sandwich is absolutely wonderful, one way to take advantage of Mortadella’s signature added fat is to lightly fry it. Here’s a slightly different recipe that uses the rendered fat to toast the bread.
2 pieces of your favorite high-quality bread
1/4 lb of mortadella, thinly sliced
2 slices provolone (or other cheese)
a bit of oil or butter for frying
Stack the mortadella in a smooth, even cake. Place a skillet over medium heat and fry the mortadella stack until the edges start to brown, flipping once. I usually give mine about three minutes per side. Just before it finishes, lay out your bread and top each piece with a slice of cheese. When your mortadella finishes, immediately place in in between the bread and cheese to make a sandwich.
Add a touch of oil or butter to your pan before putting the sandwich in the frying pan. Use a second frying pan as a weight to push down on the top of the sandwich and cook for about three minutes per side on medium heat or until the bread is somewhat crispy. Remove and serve.
The term “muffuletta” refers to both a style of Italian bread and a sandwich made with this style of bread in America. It’s a delicious celebration of Italian-American culture that’s pretty easy to make at home with the right ingredients.
1 loaf muffuletta (or any long roll of bread)
1/2 cup olives, pitted and chopped coarsely
1/2 cup giardiniera, chopped coarsely
1/4 lb sliced salami
1/4 lb sliced ham
1/4 lb sliced mortadella (or bologna)
1/4 lb sliced provolone
1/4 lb sliced mozzarella
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1. Mix olives and giardinera to make an olive salad.
2. Cut the loaf in half. Drizzle olive oil on both the top and bottom slices.
3. Cover the bottom loaf with alternating layers of meat and cheese.
4. Spread the olive and giardiniera mixture on top
5. Cover with the remaining slice of bread and enjoy!
Mortadella with Pistachios
Mortadella is often seasoned with colorful, flavorful additions like pistachios, peppers, and olives. It’s quite similar to a product called an “olive loaf” in the United States.
These additions tend to be incorporated after the meat is well mixed, giving the sliced mortadella a distinctive look and texture. You can quite easily see large, flat sections of pistachios, olives, or peppers in the finished product. This sort of mortadella makes for extra delicious sandwiches due to the added flavors.
In Russia, mortadella is called “doctor’s sausage” and is made a little bit differently. It’s made of a mix of both beef and pork (instead of just pork), there are no added bits of fat, it’s flavored with nutmeg and coriander instead of myrtle berries, and it usually contains both eggs and milk.
Real mortadella does not contain eggs and milk is seasoned with myrtle berries as well as other flavorings (sometimes including nutmeg and coriander), and has added fat to give it the distinctive taste and texture that its fans enjoy. There’s certainly nothing wrong with doctor’s sausage, however, and it can be used in most recipes as a very close substitute. Your sandwiches will taste a bit different, but they’ll still be delicious.
Like mortadella, bologna is a sausage that’s made with finely ground pork that’s seasoned with myrtle berries. Bologna is actually quite close to mortadella, and many makers of fine cold cuts will make bologna that’s seasoned with myrtle berries and pistachios in the style of classic Italian mortadella.
Because importing mortadella was banned in the United States until the year 2000, most American consumers are much more familiar with bologna than its Italian counterpart. The bologna cold cut sandwich is an American classic that works just as well with Mortadella as with the more “traditional” bologna lunchmeat.
While bologna is traditionally made with pork, you can find other animals used as bologna meat as well. This includes turkey, chicken, and beef.
Baloney – Mortadella, American Style
Mortadella originates from the town of Bologna, Italy. The American version, bologna (or baloney), is named after this location. While this style of processed meat has been around for years, the term baloney to refer to nonsense sprang into popularity in the 1930’s after it was used in campaign speeches by Alfred E. Smith, New York mayor and presidential hopeful.
Smith drew on his experience working in a sausage factory in order to find material for his speeches, giving him both this colorful term and plenty of anecdotes that he used to relate to potential voters. While the term bologna might mean nonsense, the bologna food item is a household staple. Americans consume about 800 million pounds of it annually.
Ring bologna (or baloney) is sold as a thinner, whole sausage that’s typically bent into a ring (hence the name). It’s perfect for use in appetizers and party trays due to its smaller diameter and the fact that you can buy it whole. This makes it much easier to cube or cut into other unusual shapes before you present it to your guests.
Other than the size and shape, however, ring bologna is quite similar to “regular” bologna.
Making Mortadella At Home
If you’ve got a meat grinder, sausage casings, and plenty of pork, it’s not too hard to make your own mortadella. The recipe is simple: cure some pork shoulder with salt, grind it with spices, then puree it until it’s super smooth. Next, mix in some cubed fat, as well as whole peppercorns, pistachios, or other additions that you think, will go well with the pork. Finally, squeeze the mixture into casings, tie them up for support, and slow cook them until they reach an internal temperature of 160 F.
Here’s a detailed recipe for making mortadella at home.
4 lbs pork shoulder, ground (you can grind this yourself if you’d prefer)
1/2 lb pork fat, ground
1/2 lb pork fat, cubed
1/4 cup salt
2 tsp InstaCure #1
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp whole white peppercorns
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp caraway seed
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 sausage casings, able to withstand low heat for several hours
butcher’s twine to tie
several large freezer bags
A Note On Equipment
The best way to make mortadella at home is to grind the pork yourself, but you can certainly make due without owning a meat grinder. You will, however, need to use a food processor to achieve the traditional smooth texture that’s found in this style of processed meat. A coffee grinder or mortar and pestle is necessary to grind the spices. As far as stuffing sausages goes, most people prefer to use the sausage stuffer on their meat grinder, but you can get by without one if you’re willing to simply spend more time doing things by hand.
- Chill your meat to just above freezing. this will make it easier to work with.
- Soak the sausage casings in cold water.
- Grind all of your spices together.
- In a chilled mixer bowl, mix the ground pork, salt, the curing salt, the garlic, and the ground spices. Mix thoroughly for several minutes.
- Chill your mixed meat for at least 30 minutes or until it’s just above freezing.
- Place about a quarter of your meat mixture in a food processor and puree. Keep a container of ice cold water on hand to keep your processor well lubricated, but try to add the smallest amount of water possible to make things work. Blending quickly is best, since the machine will heat up your chilled meat and cause the fat and lean meat to separate. You want a smooth, even texture that’s reminiscent of thick mashed potatoes. Put the blended meat in a chilled mixing bowl and repeat until you’ve blended all of your meat.
- Add the cubed fat, pistachios, and any other additions you’d like to make to your bowl and mix well until everything is evenly distributed. Again, try to keep things cool here. There’s nothing wrong with putting the mixing bowl back in the fridge for a few minutes if you think you’re heating it up too much.
- Stuff the processed meat into your sausage tubes. You can actually get by with using tightly wrapped plastic wrap that you’ve poked holes in, but I feel like this is one aspect of food preparation that you might not want to skimp on.
- Let the sausages chill in the refrigerator overnight (for at least 12 hours) to let the curing mix work.
- Slow cook your sausages to an internal temp of 160F. There are two ways to do this: you can put them in an oven on low for several hours and check with a temperature probe, or you can immerse them in a bath of 160F water for a longer period of time, ensuring that they’ll hit exactly 160F with no possibility of overcooking. I think the second method (called sous vide) is easier at home. If you don’t have a sous vide setup, the best thing to do is to place your sausages in airtight plastic bags and immerse them in a pot on the stove. Use a thermometer to monitor your water temperature and keep it as close to 160F as possible for four or five hours, depending on how thick your sausages are.
- Chill your cooked sausages overnight (for at least ten hours) before serving. Simply cut them into thin slices for use on sandwiches or cube them in order to serve them as part of an appetizer tray!
Are Myrtle Berries Still Found In Modern Mortadella?
The Italians (or Romans, depending on who you ask) used myrtle berries in order to flavor their cured sausages before peppercorns were widely used as a way to flavor food. These days, myrtle berries are not a necessary ingredient in mortadella. They are, however, commonly used in many genuine Italian preparations of this marvelous meat.
Allspice isn’t quite the same as the Mediterranean myrtle berry, but it’s got a quite a few similarities and can be substituted in a pinch. In fact, the allspice plant is sometimes called the “myrtle pepper” due to its strong similarities.
In both American and Italy, different sausage makers use different blends of spices and flavorings for their mortadella (or bologna). This means that you can find mortadella with myrtle berries (or allspice) and without, as long as you know where to look.
What Is Myrtle, Anyway?
Myrtle is a type of flowering plant that’s quite common in southern Europe, especially the Mediterranean region. It’s a shrub that can grow to over 15 feet tall that has large, fragrant leaves. It produces round berries filled with several seeds which have been used to flavor European recipes for many centuries.
In addition to the berries, traditional Italian cooking sometimes makes use of myrtle leaves or twigs to add additional flavor. On the island of Sardinia, myrtle berries and leaves are made into a liqueur called mirto.
What Do Myrtle Berries Taste Like?
Allspice is pretty darn close to myrtle as far as taste is concerned. If you’re worried about getting a more authentic taste, try adding a hint of juniper berries to your allspice in order to more accurately replicate the taste of myrtle. That said, you’re not adding a huge amount of myrtle to mortadella in most cases, so it’s not likely that anyone will notice that you substituted allspice.
Differences between Mortadella and Bologna
Mortadella and bologna are both incredibly similar. Both of these processed meats are made from finely ground pork that’s often flavored with myrtle berries. They’re both salted, cured, and cooked to a safe internal temperature. Neither one is aged, and both are frequently made with scraps.
The easiest way to tell if you’ve got mortadella or bologna is to look for the inclusion of visible pieces of fat. Mortadella is always made by mixing finely ground pork with more coarsely ground pieces of pork fat, while bologna cannot have visible pieces of fat under US law.
One more subtle difference involves what each sausage is made of. While you can get some pretty high-quality bologna, a lot of the stuff in the supermarket is made out of pieces of pig you don’t really want to eat. Conversely, while mortadella is often made with scraps, it seems to be higher quality stuff. I’m much happier to snack on plain mortadella with no condiments or seasonings. This makes it a much better choice of ingredient if you’re making a simple sandwich (like the ones in the recipes above).
Mortadella isn’t especially common in the US, especially since its import was banned from the 1970’s to the year 2000. You can pick it up from specialty food retailers or order it online from one of several companies should you decide that you want to give it a try. That said, it’s worth noting that mortadella is quite similar to high-quality bologna. Consider searching for both and simply picking up whichever option is cheaper and more readily available in your area.
If you can’t find anything local, don’t worry too much about buying something online. Mortadella is pretty resilient and modern shipping companies will know how to handle your package to avoid spoilage. It might not be quite as fresh as the stuff you can get from a local butcher in Italy, but it’ll still be quite tasty.
Other Recipes With Mortadella
Just like bologna, mortadella is most commonly enjoyed as a cold cut or a sandwich meat. You can, however, take advantage of this Italian masterpiece in a few other unique ways.
Perhaps the simplest (and most obvious) is to bake mortadella into a stromboli, a kind of rolled up pizza. The general idea is simple: wrap pizza dough around mortadella and other classic Italian ingredients like mozzarella, olive oil, basil, olives, and tomato sauce and bake until the dough is cooked and the cheese is melted. Here’s a closer look at how you can make this simple dish at home.
Mortadella Stromboli Recipe
1 14 oz package refrigerated pizza dough
6 oz grated Swiss cheese
4 oz mozzarella, sliced into small pieces
3/4 cup olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/4 lb mortadella, cut into thin ribbons
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Mortadella Stromboli Directions
1. Preheat your oven to 425F
2. Lightly spread a small amount of olive oil over a baking sheet. Cut the pizza dough in half and lay both halves out on the baking sheet.
3. Spread most of the cheese evenly along the dough halves, leaving about an inch of a border between the cheese and the edge of the dough. Try to reserve about 1/3 of each cheese for later.
4. Place about a quarter of the remaining ingredients in the center of each cheese pile, holding about half of the ingredients in reserve.
5. Fold the dough in half lengthwise and squeeze the edges to form a seal. Use a knife to cut small slits in the top of each pocket to let steam escape while you cook it.
6. Put your cookie sheet in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes or until the stromboli begins to brown. Brush with more olive oil and then top with the remaining toppings.
7. Return the cookie sheet to the oven until the cheese on top of the stromboli pockets melts. Remove from the oven and let the stromboli rest for at least five minutes before serving.
Combining Mortadella With Sweet Fruit
While it’s not the most common combination in America, Italians love combining preserved pork products with fresh fruit. The combination of savory meat and sweet natural sugars is quite sublime. Consider pairing your mortadella with jam (like you might a croque monsieur, for example) or adding figs, pears, or other fresh fruit to your mortadella sandwiches. You might not love the taste at first, but it’s a simple idea that you can experiment with to broaden your culinary horizons.
Is Mortadella Made in Bologna?
While mortadella and the town of Bologna, Italy have lots of history together, there’s no law that says that Mortadella has to be in Bologna. Instead, it can be produced pretty much anywhere in the world, including in your kitchen. Note that bologna isn’t produced in the town of Bologna, either — it’s simply named after a town that’s famous for producing a large amount of a similar sausage.
What Type of Meat is In Mortadella?
Genuine mortadella is made exclusively from pork. You can, however, find similar sausage made with other meats. The claim that these sausages are mortadella is simply baloney. Mortadella’s distinct spiced pork flavor is part of its appeal, while the bits of pork fat immersed in the sea of uniform sausage give it its identity. You simply cannot have these things in a product that’s made from turkey or beef.
Again, though, you can very much have high-quality bologna that’s made from non-pork meats. If that’s the sort of thing you’re after, I think you’re better off looking to the Americans for their expertise, not the Italians. When it comes to putting a unique spin on the culinary culture of another civilization, nobody can do a better job than the US.
Mortadella: The Italian Bologna
Mortadella is a popular processed meat in many parts of Europe. Its distinctive myrtle berry-infused flavor and fatty texture make it a perfect cold cut for use in sandwiches, appetizer trays, and more. While it’s quite similar to the American lunchmeat called bologna, genuine mortadella has a few unique features that make it the superior choice in some situations.
Try picking some up at your local deli and see what you think! You’ll be surprised at how rich and flavorful this simple Italian bologna is and how easy it is to incorporate into a simple, delicious sandwich.