Szalonna is an essential food staple in Hungary—a fact which is at once clear when visiting any butcher at the Central Market (or any other neighborhood market hall in Hungary). It’s common to see several types of szalonna at a butcher stall, sometimes up to 15 or even 20 different types. In the Hungarian classic A Csemegepultos Naplója (which roughly translates as “The Diary of a Butcher”) Márton Gerlóczy writes about market life “there is more fat in the air here than oxygen” … and according to butchers here “a man under 100 kilos is just a Christmas tree ornament.”
What Is Szalonna, and How Is It Eaten?
Szalonna the preserved (salted or smoked) fatty cuts of pork. It’s an ancient method to preserve food and energy, and was useful for helping people stay nourished while they worked hard in the fields in the summer heat or the cold winter weather. Szalonna is used in several ways. It is an ingredient in the preparation of many classic Hungarian dishes, and served on a charcuterie platter (hidegtál) and eaten (there’s no need to further cook it, just slice it as thinly as possible) with fresh white bread, peppers, and tomatoes. It is also commonly roasted over an open fire at a szalonnasütés (bacon roasting).
Hungarians eat szalonna in all kinds of shapes, styles, and situations, but most of it will end up being used in soups, stews, or other traditional dishes. When cooking with szalonna, it is classically sautéed until the fat melts, some diced onions are added, and then a good amount of paprika is stirred in. “Somewhere along the line the Hungarians hit on the holy trinity of lard, onion, and pure ground paprika. This simple combination became the base of virtually unlimited taste combinations,” wrote George Lang in The Cuisine of Hungary.
Producing szalonna is a simple process, and involves keeping the raw szalonna (fat) in salt (or brine) for a few days and then smoking it over some kind of hard wood fire (usually from birch or acacia). The amount of salt used for curing depends on the thickness and the fat content of the piece. Some pieces of szalonna are all fat with no streaks of meat, and others are mostly meaty with some marbling of fat. Pieces with more meat (and less fat) are easier to over-salt. Butchers say that thicker, fattier cuts are impossible to over-salt.
More streaks of meat does not necessary mean a higher quality or price. What matters most is the quality of the pork (which usually increases with the size and age of the pig) and the slow, natural smoking process. On average, about one kilogram of salt is used for curing 10 kilograms of szalonna. Some recipes call for cooking the szalonna before it is smoked, while others add a bit of garlic or paprika rub at one stage or another. But generally, the recipe for szalonna is very simple: you add salt, smoke, and time to a piece of pork fat.
Types of Szalonna
There are many different szalonna combinations possible—depending on the cut of meat, the seasoning, and the smoking (type of wood and length)—and they are all given different names, like Kolozsvári, Csécsi, Kenyér, etc. But the szalonna novice who is unfamiliar with these names and preparations will not be able to tell what distinguishes each one just by looking at it. I was recently a speaker at Camp Bacon at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan. At this several-days long celebration of all things bacon, I delivered a presentation entitled “The 50 Shades of Hungarian Bacon.” Afterwards there was a szalonnasütés. While researching for my presentation, I spent some time talking to butchers at a few markets in Budapest, and admiring their wide array of szalonna.
Here’s a list of all of the delicious szalonna I found, and what you can also find if you go szalonna shopping on your own in any market in Hungary.
Csemege Szalonna (Gourmet Szalonna)
A thick piece of salted and smoked pork fatback with the skin remaining on, and with no or very little meat.
Sózott Fehér Szalonna (Salted White Szalonna)
A thick piece of pork fatback, cured in salt, with the skin on, and with no or very little meat. It is not smoked, in fact this is the only kind of traditional szalonna which is not smoked.
Kolozsvári Szalonna (Szalonna from Kolozsvár/Cluj Napoca)
Named for a major town in Transylvania, Romania, this szalonna is made from pork belly (with layers of meat) that is salted and smoked. It is the same cut that is called bacon in English. But it comes in large blocks, and not thin slices, and the skin is left on the bottom.
Főtt, Füstölt Császár Szalonna (Smoked and Cooked Emperor Szalonna)
A piece of Kolozsvári szalonna, which has been boiled. Given the name, the amount of meat on the piece, and the price, this seems to be the prime cut in the world of Hungarian szalonna.
Sült Császár Szalonna (Fried Kolozsvári Szalonna)
Kolozsvári Szalonna which has been cut into big chunks and deep fried.
Bacon Szél Szalonna (Bacon Side Szalonna)
These are long strips cut from the sides of Kolozsvári szalonna when it is being turned into the császár cut or bacon.
Yes, there is also bacon in Hungary and it is actually called it BACON, as in English. There is no Hungarian name for this cut (read more on linguistically distinguishing bacon from szalonna). It is salted and smoked pork belly without the skin and cut into thin slices (and commercially packaged in plastic at grocery stores). It could also be called Kolozsvári szalonna if it wasn’t sliced into bacon!
Angol Szalonna (English Szalonna)
Salted and smoked pork tenderloin with a layer of fat (from the back), and the skin kept on. The outside is also slightly marinated to get a nice pink color and a softer texture.
Erdélyi Szalonna (Transylvanian Szalonna)
One of the thinner kinds of szalonna, this is the lower part of a piece of pork belly, with a layer of meat, fat, and the skin left on. It is marinated in salt water, and then smoked.
Paprikás Erdélyi Szalonna (Transylvavian Szalonna with Paprika)
A piece of Erdélyi Szalonna (see above), which is rubbed with sweet paprika after cooling.
Toka Szalonna (Double Chin Szalonna)
As the name implies, this cut is from the double chin of the pig. It is usually brined in salt water (sometimes mixed with garlic, black pepper, and bay leaves) and then smoked.
Csécsi Szalonna (Szalonna Csécs Style or Abált Szalonna)
The origin of the name is uncertain, but it might come from the village of Csécs (located in southeastern Slovakia, on the Hungarian border. Other theories suggest that it was named after a butcher named Dénes Csécsi. This szalonna is usually from the same cut as toka szalonna (the double chin of the pig). It is cooked in salt water (with bay leaf, garlic, and black pepper), smoked, and then rubbed with paprika after it cools. Since Hungarians started using paprika in the late 1500s this szalonna is a relative newcomer to the cuisine.
Kenyér Szalonna (Bread Szalonna)
This is one of the thinner kinds of szalonna you’ll find. It is cured in salt and then smoked. Made from the meat of pigs that are industrially raised for their high meat content, it is a by-product of meat production, with very little or no meat streaks. It is generally looked down on by afficionados and is the cheapest type of szalonna. Still, if you’re looking for something less intimidating than huge chunk of smoked fat, you can go for this smaller piece of smoked fat.
Tea Szalonna (Tea Szalonna)
This cut is about twice as thick (about three to four centimeters thick) as the kenyér szalonna. It is prepared the same way and is widely available. The name sounds a bit puzzling. Why do we call a piece of pork fat “tea” szalonna? It goes back in the days of Austro-Hungarian Monarchy when the adjective “tea” was meant to imply the highest quality for certain products, like szalonna or butter (you still find “tea” butter in Hungary).
Mangalica Szalonna (Szalonna from Mangalica Pork)
All of the above listed szalonnas can be made from standard Hungarian pork or from Mangalica pork, which is a beloved heritage breed in Hungary. Mangalicas have much higher fat content than today’s industrially raised pigs, and they date back to the times when pigs were raised as much for their szalonna as their meat.
Füstölt Libamell (Smoked Goose Breast)
Ok, it is not really a kind of szalonna, but since it is salted and smoked, and it does come with a good layer of goose fat, I think this deserves to be listed here. If you like smoked meat, but don’t eat pork, this is the one you should look for.