When you think of Cajun and Creole cuisine, dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee and red beans and rice come to mind. These dishes blend tender vegetables, seafood and meat with flavorful broth and spices to create an unforgettable combination. Unless you’ve spent time in Louisiana, though, you’ve maybe never had the traditional version of these dishes made with tasso ham, a Cajun ham that takes classic Southern recipes to the next level. But what is tasso ham, and what can you use if you can’t find it?

What Is Tasso Ham (and Where Does It Come From)?

Tasso ham is a spiced, smoked pork product made from boneless pork shoulder. That makes it fattier and richer than other types of ham, which are made from the leaner hind leg.

Unlike ham, tasso isn’t typically eaten on its own. That is to say, you wouldn’t make a ham sandwich using tasso. Instead, this sliced or diced product is added to soups, stews, beans and braised vegetable dishes, where it imparts its rich flavor into the broth and simmers long enough to become soft and tender. In some recipes, tasso is treated like sausage or bacon and browned before being used as a garnish. It’s fantastic when combined with poultry, meat or vegetables, but it also tastes great with seafood (like these baked oysters with tasso cream).

While tasso’s origins are hard to track down, we know the word tasso comes from the Spanish word tasajo, which roughly translates to jerky or cured dried meat. Although the word is Spanish, tasso finds its home in the American South, specifically Louisiana where it’s used in Bayou cuisine.

How Does Tasso Taste?

To make tasso ham, a boneless pork shoulder is sliced into one-inch steaks (although it’s sometimes cured whole and sliced later). The meat is salt-cured for a few hours before being heavily spiced with Cajun seasoning. Finally, the ham is smoked until it’s fully cooked, loading it with a rich flavor that’s hard to beat.

In addition to tasting smoky, the curing process makes tasso ham spicy and salty, so it’s a little too intense to eat on its own. It’s a great seasoning addition to dishes like jambalaya, gumbo, Cajun Corn Soup or braised collard greens. Tasso’s texture is firm, which helps it hold up in simmered or braised dishes. After hours of stewing, tasso’s firmness melts, and the salinity is removed into the cooking liquid, turning tasso into a delightfully flavorful, tender and soft bite.

What’s a Good Substitute for Tasso?

Tasso ham is one of the easiest hams to make at home, although the process is time-consuming. My favorite recipe comes from Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman in Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. If you don’t have time to make it, you can buy it at grocery stores or butcher stores…in South Louisiana, anyway.

Outside Louisiana, you’ll have to turn to online retailers (more on that later).

The easiest substitute for tasso ham is regular ham. It’s often sweeter than tasso, so it won’t have the same deeply spicy flavor. When using regular ham, plan to add extra spices to the recipe and maybe a splash of liquid smoke. Ham hocks also make a good substitute, although you’ll need to cook them long enough to make the hocks tender (two to three hours).

Sausages like Spanish chorizo, Portuguese linguica or andouille sausage are fantastic options, too. These sausages are either smoked or seasoned with paprika, giving them a similar rich, smoky character. Mexican chorizo works, too, although it has a tangier, less smoky flavor.

Other suitable substitutes include Canadian bacon or salt pork. Keep in mind that each of these substitutions has a different flavor profile, so you may need to adjust the seasonings in the recipe accordingly.

Where Can You Buy Tasso Ham?

If you live in Louisiana, you’ll likely find tasso at specialty grocery stores and butcher shops. Outside Louisiana, it’s hard to get at the store. Luckily, you can find it online from Amazon and Walmart. D’Artagnan also sells a nitrate- and nitrite-free tasso ham.

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