Chorizo is a name given to a variety of sausages, both fresh and cured, originating from the Iberian Peninsula (what is 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 actually feature distinguishing characteristics from one another.
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. In general, fattier Spanish chorizos are used for cooking, whereas leaner chorizos are sliced and eaten without cooking; no matter what, both of 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 smoked paprika, like in Spanish chorizo. Pork fat is often added to the meat mixture, along with 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 and even egg dishes.
Where to Buy Chorizo
Thanks to the popularization of ethnic cuisines in the United States, both Spanish and Mexican chorizos are widely available in most major grocery stores.
Spanish chorizos are usually available in the deli or charcuterie. Spanish chorizos can usually be purchased sliced, by the pound like other deli meats, but are also sometimes available by the whole chub. 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 colorings and seasonings.
In addition to regular grocery stores, 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.