You’re doing yourself a serious disservice if you’re a meat-lover and you haven’t tried the dried beef tradition of cecina.
Cecina has all the irresistible flavors of the most celebrated cured meat creations from around the world with a fascinating history and cross-cultural reach that makes it just as appealing to learn about as it is to munch on.
What Is Cecina?
Cecina is a Spanish cured meat that is a type of preserved meat that has its roots in the rustic folk cooking techniques of post-classical Spain, presumably dating back before the 4th century B.C.E.
More specifically, it’s an export of the provinces of León (from whence its most well-known iteration, cecina de León, takes its name) and Palencia in the country’s mountainous northwest corner.
These high-altitude regions are warm, dry, and teeming with wild game-an ideal environment to master the art of curing meats.
Cecina is customarily prepared by taking many a thin slice of beef, salting it heavily, and allowing it to dry in the open air, with or without first being smoked.
While cow is the most common protein base for cecina, it’s not unusual for it to be made with meat from horse meat, pigs, goats, oxen, and even rabbits, depending on what is available.
Where Does the Name “Cecina” Come From?
How cecina got its name remains a bit of a mystery. The food is of Spanish origin, but the word cecina is not Spanish.
Some food scholars subscribe to the theory that “cecina” is a play on the Latin word “sicco,” which means “dry.” Others think it’s more likely an ancient ancestor of the modern Spanish “cerezo,” meaning “cherry,” a reference to its signature deep red color.
It’s even possible that the word has an etymological link to Cecina, Tuscany, a small settlement town founded and named after Albinus Caecina, who served as consul during the height of the Western Roman empire.
None of that really matters, though. The only thing that matters is that somewhere along the line, some genius gave us the gift of cecina and later shared that gift with the rest of the world.
How Is Cecina Made?
As far as its fundamental ingredients go, cecina isn’t all that different from other preserved meat products like bresaola or salami. The thing that sets it apart as a traditional dish is the way-or ways-it’s cured.
It can be air-dried, sun-dried, or smoked, but it’s far more common for the maker to employ more than one of these methods in combination.
Here is a more detailed breakdown of cecina’s journey from pasture to plate:
First, the butcher takes whatever meat they have selected and cuts it into paper-thin slices to give it a delicate, uniform consistency.
This initial step is one of the most important, as it ensures that the finished product will have the desired taste and textural characteristics.
Next, the sliced meat is covered in a thick salt rind (sometimes sea salt) and left to sit for several days. Salting serves two purposes: it imparts flavor and cures the meat by drawing out moisture and eliminating harmful bacteria. Once most of the salt has been absorbed, the meat is ready for washing and drying.
Following salado, which constitutes the first curing stage, the meat is washed thoroughly to remove the excess salt clinging to the surface.
This step is cursory but crucial-as you know, oversalted meat can be quite unpalatable.
Asentamiento literally translates to “settling.” The freshly salted meat is laid out or hung up to dry during this stage.
Sometimes, the drying takes place in small smokehouse-like larders; other times, it may be arranged out in the sun, which tends to introduce a slight pungency. Air-drying is a slow, painstaking procedure-it can take weeks or even months to do properly.
Finally, the meat is smoked to cap off the curing process and lend it further depth. By the time the meat finishes smoking, it will have developed a tough, brownish crust.
This crust is removed to reveal the beautifully marbled, mahogany-colored meat beneath, which is then ready to sell or savor.
What Does Cecina Taste Like?
Most varieties of cecina are described as having an emphatic beefy flavor, with a smoky undercurrent and prominent notes of salt, earthiness, and aged wood. In other words, it’s flippin’ delicious. It’s a common charcuterie meat.
Even though it’s frequently subjected to multiple curing methods, cecina is astonishingly tender and succulent.
It’s also not as salty as you might expect, though we caution against using additional salt, as doing so can overpower the more subtle flavors on display.
Spanish Cecina vs. Mexican Cecina
In addition to being a staple in its native Spain, cecina is also immensely popular as a snack food and culinary ingredient in Mexico and other parts of Central & South America, where it took hold as a staple following the Spanish conquests of the early 16th century.
For the most part, Mexican cecina is nearly identical to traditional Spanish cecina. The biggest difference is that the Mexican version leans into the spice, often being rubbed with or marinated in a potent mixture of chiles before its sun-dried and subsequently smoked.
Uses for Cecina
Like many other types of cured meats, cecina can be enjoyed on its own or used as a primary ingredient or flavoring in a wide variety of dishes.
When served as a snack, cecina is typically paired with bread, cheese, or fruit. In this way, it’s not unlike cured meats products like salami, bresaola, pastirma, lomo embuchado, prosciutto, or even some kinds of jerky.
As a culinary component, cecina is usually cooked briefly (a minute or two on the grill or skillet can make it even more tender and highlight its unique complexities) and added to dishes like tacos and quesadillas.
You can also eat it on its own with items like grilled onions and peppers, guacamole, pico de gallo, cilantro, or tortillas on the side.
Where to Buy Cecina
There is a chance that you can get packaged cecina at your local supermarket or specialty foods store if you live in an urban area with a thriving Latin American community.
You may even be able to find freshly made or imported cecina if you have a Spanish or Mexican mercado in your neighborhood.
Otherwise, your best bet is to go online. The internet has no shortage of shops that specialize in artisanal and “designer” meats.
For the most authentic experience possible, consider buying your cecina directly from Spain and having it priority-shipped to your location. It will undoubtedly be better that way.