Be it air-drying, salting, smoking, or a combination thereof, preserving meat goes back to the beginning of human civilization. By extracting moisture from meat, people could protect it from bacteria and extend its shelf-life to last for the dreary winter months. Curing in salt also enhances the meat’s texture and taste: salt breaks down and softens muscle fibers, enzymes add umami, and aging concentrates flavors. The first known ancient Roman cookbook, Apicius, already featured a recipe for smoked sausage.
With endless regional varieties — think coppa, lardo, pancetta, prosciutto, or mortadella — Italy is the global capital of cured meats but Hungary isn't far behind. Here, sausages and szalonna are the two main categories, which people traditionally prepared during the annual winter pig slaughter.
Sausages come with a spice-heavy mixture of meat and fat (kolbász) or intestines (hurka). “Szalonna” is an umbrella term for all cuts of preserved pork that come from right under the animal’s skin, be it fatback, belly, or jawl. Most szalonna is salted and smoked, but treatments vary by region (in unforested eastern Hungary, Alföld, people often forgo smoking). To this day, szalonna is a cherished, energy-rich sustenance across Hungary, especially among farmers and day laborers. In fact, the cooking fat of choice for many Hungarians is lard, which is rendered szalonna fat.
For a surcharge, the below cured meats are usually also available from Mangalitsa pork, the heritage Hungarian pig known for its curly fleece and marbled meat.
#1 - Kolbász (cured sausage): Made from a paste of meat, fat, and a paprika-heavy spice blend, kolbász is the most common type of preserved sausage in Hungary. After the mixture is stuffed into a tubular casing — usually using the pig’s intestine — it’s cold-smoked, and then dried for a couple of weeks. Kolbász options include regular (csemege), spicy (csípős), hard (száraz), and soft (félszáraz). High-quality kolbász producers use shoulder, leg, or pork belly meats and a 30 percent fat ratio. Cheaper versions can come with bits of connective tissue that, though harmless, aren’t very appetizing. Sliced kolbász is highly versatile, appearing in Hungarian classics like layered potatoes (rakott krumpli) and also as sandwich toppings.
#2 - Szalámi (salami): Traditional salami is a relatively recent type of preserved sausage in Hungary, dating back to the 19th century. Compared to kolbász, szalámi is thicker and usually made without paprika, hence the absence of an orange-red hue to it. It’s also aged for longer so it commands a higher price tag. A premium category is téliszalámi, recognizable by a white protective mold that grows on its surface during drying. Two historic companies, Pick and Herz, are still the main producers. Sliced szalámi works both as a snack and as a sandwich topping.
#3 - Sütőkolbász (roasted paprika sausage): This one is a fresh, unaged sausage made specifically to be roasted within a day or two. The sausage mixture contains the same ingredients as the kolbász above: meat, fat, and paprika-forward spices. In Hungary, many butcher shops serve roast sausages; paired with a slice of crusty bread, a dollop of mustard, and a side pickled vegetables, they make for a tasty and low-priced lunch meal.
#4 - Hurka (roasted offal sausage): This freshly cooked and roasted sausage is the ultimate delicacy for fans of offal. Like kolbász, hurka was traditionally prepared during the annual pig slaughter in the Hungarian countryside. People made a fine paste of the animal’s cooked intestines — liver, lung, heart, blood — and mixed it with rice, to mop up the fat, and a seasoning blend of salt, pepper, and marjoram. Today, the two principal versions are liver (májas) and blood (véres) hurka and many Hungarian butcher shops serve them ready-to-eat.
#5 - Virsli (frankfurter): Frankfurters spread to Hungary from neighboring Vienna in the 19th century and haven’t left since. Instead of appearing in hot dogs, these emulsified and smoked sausages tend to show up on the breakfast table with a slice of bread and a side of mustard, or atop vegetable stews (főzelék).
#6 - Disznósajt (head cheese): As with kolbász and hurka, the making of head cheese also harkens back to the annual pig slaughter when people cook the pig’s head — flesh, tongue, ears, skin and all — with spices and stuff the blend into the pig’s cleaned stomach. This gelatinous mess is then pressed dry and smoked. Served cold and thinly sliced, disznósajt makes for a delicious snack.
#7 - Csemege szalonna (dry-cured and smoked szalonna): The truly all-around szalonna in Hungary, prepared from salted and smoked fatback. This is what Hungarian people use for meat-roasting on a spit over fire (szalonnasütés), for cooking into soups like lebbencs leves, and for sprinkling over the túrós csusza noodle dish.
#8 - Sózott fehér szalonna (dry-cured szalonna): This snow-white slab of fatback comes closest to the Italian lardo — instead of being cooked or smoked, it’s simply cured for weeks in a bed of salt. Thinly sliced, people usually eat it with a piece of bread. Beware, it’s salty.
#9 - Kolozsvári szalonna: A salted and smoked — but not cooked — pork belly cut recognizable by its reddish-brown color and rugged surface that once contained the hog’s ribs. Kolozsvári szalonna exhibits a nice balance of meat and fat and it most often ends up being cooked into other dishes like stuffed cabbage, lecsó, and bakonyi pork as a flavor-booster.
#10 - Abált szalonna: Pork jowl or pork belly is first simmered in an aromatic broth, then get a simple spice rub of paprika and garlic. For a true-to-Hungary experience, cut a few morsels, grab a slice of bread, and enjoy them with crunchy bell peppers and red onions.
#11 - Sonka (ham): Hungary’s hams pale in comparison to those from Europe’s ham empires — Spain, Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic. It’s also the case that Hungarian people eat little ham outside of the peak Easter-season. This may be surprising, since the Mangalitsa lends itself to high-quality hams, in fact, a Spanish company, Monte Nevado, imports a large number of raw Mangalitsa legs from Hungary and resells them as jamons after aging.
#12 - Töpörtyű & Pörc: Töpörtyű (or tepertő) is what remains after fatback is rendered into lard — yes, these crunchy delicacies are best reserved for serious carnivores. A milder rendition is töpörtyűs pogácsa: bits of töpörtyű drizzled into a savory biscuit. Pörc, a similar product, consists of bigger chunks of deep-fried pork belly (think chicharrón).
#13 - Zsíroskenyér (bread smeared with lard): Apart from being a cooking fat, lard is also essential to zsíroskenyér, a popular bar snack in Hungary. All you need is some bread to spread it on, rings of onion, and a hint of paprika. Conveniently, the zsíroskenyér pairs well with draft beer and it's also wallet-friendly. Some places serve a VIP version made with Mangalitsa lard.