Get to Know Tasso Ham, the Cajun Pork Preparation That Tells Louisiana's Story
Without it, gumbo and jambalaya just wouldn't be the same.
When it comes to most Louisiana eats, seafood usually gets top billing. From certain gumbos (the official state cuisine) to shrimp po'boys to the social event that is a crawfish boil, the star protein is more likely to come from those bayou or Gulf waters than land.
That doesn't mean Cajun cooking starts in the water and ends at the shoreline. Take Tasso ham, for just one example. This particular type of heavily smoked and seasoned pork adds a ton of rich, peppery flavor to any kind of stew or broth, meaning that a good gumbo, jambalaya just wouldn't be the same without it.
Yet for those raised outside of one of Louisiana's 64 parishes (their proprietary name for counties), Tasso might be little more than a tantalizing mystery. With that in mind, let's take a closer look at Tasso Ham and the story of its rise to Cajun culinary prominence, which speaks to the broader patterns of cultural collision that still define the regions today.
Its exact origin is unclear, but it's definitely Cajun
Tasso is one of many culinary traditions whose origin is impossible to definitively trace back to one exact moment. However, there are two prevailing theories about how it came to be, both of which involve some level of cultural reinterpretation by Louisiana's late 18th and early 19th-century French settlers.
According to Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine, Tasso may have been borrowed from Native American cooking practices and adopted by former soldiers who settled in the Cajun prairies a bit inland from the bayou. Tribes in the American southeast like the Alibamon were known to smoke their meats as a method of preservation, and the development of ties between the tribe and these soldiers (usually through intermarriage) may have helped the practice spread through this more inland area of Louisiana at a time when cattle ranching was a fairly common local practice.
On the other hand, some believe Tasso was the main culinary legacy of Spain's (largely failed) effort to hispanicize and tip the regional balance of power away from France. While the 82 Spaniards who came to New Iberia's Malagueño settlement assimilated themselves into the larger Cajun population, they may not have given up on tasajo (Spanish for "smoked beef") as a culinary practice. What gives extra credence to this theory is the fact that tasajo often functioned "as a flavoring agent in a number of dishes throughout Latin America and Spain" as Stir the Pot puts it, making its original purpose very similar to how Tasso features in Cajun cuisine today.
The first Tasso wasn't even pork
The one thing we know for sure about Tasso is that it started its life as a preparation of beef rather than pork. In the 19th century, Tasso existed predominantly in ranching areas known for transporting cattle from the prairie parishes to the markets of New Orleans. Stir the Pot references an unpublished addendum to the 1880 census written by author George Washington Cable, which mentions "jerked beef (tassao) [sic]" as a staple of the Cajun diet in one such community.
There was no exact eureka moment when Tasso switched from beef to pork, but the gradual decline in ranching from the Civil War onward likely explains the eventual transition. Today, any Tasso you find is overwhelmingly likely to come from pork. Though a purist may scoff, turkey Tasso may offer a slightly leaner alternative if that's what you're looking for.
One more thing of note: Today's pork Tasso isn't technically ham. Instead, it comes from a pork shoulder or butt rather than the hind leg cut that gives ham its proper name. That's just how it is, I suppose.
How do you make Tasso ham?
Whether beef or pork shoulder, Tasso involves curing and smoking a bigger hunk of meat before cutting it into smaller slices, about one to three inches thick depending on your preference and how much pork butt you're working with. Some recipes call for doing this slicing ahead of time, so it's really a matter of whatever fits your preference and preparation method.
Get the Recipe: Tasso Ham
Then, it's time for a salt cure (similar to what bacon goes through), with sugar and nitrites frequently added. Unlike dry-cured bacon, however, it only takes three to four hours for Tasso ham to finish curing. The meat should then dry out for a few days, at which point it's generously slathered in a zesty mix of Cajun spices like cayenne and white pepper (with paprika, garlic, and granulated onion sometimes included).
From there, it's time for a hot smoking, ideally over a hardwood like hickory or pecan. Everyone out there seems to have their own preference when it comes to the desired internal temperature (with various recipes advocating for ranges between 150ºF and 170ºF), but letting it smoke for a few hours should do the trick.
So how is Tasso used in Cajun cooking?
Though Tasso ham sandwiches aren't entirely unheard of in the region, you're more likely to encounter Tasso as a seasoning component of some other dish. From gumbo to bean-based dishes and everywhere in between that involves some kind of bayou broth or stew that needs to absorb flavor, Tasso is never too far away.
What makes Tasso different from Andouille?
Like Tasso, Andouille is another product of Cajun cultural interaction. Supposedly, Germans brought sausage making to Louisiana in the first half of the 18th century, and, over time, Andouille took on the qualities it's known for today. What sets it apart from Tasso, of course, is that while Andouille is similarly a smoked pork, it's a sausage that's stuffed into a traditional casing. There are plenty of good gumbo recipes that incorporate both Andouille and Tasso, however, and that's all that really matters.
To understand Tasso ham is to understand not just Cajun country's cuisine, but its history. Passed through multiple different cultures and evolving as economic realities changed, Tasso is a regional oddity that's nonetheless distinctly American in every sense. That — plus a whole lot of flavor — should be reason enough for eaters across the other 49 states to fall in love with Tasso.
Buy it: Tasso Ham, $14.99, D'artanagan