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Charcuterie: What is it?

A delightful combination of meats, cheese and accoutrements

When you have gone out in the last few years to a fancy restaurant, you may have come across Charcuterie on the menu. Especially popular in farm-to-table restaurants that serve traditional foods, this fancy party staple has become a favorite of many around the world. 

You may have even snacked on a charcuterie board without knowing! But, what on earth is charcuterie? Pronounced “shar-KOO-ter-ee”, this is a French term for a style of cooking that is devoted to meat products that have already been prepared. This includes ham, bacon, pates, sausages, terrines, galantines, confit, and ballotines. In other words, it’s mainly the preparation of different styles of pork. 

Charcuterie on a wooden board

Charcuterie was originally intended as a method to preserve meat before refrigeration was possible. Today, charcuterie is prepared for the different flavors it boasts which are derived from its preservation processes. 

In today’s article, we are going to discuss this culinary art of preparing meat in greater detail. We will be looking at the history behind it, how to prepare your own charcuterie board, and much more. 

Let’s get started so you can show off your fancy charcuterie board at your next social gathering.

So, what exactly is charcuterie?

As we touched upon above, charcuterie is a branch of cooking that is entirely devoted to prepared meats. Before refrigeration was invented, charcuterie was the go-to process for preserving meats so they wouldn’t “go bad.”

The word charcuterie comes from the irregular-sounding French term “chair cuit.” This translates to “cooked flesh.”

The majority of charcuterie boards include prepared pork products such as ham, bacon, and sausages. Although an old branch of cooking, in modern times we usually refer to the act of repairing, assembling and arranging different cured meats when we mention charcuterie. These artful arrangements usually combine fruits, cheeses, vegetables, crackers, and/or bread with the cured meats on some kind of slate or wooden board.

It is believed that the Romans were the first to regulate the charcuterie trade during the fourth century AD when slated meat was imported from Gaul (a region of Western Europe described by the Romans). Laws were made to regulate the correct production of pork joints and other products but historical documents show that the French had some say in this too. 

During the 15th century, local guilds in cities within France regulated tradesmen who worked in the food production industry. Guilds that produced charcuterie were of the charcutiers. The members from this distinguished guild made a range of cooked, salted, and dried meats. These varied quite distinctly from region to region. Unrendered lard was the only raw meat these charcutiers were allowed to sell. 

In response, the charcutiers prepared many items such as pates, rillettes, bacon, trotters, sausages, and brawn (head cheese). Such preservation methods and processes resulted in meat having a longer shelf life.

At the time, charcuterie was symbolic of the lower-status people of society such as peasants. In modern times, it is quite the opposite with many restaurants offering charcuterie boards at quite a steep price. However, they are available at affordable prices in many bars and establishments throughout the world.

How to make your own charcuterie for a social gathering 

Charcuterie boards can vary greatly. Some have just one or two meats on them while others can boast all kinds of foods to take your breath away. If your wish is to become an expert charcutier, you will need a few things first. Let’s take a look at what you will need:

Meats

charcuterie meats
Cured sausage
Salami
Prosciutto
Capicola
Jamon Serrano

As you can guess, meats are the star attraction with any charcuterie. Therefore, you should never skimp on any cold cuts. This is a chance to be bold and put your stamp on your charcuterie. Some of the most common meats used are:

  • Cured sausage
  • Salami
  • Prosciutto
  • Capicola
  • Jamon Serrano

Add these as you will become a master charcuterie in no time at all!

Cheese

charcuterie cheese

The most perfect charcuterie boards sport pre-sliced as well as spreadable cheeses. If you’re hosting a party soon, there is a high likelihood that there will be some cheese-loving guests. This is the opportunity to impress them with a selection of different cheeses. 

You can simply head to your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to find your cheeses. Don’t be afraid to ask for expert advice to make sure your charcuterie is the best you can possibly make it.

A few firm favorites include:

  • Brie
  • Gouda
  • Gruyere
  • Burrata
  • Sharp cheddar
  • Camembert
  • Roquefort 

Even if you include just one of these kinds of cheese, your guests will be blown away. Combine a few and you will be asked to host parties far more often! 

Accoutrements 

charcuterie accoutrements

As well as the meats and cheeses on show, you will want something to compliment them. You can use bread, crackers, or other food items. Be creative. Look at what you have on your charcuterie board and figure out what would work best. 

You also need to include vegetables, fruits, and other options for your vegetarian and vegans friends and family. 

Besides bread and crackers, some of the most popular charcuterie accoutrements are:

  • Olives
  • Grapes
  • Hummus
  • Honey
  • Nuts
  • Jam
  • Jelly 

When you have your assortment of meats, your selection of cheeses, and accoutrements to complement each food item, you will have a mouth-watering, succulent charcuterie board. Just make sure you have enough to feed all of your guests. Too much food is usually just enough when it comes to charcuterie boards. 

Make a charcuterie board for the holidays 

Charcuterie boards are perfect all year round but when the holiday season comes along, they take on a world of their own. Combine with a nice bottle of wine and you have yourself and good time.

The best thing about charcuterie is that it’s relatively simple and quick to prepare. This is what makes it so perfect for holiday parties! All you need to do is visit a specialty department within your local grocery store and purchase foods that you think would look amazing on your charcuterie board.

If you are not so sure what to put on your board for the holiday season, here are a few ideas: 

  1. Start with some trimmings. Arrange some greenery such as lettuce. For the holiday season, we love to add some sprigs of rosemary on the board too. Rosemary not only looks like pine needles but it smells divine too.
  2. Once you have placed the greenery on the board, choose something to take center stage on the platter. We suggest going with your biggest food item on the charcuterie. If you have some grapes, these work really well. Once these are down, place a good amount of rolled-up cured meats such as salami and/or prosciutto around this centerpiece. The key is to overfill the platter so it looks opulent and plentiful. So, don’t be afraid to let the ingredients spill over the side.
  3. You can add some small bowls filled with olives, nuts, or seeds on the platter. This will fill the platter up even more. If any gaps remain, just cover with different cheeses, seasonal fruits, or nuts and crackers. 
  4. If you’re going full out, use the best ingredients at your disposal. Roasted salted cashew, almond, pistachio mix works superbly as well as jumbo cashews. These are certified organic as well as soy-free and non-GMO (genetically modified organisms).
  5. Once the nuts and crackers are on your charcuterie board, it’s time for the seasonal fruits. Whatever time of year it is, you should always include seasonal fruits as they add flavor and color to the platter. For the holiday, however, we suggest using pomegranate seeds and persimmons. You have to be quick with these as they are never in season very long. If you can’t get ahead of these ingredients, opt for pears, kumquats, or tangerine sections instead. 

After you have arranged your charcuterie, you will certainly be in the festive spirit. All that’s left then is for your guests to start serving themselves and enjoy your piece of art! 

Cured vs cooked 

Pork meat was often cured in order to preserve it before refrigerators and freezers were invented. Cooks, such as charcutiers, introduced a new method to preserve these meats. Although charcuterie was not as long-lasting as curing meats, this “art” form transformed the way meat was prepared.

So, what is charcuterie? Cured or cooked meat? Well, all cured meat can be classified as charcuterie but not all charcuterie is cured. Confusing, right? Well, some dishes such as some British specialties like Haggis or Haslet are not cured but they are considered charcuterie.

What kinds of charcuterie are there? 

You may not know it but some of the most common forms of charcuterie could be in your fridge right now. These forms include:

  • Curing and smoking
  • Pates, confit, terrines, and fast preserved meats
  • Sausages and salami

Curing and smoking 

Ham, bacon, and prosciutto are all forms of charcuterie. Each meat is cured with salt and, on occasions, nitrates or Prague powder. After some meats have been cured with salt, they are then smoked. An example of this is bacon. Another cured and smoked form of charcuterie is pancetta. 

Pates, confit, terrines, and fast preserved meats

There are some other forms of preserved meat that come under the covering of charcuterie. Examples include pates, terrines, and confits. Such forms of charcuterie are meats and fish which are preserved in fat. Yummy.

Sausages and salami 

As you may know, sausages can cover a whole range of certain preserved meats. Many of these combine curing, fermentation, and fat to help preserve the meat within its casing.

Salami and pepperoni are great examples of this preparation. There are some other regional variations of sausage making that are unique but still fall under the umbrella of charcuterie.

Why has charcuterie become so popular? 

The flavors of charcuterie are paired or contrasted to magnify the eater’s enjoyment. The combination of color and texture is unique to these platters and often takes many people by surprise. Charcuterie offers variety and is usually very visually appealing when set out on a platter. 

Of course, dry-cured meat is the main attraction of charcuterie. While many believe charcuterie just relates to cured meats, it’s so much more than that. Charcuterie is the molding of cultures as well as flavors from cuisines across the world. 

And, when it comes to cured meats, there are so many to choose from. We could probably list over 500 different salami recipes alone (don’t worry, we won’t). With so many meats and recipes to enjoy, it is no wonder that charcuterie has become so popular around the world. It boasts classic flavors that are suitable for meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. 

Dry curing seems to bring out a certain magic in the meat too. Dry-cured bacon is hugely popular as well as Parma ham and prosciutto. The meats just taste stronger and with the combination of cheeses and other ingredients like fruits and vegetables, your taste buds tend to come alive when enjoying a charcuterie board.

Another reason why charcuterie is so popular is that it can be prepared easily at home. While you can enjoy an assortment of delicious foods on a charcuterie board in a restaurant, you can save a lot of money by making one yourself. With just a few types of meat, cheeses, nuts, veggies, and fruits, you can prepare a platter within minutes for guests to enjoy for hours.

Next time you have a party, prepare a charcuterie board and watch how popular it is with your friends and family. You’ll be surprised! 

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Written by Brian N

Brian has been an influencer in the food and beverage industry for over 20 years. He not only loves to eat and drink at restaurants on a regular basis, he also knows the business inside and out.