Have you ever hesitated to order charcuterie because you didn’t know what to expect? Listen, I’ve been there. I have avoided ordering charcuterie in the past. I didn’t want to mispronounce it and embarrass myself. Even when I have ordered it, I had no idea what I was eating. Even if the waiter explained the board, they ran through the list of stuff on the board too fast. It is a shame because charcuterie is fantastic. Over the next few weeks, I want to demystify all things charcuterie. Don’t be like me and miss out on all the lovely cured meats! Order with confidence and enjoy the world of charcuterie
What is Charcuterie?
Charcuterie is a whole class of foods. Usually meat, always preserved. This includes all types of hams and sausages and patés. They can be raw or cooked. Some smoked while others are air dried. The one thing they all have in common is the use of salt to preserve them.
Let’s Talk Salt
One of the primary methods of preserving any food, but in particular meat is salting. Salt is a pretty magical little rock. When you add salt to food, it pulls out the water. This means that all those nasty little food rotting microbes have no place to grow. The salt also draws water out of the bacteria. So not only is their environment not hospitable to them, but they are also dying off. They don’t have enough water to survive. Cool huh?
Salt is a miraculous ingredient. But to get something edible that won’t give you botulism you need two more things. Sugar and nitrite. You need sugar to balance out all that salt, and you need nitrite to stop bacteria from growing. No one wants a side of botulism with their meal. Nitrites are natural by the way. So don’t get scared that you are adding chemicals to your food. Nitrites are in green leafy vegetables and other foods, and you eat them every single day. In small amounts they are fine. Like all things in life, moderation is the key.
Again salt is your key ingredient, but this time it is even more potent with water. When you dry cure, you remove water but when you brine you trade plain water with brine. The result? Moist, flavorful meat! Why? Salt acts on the protein molecules of the meat. Salt not only draws out the liquid that is inside it but also changes the shape of the protein. The new form holds more liquid than before brining. These plumped up proteins make your meat even juicier than before. AND all the aromatics and flavorings you added to your brine gets drawn right into the meat. Why have all your flavor on the outside skin? Brining delivers flavor all the way to the core of the meat.
Next Level Flavor: Smoke and Fat
Initially smoke served as another layer of protection from bacteria. When you smoke meat, the outside surface becomes acidic. This acidic environment is not a happy place for bacteria. It also adds flavor.
“The venerable kitchen rationalist Harold McGee writes: “Smoke’s usefulness results from its chemical complexity. It contains many hundreds of compounds, some of which kill or inhibit microbes, some of which retard fat oxidation and the development of rancid flavors, and some of which add an appealing flavor of their own.’
These days though? Smoking is all about the flavor. There are two types of smoke, hot smoke which will cook your meat and cold smoke that will not. Canadian bacon, for example, is hot smoked, while salmon is usually cold smoked and thus raw.
If you are trying to avoid fat, charcuterie may not be your jam. Seriously, sausage without fat is a tragedy. You cannot make paté and rillettes without fat. 99.9% of charcuterie is about eaking all the love and flavor you can out of fat. Basic breakfast sausage in early America was made and saved in jars full of fat. Why? Fat preserved the sausage and protected it from microbes and bacteria. Now, we might not need to store our breakfast sausages in fat these days. But we do want them to taste like breakfast at grandma’s house. Because fat carries, you need fat for that. The technique for preserving any food with fat is confit. Sometimes people assume that confit is only for use with duck, but that is not true. You can confit pretty much anything. This is not frying; this is more akin to poaching. Cover your food in oil and cook it for hours at 200F. For meat, you need to dry cure or brine it first and then cook it. Once you have a confit, you can serve the confit as is or use it as an ingredient in something else.
Styles of Charcuterie
All these techniques are used to create the four primary forms of charcuterie.
- Whole Muscle: Any meat that is preserved whole without grinding it or mincing it first. Including ham, prosciutto, bacon pancetta, guanciale, and pastrami.
- Sausage: Any meat that is ground with fat and spices and then preserved. Often in a casing but not always. Including mortadella, salami, chorizo, kielbasa, bratwurst, merguez, boudin, knackwurst, andouille, and hot dogs.
- Spreadables: These are sausages without the casing and cooked in a mold. They can be any texture and cooked in a variety of molds including ceramic, or pastry. Including paté, ‘nduja, rillette, headcheese, and aspic.
I break them all down for you next time!
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