Charcuterie is a French word that describes the delicious world of preserved meats. The word is a form of “chair cuit” which translates to “cooked flesh.” It has to do with various culinary methods and preparations used to preserve meat, that is, turning it from a raw meat into something you can eat without traditionally heating it. Instead, you “cook” it through fermentation. It arose as a way to preserve meat before refrigeration existed.
If you wound up on here because you, like thousands of others, are wanting to build an awesome cheese board, have no fear! We can help you out with that too. Just pop over here to our “How to Build a Perfect Cheese Board” post. And know that you are not to blame for the misunderstanding and misuse of the word charcuterie. We innovative Americans have appropriated the French word and are now misusing it to apply to any spread of grazing food - from yogurt covered pretzels to breakfast boards. While we wholeheartedly love the fun trend of created thematic grazing boards for any occasion and featuring a traditional ingredients, those of us who represent smaller farmers and producers hope you’ll help us reclaim the word charcuterie to refer to all those hands and that labor of love of crafting traditional cured and fermented meats. If you want to build an awesome meat board, keep reading.
Step 1: Answer these guiding questions
Portions & Quantity: How many people do you want to serve? For apps? Or a full meal?
- For apps, we generally recommend 0.5-1.0 ounces of meat per person. While this may not seem like a lot, it is in the world of thinly sliced meats. For example, 15 slices of pepperoni (that you’d normally see on a pizza) only weighs 1 ounce!
- For a full meal, compare quantities needed to a burger. Are you a quarter pounder or double meat kind of person? If you’re including bread or crackers and assorted veggies on the board, then you really only need between 4 and 8 total ounces of meat (i.e. equivalent to a quarter to half pound).
- Pro Tip: Not sure how many ounces you want? Bad with math? Any deli where they cut to order should let you order by the slice if you’re a visual person. Also, keep in mind that most places price by the pound. A pound of artisanal charcuterie can be pricey, but remember, you don’t need that much!
Presentation & Serving: How will you serve it? Otherwise stated, how will guests eat it? All standing around a kitchen island or individually seated?
- Your answers will determine how you portion and what you serve on.
- If you’re all standing around, you can build one large charcuterie board, tray, platter, or grazing table. Make sure to have lots of mini tongs and serving ware available.
- Pros: Droolworthy and Instagram-worthy! It’s a striking presentation - a huge, bountiful pile of meats and pairings! Creates a fun DIY mix and match pairing chatter between friends. Casual and low maintenance. Everyone dives in just for what they want, leaving ideally less waste.
- Cons: Everyone is touching the same utensils over and over. Maybe consider a strategically placed hand sanitizer if you’re worried. And there’s always one person who will stand over the platter, talking animatedly, and voraciously gobbling up a whole corner.
- If you want to serve a charcuterie course as a meal, you’ll serve on individual plates or boards.
- Pros: For your less aggressive and assertive guests, there’s no stress about whether they’ll get fed. Hah! Everyone gets their own portioned tasting, which also helps keep everything more sanitary. You can also get away with less food and do more of a composed tasting plate.
- Cons: You have to supply a lot of vessels to serve on (which may mean more dishes)! It’s more formal (which can be a pro or con). Due to allergies and food preferences, some folks may not want to eat certain parts while others want more, leaving some food waste.
Step 2: Selecting Charcuterie to Feature
You’ve got a couple great options here.
- For apps, you can showcase one stellar meat or offer 3 to 5 different options. For a single meat app, think of classic pairings like Prosciutto and Melon. You could create a whole beautiful board of this for folks to build bites. Another great single meat option are rillettes or mousse surrounded by crackers and (veggie) crudite. For 3-5 options, pick meats from different species preserved in unique ways and served in various formats. For example, a great offering could include rabbit rillettes, duck pate, (pork) prosciutto, (beef) bresaola, and (elk) salami. (Pro Tip: If you get sliced meat at a deli, it’s best closest to the day of slicing. If it’s going to be a couple days, put the deli wrapped meat into a plastic bagging to retain moisture.)
- For a dinner serving, I’d offer 3-5 options, ensuring diversity and that everyone likes something (see above). Avoid the temptation to serve a lot more than 5 options. That can just lead to palate fatigue and confusion, like “what is what? Ah, to heck with it. I’m just gonna eat it.”
Step 3: Serving
Select your vessel
- A charcuterie tray, platter, and board are all basically the same thing, using different serving vessels. Stuck at what to use? You can always use a fun cutting board or a regular ole dinner plate (or even numerous differently sized and shaped plates all in a family together). We’ve even rolled out some freezer butcher paper or wax paper on a table and just plated straight onto it! Don’t let the vessel hold you back from your charcuterie spread dreams.
Plate your meat
- If you have multiple different meat offerings, we prefer to keep each type in its own area. That way, you can clearly mark it with a label if you want. Other folks prefer to mix and match and put different meats together and all around the board. This has a pretty, photogenic quality if you want.
- Some meats (rillettes, mousse, pate) come in a mason jar or other glass container. You can put the whole jar on the board and surround it with goodies. Make sure to put a serving knife, spreader, or spoon with it.
- For thinly sliced whole-muscle meats like bresaola and prosciutto (or coppa and lomo), you can fan them out flat or loosely clump them. Avoid overworking or overhandling these. They will start to go more limp and oily the more you touch them.
- For large and small format salami and ground cured meats, there may be a
casing around it. Casings are made from animals, plants, or fabricated. Note that all are edible but may not be tasty. Generally, the easier it is to tear, the more likely it’s natural casing and the more we’re likely to eat it. And that mold helps contribute to flavor! The chewier ones are often fabricated casings and we prefer to peel off and discard. You can either pre-peel this for your guests. (Score it down the side, then peel it off around the outside.) Or leave the casing on it but put some sort of discard vessel by the plate, and put some casing into it to demonstrate what it's for. (Not sure which to do? Each producer usually makes a recommendation for their own salami.)
- For those small and large format salami, don’t cut them all the same way. We’re used to seeing small discs (think pepperoni). Slice a different one on the bias or angled. Slice another in thin matchsticks. Cube another. Providing different cuts not only provides (photogenic) texture to the plate and your palate, but it allows you to enjoy them in new ways. (And we know it’s weird, but we swear it tastes different depending on how it's cut - just like soup tastes different when you drink it versus using a spoon… or is that just us?!). You can also play with the trend of creating “meat lace” (or as I like to say “flesh flowers” - sorry vegetarians!). While you can simply, loosely fold and plate them as individual portions, there are lots of instructional videos online on making a full flower. (Fold a piece over the lid of a cup and keep repeating all the way around. Then turn over.) Just keep in mind how folks can eat it. Some things are too pretty to eat and/or mess up. Plus, when someone pulls one piece off, the whole thing can fall apart. While aesthetics are important, functionality is key.
Pick Fun Pairings
- Traditional pairings for cured meats include pickled vegetables, crudites (or
raw veggies), mustards, and baguette, crackers, or toast points. Charcuterie is often rich, decadent, and palate-coating. The acidity from pickled vegetables and mustard cuts through that richness.
- Other fun pairing ideas? Fresh and dried fruit, preserves, and honeys don’t just belong on a cheese board. And nuts! Don’t forget crunchy, roasted, salted bites of goodness. Lastly, include a savory preserve or jam, like Apple Onion Jam, Bacon Jam, or White Sultana Tomato Chutney.
- For picture perfect platings, select pairings based on color. Stick to a color theme board (like greens and purples, for example) or go for the rainbow. If you take the rainbow approach, you can color block (ie like colors with like) or go for the Jackson Pollock meets Rainbow Brite approach of color bombing the platter. All three are fun!
Step 4: Eat & Enjoy
Make sure to serve your charcuterie plate at room temperature. Each meat will be more aromatic and tasty. So keep it refrigerated until about 30 minutes to an hour before enjoying. And…. voila! Time to enjoy!#cheeseboard #cheesetray #grazingtable #charcuterieboard #charcuterietray #cheese #charcuterie #specialtycheese #artisanalcheese #gouda #brie #cheeseparty #diycheesetray #salami #prosciutto #cheeseandwine #cheesepairing