Charcuterie is a French word that reveals the epicurean world of preserved meats. We can thank the constraints of history for charcuterie, as it arose as a way to preserve meat before refrigeration existed. Literally, 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, charcuterie gets its “cooking” through fermentation!
If a desire to build an awesome cheese board brought you here to Antonelli's Cheese, have no fear – we can help you out with that too! Just be sure to 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 amusing trend of creating thematic grazing boards for any occasion with super-creative ingredients, those of us who represent the artisan side of finer foods hope you’ll help us reclaim the word “charcuterie” in honor of the labor of love that crafting traditional cured and fermented meats requires. For everything you’ll need to note in building a phenomenal charcuterie board with fine meats, keep reading!
Step 1: Answer These Guiding Questions
Portions & Quantity: How many people will you be serving? Is the mission to provide appetizers? Or a full meal?
- For apps, we generally recommend 0.5-1.0 ounces of meat per person. This may not seem like a lot, but in the decadent world of charcuterie it really goes a long way! For example, 15 slices of pepperoni (like you’d normally see on a pizza) weighs only one filling ounce!
- For a full meal, imagine the quantities of ingredients you’d consider for a burger as your model. Are you & your guests quarter pounder, or double meat kind of people? If you’re including bread or crackers and assorted veggies on the board, then you’ll need around 4 to 8 total ounces of meat (as equivalent to a quarter to half pound).
- Pro Tip: Not sure how many ounces you want? Bad with math? If you’re a visual person, any deli where they cut to order should let you order by the slice. Also, keep in mind that most establishments price by the pound. A pound of artisanal charcuterie can be pricey, but remember, a little goes a long way!
Presentation & Serving: How will you serve it? And consider, how will guests eat it? All standing around a kitchen island, individually seated, come-and-go grazing?
- Your serving plan will determine how you portion – and what you'll use to serve on.
- For guests coming together while standing, you can build one large charcuterie board, tray, platter, or a whole grazing table spread. 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 fun DIY mix and match pairing chatter between friends. Casual and low maintenance. Everyone dives in just for what they fancy, leaving ideally less waste.
- Cons: Everyone is potentially touching the same utensils over and over. Maybe consider a strategically placed hand sanitizer if this is a concern. And there’s always one person who will stand over the platter, talking animatedly, and voraciously gobbling up a whole corner. (Hey – We’re just keepin’ it real!)
- 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’ll have to supply a lot of vessels to serve on (have the dishwasher – human or machine – ready to go!). 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 based on an idea like this for folks to build their own brilliant bites. Another great single meat option are rillettes or mousse, surrounded by crackers and vegetable crudité. For 3-5 options, select meats of different varieties 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 bag to retain moisture.)
- For a dinner serving, we recommend 3-5 options, ensuring diversity so everyone finds their favorites. Avoid the temptation to select too many more than 5 options – this can lead to palate fatigue and confusion, like “what is what? Ah, to heck with it. I’m just gonna eat it.” Not the outcome you’re set on!
Step 3: Serving
Select your vessel
- A charcuterie tray, platter, or board basically serve the same purpose. Stuck at what to use? You can always use a fun cutting board or a regular ol’ dinner plate (even numerous differently sized & shaped plates in an arrangement). 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. Embrace what you’ve got with confidence, and go with it!
Plate Your Meat
- If you’re serving multiple meat offerings, we prefer to keep each type in its own area. That way, you can clearly mark it with a label if you’d like. Other folks prefer to mix and match and put different meats together and all around the board. This has a pretty, photogenic quality, if that’s the primary goal.
- Some meats (rillettes, mousse, pate) come in a mason jar type 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, prosciutto, coppa & lomo), you can fan them out flat or delicately drape 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 & ground cured meats, there may be a casing around it. Casings are made from animals, plants, or fabricated. Note that all are edible – but all 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 by the way, that mold around the ‘rind’ 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 type of casing for your guests – score it down the side, then peel it off around the outside – or leave the casing on. If you choose the visual appeal of leaving it on, be sure to 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 on the packaging or their website.
- For those small and large format salami, don’t cut them all the same way. We’re used to seeing small discs (think pepperoni), so try varying your slicing style by cutting on the bias (or at an angle). Try slicing another in thin matchsticks; and cube another. Providing different cuts not only provides a 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. (Try: 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, crudités (or raw veggies), mustards & spreads, with baguette, crackers, or toast points. Charcuterie is often rich, decadent, and palate-coating. The acidity from pickled vegetables and mustard cuts through that richness, leaving the palate refreshed.
- Other fun pairing ideas? Fresh and dried fruit, preserves, and honeys don’t just belong on a cheese board. Don’t forget the crunchy, roasted goodness that are salted nuts! 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-themed board (like greens and purples, for example), or go for the rainbow. If you take the rainbow approach, you can color block (like colors with like) or go for the Jackson Pollock-meets-Rainbow Brite approach: color bomb the whole 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!