Italian Ingredient Glossary
Follow our guidelines on how to use these popular Italian ingredients.
- Arborio rice: Risotto is traditionally made with this Italian rice, although other rices can be used. Risotto is Arborio rice that is browned first in margarine, butter, or oil, then cooked in broth. The finished rice has a creamy consistency and a tender, but slightly firm, texture.
- Artichokes: Look for firm, compact globes that are heavy for their size. They should yield slightly to pressure and have large, tightly closed leaves. (Sometimes leaf edges darken because the plant got too cold. This darkening, called "winter kiss," does not affect the quality.) To store, place fresh artichokes in a plastic bag and refrigerate for up to a week. To prepare an artichoke, cut off the bottom stem so it sits flat. Cut off about 1 inch from the top. Remove loose outer leaves. With kitchen shears, snip 1/2 inch from tips of leaves. Brush cut surfaces with lemon juice to prevent browning. You can remove the fuzzy choke with a grapefruit knife or spoon.
- Balsamic vinegar: This sweet, dark brown vinegar is made from the boiled-down juice of a white grape. According to Italian law, balsamic vinegars labeled as "aceto balsamico tradizionale" cannot contain any wine vinegar and must be aged at least 12 years. These vinegars can sell for $40 to $350 for 4 ounces. Less expensive balsamics blend wine vinegar with the grape juice.
- Basil: The aroma and flavor of this herb range from peppery and robust to sweet and spicy. Its leaves can be various shades of green or purple. Use the leaves of this herb in dried or fresh form.
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- Ricotta: Ricotta is generally made from cow's milk, although it can be made from sheep's milk, which has more flavor. It's not readily available in the United States. Ricotta is characteristically a bit grainy in texture with a mildly sweet flavor. It can be found in lower-fat versions at the supermarket. Depending on whether the milk used in making the ricotta was whole or skim, the fat content of 1/2 cup (4 ounces) ranges from 0 to 15 grams.
- Mozzarella: Best known as a pizza topper, mozzarella is made either from cow's milk or, in Italy, from water buffalo's milk. It is mild in flavor and can be found in lower-fat varieties. Fresh mozzarella, a real treat, is made from whole milk and has a softer texture and sweeter, more delicate flavor than regular, factory-made mozzarella. It contains from 4 to 7 grams of fat per ounce, depending on the fat content of the milk used to make it.
- Pecorino: Made from sheep's milk, the flavor of pecorino will depend on the area where it is made in Italy. It ranges from a firm, sharp, salty cheese to a milder, semi-firm variety. It has 8 grams of fat per ounce.
- Parmesan cheese: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, an aged hard cheese made from cow's milk, is strictly regulated in Italy to control its quality. In the United States, this cheese often is limited, but the results are different from the Italian cheese. Older, aged varieties of Italy have a stronger flavor and are drier. Stick to freshly grated aged varieties for the most flavor. You'll be able to use less due to its more intense flavor. It contains 7 grams of fat per ounce.
- Asiago cheese: Made from cow's milk, Asiago is a semi-hard to hard cheese. Full of many tiny holes, the cheese has a rich flavor and creamy texture when it hasn't been aged for very long. As it ages, the cheese becomes firmer and can be grated easily. It is similar in fat content to Parmesan cheese.
- Fontina: This delicate, sweet, semi-soft cheese has a nutty flavor. Made from cow's milk, fontina melts easily and smoothly. The more aged the cheese, the richer the flavor. One ounce has about 9 grams of fat.
- Gorgonzola: This blue-veined cheese is made from cow's milk and possesses a creamy texture with a slightly pungent, rich flavor. When aged for more than six months, the flavor can become very strong. It's a great accompaniment to fruit, such as apples or pears. It also can be melted into sauces or crumbled over salads. For a milder variety, look for torta di Gorgonzola, which layers Gorgonzola with sweet mascarpone. Gorgonzola cheese has 8 grams of fat per ounce.
- Mascarpone: Super-rich mascarpone tastes like a cross between whipped butter and cream cheese. It is often used in desserts, but it's also great as a spread for delicate crackers or fresh fruit, such as strawberries and pear slices. It is a soft cheese made from cow's milk and has about 13 grams of fat per ounce -- use sparingly.
- Provolone: Made from cow's milk, this cheese is delicate and creamy when aged for up to two months. When aged longer, it begins to take on a spicy, sharp flavor. Although it's great as a table cheese, provolone is also an excellent cooking cheese. Aged provolone can be used for grating. One ounce has about 8 grams of fat.
- Garlic: The plant of this strong-scented, pungent bulb is related to the onion. Besides fresh garlic bulbs, you also can find dried and bottled minced garlic, garlic juice, garlic powder, garlic salt, and garlic paste. Leave bulbs whole, as individual cloves dry out quickly. Keep any dried garlic products in a cool, dry, dark place and use within six months. Store the bottled minced garlic in the refrigerator for up to six months.
- Italian parsley: Italian parsley has flat, dark leaves and a milder flavor than the more familiar curly-leaf parsley.
- Mushrooms: Porcini, the most prized wild mushrooms in Italy, have large, meaty, slightly rounded caps that may be white or reddish-brown. The stems are fleshy and wider at the bottom. Another mushroom in Italy is the crimini (Italian brown or Roman), which has the same shape as a regular button mushroom but is light tan to dark brown with a deeper, earthier flavor. To clean, brush mushrooms with a soft brush or damp paper towel. Store them in a paper bag until ready to use. Serve them within a couple of days. If you have trouble finding a specific kind, look for the dried form. Add fresh or rehydrated mushrooms to soups, sauces, salads, appetizers, pasta dishes, and entrees.
The quality of olive oil is classified by the level of acidity, taste, and aroma. Olive oils higher in acidity can be rectified, or treated with chemicals to lower the acidity, but are called refined, not virgin.
Olive oil has the same amount of calories that other oils contain -- 120 calories per tablespoon. But olive oil is highly unsaturated and has been suggested as a healthier alternative to more saturated fat or oils. Additionally, olive oil is a highly flavored oil, so you can use much less than oils with lighter flavors.
Types of Olive Oil
- Extra-virgin olive oil is the best grade of olive oil; it meets Italy's highest standards for rich and fruity olive taste with very low acidity (less than 1 percent).
- Virgin olive oil has an acidity between 1 and 3 percent and a lighter taste and aroma. It is considered to be slightly inferior in quality to extra-virgin olive oil.
- Pure olive oil is filtered twice after a single cold-pressing to lighten the oil's color and aroma and lessen the acidity. It has a delicate flavor and a low acidity.
- Cold-pressed olive oil is obtained by pressing the fruit. No heat or solvents are used, therefore it is called "cold-pressed."
- Extra-light olive oil refers only to the oil's flavor, not to the calories it contains compared to the other olive oils.
- Olives: Italians prefer to use ripe olives rather than the unripe green variety. Although ripe olives in America are usually black, the color of Italian ripe olives can vary from purplish red and brown to jet-black. They are packed in oil or brine, which may be flavored with herbs or citrus peel. Taste olives before serving. If they're too salty, rinse them under cold running water. They can become bitter if overcooked, so allow them just enough time to heat through when adding to a cooked dish.
- Pancetta (pan-CHEH-tuh): Think of pancetta as the Italian version of bacon. Made from the belly or pancia of a hog, pancetta has deep pink stripes of flesh similar to bacon. Pancetta is seasoned with pepper and other spices, and is cured with salt, but is not smoked. It comes in a sausagelike roll or flat and is used to flavor sauces, vegetables, or meats.
- Pesto (PES-toh): A pasty sauce of olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, and Parmesan cheese. It usually is served with pasta.
- Pine nuts or pignoli: This small seed is from one of the several pine tree varieties. The pine nut, which has a sweet, faint pine flavor, also is known as pignoli and pinon. The small, creamy white nut can be slender and pellet-shaped or more triangular. Pine nuts turn rancid quickly, so refrigerate them in an airtight container for up to two months or freeze them for up to six months.
- Polenta (poh-LEN-tuh): This Italian-style mush is made by boiling a mixture of cornmeal or farina and water. Polenta usually is served with tomato sauce as a side dish, or it may be served without sauce as a bread substitute. It is eaten as a thick porridge or can be molded, sliced, fried, or broiled.
- Prosciutto (proh-SHOO-toh): Like ham, prosciutto is from the hog's leg. Salt curing draws out the moisture, a process called prosciugare in Italian. Unlike ham, the cured pork is air-dried, not smoked. The result is a somewhat sweetly spiced, rose-colored meat that has a slight sheen. Parma ham is the authentic prosciutto of Italy. They are designated as prosciuitto cotto (cooked) or prosciutto crudo (raw). The raw is cured, however, so it is ready to eat. Use small amounts in pasta, sauces, and meat dishes. Add it to cooked dishes at the last minute so it doesn't toughen.
- Risotto (ree-ZOHT-toh): This rice dish consists of broth-cooked rice, butter, cheese, and other bits of meat and/or vegetables. Risotto Milanese (from Milan) are always additionally flavored with a little saffron.
- Tomatoes: Italian cooks mainly use two kinds of tomatoes. They like elongated plum or Roma tomatoes for cooking, because they have fewer seeds, firmer flesh, and thicker juice. The round eating tomatoes are prized in salads, appetizers, or anywhere fresh tomatoes are needed. To ripen, store firm tomatoes at room temperature in a brown paper bag. When ripe, they will yield to gentle pressure.