Chorizo is a name given to a variety of sausages, both fresh and cured, originating from the Iberian Peninsula (now Spain and Portugal). Chorizo is made from pork, is heavily seasoned, and has a characteristically red color. Although there are many regional varieties, most chorizo can usually be placed into one of two categories—Spanish or Mexican—which are distinctly different.
Spanish chorizo is a cured, or hard, sausage made from coarsely chopped pork. The red color of Spanish chorizo is due to the heavy amounts of paprika in the spice mix. Depending on the type of paprika used, Spanish chorizo can be either spicy or sweet. The paprika used in Spanish chorizo is almost always smoked, which gives the sausage a deep, smoky flavor. Other ingredients are herbs, garlic, and white wine, and the links can range from short to very long.
Because the sausage has been cured, meaning it has been aged for several weeks, it can be eaten without cooking and is often served sliced as part of a meat tray or tapas assortment. Spanish chorizo is also used to add flavor to cooked dishes like stews or paella, and even for special occasions like before Carnival with Jueves Lardero. In general, fattier Spanish chorizos are used for cooking, whereas leaner chorizos are sliced and eaten without cooking. For both, the casings are edible.
Mexican chorizo is quite different from Spanish chorizo. The meat is usually ground, rather than chopped, and the sausage is fresh rather than cured. The red color of Mexican chorizo usually comes from spicy red pepper rather than the smoked paprika you find in Spanish chorizo. Pork fat is often added to the meat mixture, other spices, and vinegar. The links are short and air dried for one day to a week.
Mexican chorizo is sold raw and must be cooked prior to eating. It can be cooked either in its casing or removed from the casing and cooked like ground meat. Mexican chorizo is a popular grill item but is also used in place of ground beef in tacos, burritos, chili, burgers, soups, and even egg dishes.
Where to Buy Chorizo
Thanks to the popularization of ethnic cuisine in the United States, both Spanish and Mexican chorizo sausages are widely available in most major grocery stores.
Spanish chorizo is usually available in the deli or charcuterie section. Spanish chorizos can usually be purchased sliced, by the pound like other deli meats, or may be available by the whole chub (the entire sausage). Some manufacturers also make smaller, more reasonable chubs that are six to twelve inches in length.
Mexican chorizo is usually sold with other refrigerated meats and sausages and is usually packaged in 1 1/4-pound or 5-link packages. Some better meat departments may even make their own fresh Mexican chorizo available for sale by the pound or link. Some lower quality Mexican chorizos are sold in tubes rather than natural casings and contain a high amount of fat, artificial coloring, and seasonings.
If you cannot find it in your supermarket, usually chorizo can be found at specialty food markets, meat markets, ethnic markets, and sometimes even farmers markets. Because there are so many ways to make chorizo, hand-crafted or artisan varieties are quite popular.