Today, I want to talk about tasso, pronounced TAsow. It sort of rhymes with Tahoe. Tasso is a fantastic charcuterie meat created in southern Louisiana. It is fast cured, seasoned, and smoked pork shoulder. It is easy to prepare and extremely versatile in its uses.
My first memory of Tasso was as the missing item in a gumbo. It seemed like every time we made a gumbo somewhere near the end there were the lamentations of the lack of tasso. One day I finally asked the question: what is tasso? Now, at this point in my culinary career I didn’t understand smoking or curing or seasoning. Nothing in the description differentiated it much from the ham in the fridge save for being spicy. We could sprinkle some Tony Chachere’s on the ham and close the case!
I finally was aware of having tasso for the first time not too long after that in a gumbo. The tasso carries its own seasoning and adds a richness and depth from the smoke and cure to so many dishes. I’d consider tossing in tasso to jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, anything with grits. I’d consider making Eggs Benedict with it too.
How do we tasso ’bout this?
The general steps to make tasso are to carve our pork shoulder into steaks, cure the steaks, then season and smoke them. It can take less than 6 hours start to finish with the majority of that time being curing then smoking the meat. We will need a section of pork shoulder, curing salt, regular salt, and brown sugar to start the cure. After curing and rinsing we will season the meat with the dominant spices being cayenne and black pepper then smoke the meat for an hour or two. And that’s it.
Carve the pork butt
Remember me saying this isn’t a ham. I suppose we can call anything a ham if we collectively agree to suspend agreed upon practices and vernacular. The ham is from the rear of the pig. The pork butt, also known as the pork shoulder, isn’t from the pig’s rear, but is instead named after the barrel that this particular cut of meat was often shipped in. A butt barrel is capable of carrying a buttload of pork shoulder(s) by definition of course.
For our tasso I suggest working with five pounds or so carved from the meaty portion of a shoulder you plan on smoking anyway. We’ll save pulled pork for another day; for now do what you will with the remainder. Alternatively you may find an appropriately sized roast at your local grocer. Just do math to get the curing salt mixture correct if you work with significantly more or less meat. The curing math matters!
Once we’ve identified our cut of meat we are going to cut it into steaks between 3/4 and an inch thick with the grain. We will cure and smoke our tasso with steaks in the grain so that when we later cut the finished tasso thin against the grain to add to pots of gumbo or jambalaya the tasso will fall part and give up all the seasoning and smoke it has absorbed to the dish. We should now have several steaks resting on a tray ready to be cured.
Tasso some salt on it!
We need to cure the meat now. Curing is the practice of salting with nitrates to prevent bacteria growth throughout a meat. The nitrates give the meat that pink to red hue we know from bacon, pancetta, and various salamis. The method was popular prior to modern refrigeration as a way to preserve meat long after the butchering was done. Curing isn’t so common in cajun food as it seems the early Cajuns were more interested in smoking to preserve. Tasso is lucky enough to receive both treatments.
We’re now ready to cure our shoulder steaks. We’ll mix all of our curing ingredients together thoroughly to make sure there isn’t a single pocket of concentrated pink curing salt. Rub the steaks down on all sides and let it rest in the fridge to cure.
The mixture will first draw liquid out of the meat until the salinity at the surface is reduced. The meat will then draw back in some moisture with the sugar, salt, and nitrates. The reduced moisture content plus the salt and nitrates provide a fairly inhospitable domain for bacteria helping to preserve the meat.
We will cure it for five hours. About half way through I suggest flipping the steaks and spreading any additional cure left in the pan back over the top.
After five hours of curing remove the steaks from refrigeration, rinse with cold water and pat dry with paper towels or allow to dry. Now is also a great time to warm up the smoker to about 225 °F.
Now it’s time for the Tony Chachere’s
I’m kidding, please don’t do this. We are going to make a saltless rub to coat the steaks in prior to smoking. The have-to-haves are black pepper and cayenne. I also like to use garlic powder and thyme. As is tradition, I’ll give exact amounts below in the recipe block.
We’ll rub this mixture thoroughly to coat and transfer our proto-tasso to the smoker.
Smoke the Tasso
We want to smoke for about 2 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 150 °F. I suggest using a digital thermometer to grab a reading after the first hour then every 30 minutes thereafter. Once the tasso is cooked you should definitely have a bite.
What you do with your tasso is up to you. I’ll suggest a pot of red beans and rice or a nice chicken and andouille gumbo. Or chill, slice then, and place it on your next charcuterie platter.
- 1 Smoker
- 1 Digital food thermometer Optional, but recommended (Affiliate links below)
- 5 lbs pork shoulder pork butt, Boston butt
- 8 oz kosher salt
- 4 oz brown sugar
- 1 tsp Prague #1 pink curing salt I can't find this in a local grocer, affiliate link at the bottom
- 1/4 cup cayenne
- 2 tbsp black pepper
- 2 tbsp paprika
- 2 tbsp granulated garlic
- 2 tbsp dried thyme
- Cut the pork butt into 1 inch steaks. Place steaks on a pan.
- Mix curing ingredients then rub generously onto steaks on a pan.
- Allow to cure in the fridge for 5 hours. About halfway flip them and rub excess cure from pan onto tops of steaks.
- Rinse the cure off of steaks with cold water.
- Prepare smoker to 225 °F.
- Allow the steaks to dry.
- Mix seasonings, rub generously onto steaks
- Smoke steaks until they reach an internal temperature of 150 °F, about 2 hours.
Prague Powder #1 Pink Curing Salt – This is the curing salt that I use for tasso, bacon, and pastrami.