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“When you use every part of the animal, I’m just amazed that it feeds so many people for such a long time!” This comment from a class participant at a two-day charcuterie intensive outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, rang out over the spread of food that our group had created throughout the weekend. Often, such an experience is the only way cooks are able to visualize the implications of curing and fermenting meat. For those who don’t have the opportunity to participate in such an immersive experience, my hope is that this article conveys the purpose, use, and presentation of charcuterie that has become so important to me throughout my career as a practitioner and teacher. These tips serve not only to inform readers about the deliciousness and longevity of homemade and store-bought charcuterie, but also to instill respect, deeper understanding, and a more practical incorporation of these foods within the home and in our culture at large.
Origins, Purpose, and Perspective
As you delve into the history and practice of meat preservation, it won’t take long to discover that the foods we associate with “charcuterie” (from French) or salumi (Italian) are not exclusively of European origin, nor are they by any means exclusively gourmet delicacies. The American adoption and presentation of cured meats is most often narrowly presented as such, with offerings based mostly in the Western European tradition, appearing on high-priced menus and in specialty groceries. The exception to this practice are so-called “lunch meats,” as represented by bologna, hot dogs, and various sausages. But cured meats, from prosciutto to bologna, are food for everyone. The many iterations of cured meats have versions in every corner of the globe, and they’re foods developed and kept alive by some of the most industrious people the world over.
Charcuterie is meant to be consumed in small portions. The flavors are generally quite complex, and the salt and other spices can be rather concentrated. Additionally, if any fat present can be served in such a way as to allow it to melt in the mouth rather than having to be chewed, the experience is much more palatable. It’s advisable to invest in a tool that allows you to slice cured meat as thinly as possible, which stretches its use over time and does justice to the complex flavors. A meat slicer is ideal; however, I know many people who are skilled in slicing with a very sharp knife, and there are several hand-powered slicers available for home enthusiasts.
In general, meat consumption in America is too high, and I truly believe that our adoption and proper presentation of charcuterie can help us learn to appreciate smaller portions of protein. A few thin slices of delicately salted ham with melt-in-your-mouth fat are often more satiating than a giant pork chop. Such experiences can reshape the way we regard meat consumption and help reduce food waste in both home and commercial kitchens.
Ends, Skins, and Bones
As you prepare, slice, and debone your cured meats, you’ll inevitably end up with a few byproducts. One of them is skin, particularly from pork products. When the product is finished, the skin or rind is removed, and although it’s generally very flavorful, the texture isn’t favorable for eating as is. However, it can be saved for flavoring beans or grains. Making homemade pet treats is a popular way to use dehydrated skins too.
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Other byproducts of cured meats are the ends of ham, bacon, and sausage, which tend to accumulate, but are hard to slice and serve. These can be saved in the freezer until you’ve gathered a nice stockpile, and then diced and added to sautés and soups, used to flavor a mussel broth, or chunked up and added to a fresh sausage. Bones from cured hams or bellies can also be used to flavor soups and stocks. The use of skins, ends, and bones in these ways is another fantastic example of how cured meats can be used to stretch protein consumption into smaller and more nuanced roles throughout multiple meals.
Charcuterie isn’t just for platters and parties! Pâtés, cured hams, and beef cuts often find their way into breakfast, lunch, and dinner at my house. From scrambled eggs, to lunch sandwiches, to pasta with white sauce for dinner, you can work a ham all day! You can also experiment with mixing pâté and meat bits into your condiments, or making cold salads with ham ends or diced cooked skins.
Photo by Meredith Leigh
Additionally, if you’re able to delve even slightly into homemade cured meats, you’ll ensure more servings and purer products for your family than with store-bought meats. Take sliced ham for example: If you prepare a whole ham at home, through the simple task of salt curing and baking or smoking it, you can do so without the use of many additives, sugars, and preservatives, and have the entire ham to slice and send off in your family’s lunchboxes. If you buy luncheon ham at the store, you’ll get a lot less product for your money, and you’ll run the risk of consuming chemical additives and preservatives.
Entertaining and Sharing in Community
Photo by Getty Images/knape
Of course, you’ll want to create a show-stopping meat and cheese board every now and then for parties and gifts. This is where the beauty and flavors of cured meats can really shine, and you can use your creativity and ingenuity to make something truly unique. Here are a few tips for making your charcuterie boards memorable:
1. Incorporate diversity. If you’re going to have more than one meat specialty on the board, vary the texture and experience for your guests. Have something whole that’s sliced thin, such as a ham; something ground, such as a sausage; and something softer and more spreadable, such as a pâté. If you can, include both cooked and fermented dry-cured items.
2. Play with color, texture, and space. Almost everyone swoons over the beautiful colors in a well-constructed spread. You can choose a theme, such as all warm colors or colors within a family of hues, or you can go wild, incorporating as many colors as you can. Make the board bountiful, without a lot of space between items, and arrange components into shapes, rows, scattered piles, and stacks, so there are varying architectures all over the board.
3. Include cheeses, pickles, jellies, mustards, nuts, and fruits. These items complement the rich fats and intense flavors of cured meats. For example, fruit juices and fermented pickles cut through the meat flavors and accentuate the salt, and nuts provide a welcome crunch alongside the softness of the charcuterie. These items also offer additional textures, shapes, and colors to broaden your creative options.
4. Personalize the spread. Make the board unique by including veggies from your garden, flowers you’ve foraged from your yard, a cookie or truffle you’ve made, or some other homage to your inspiration or community. Crafting artful food and consuming it should be fun and intimate. Add your own flair to make boards distinct, playful, and memorable.
The storage of cured meats, either purchased or homemade, depends on the nature of their preparation. In general, whole, finished charcuterie that’s been cooked, as well as cooked items, such as pâté and smoked bacon, should be stored in a refrigerator, or in fat in a cool place, such as a root cellar. Keep in mind that such foods will typically last 7 to 10 days in these conditions, because they contain enough moisture to allow spoilage. Also, cultures present in the storage area, such as the molds in your refrigerator or cellar, can establish themselves on your foods if left too long. You can vacuum-seal cooked meats and store them in a freezer to prolong their shelf life.
Photo by Meredith Leigh
The best place to store cured meats with low enough water activity to prevent spoilage (shelf-stable dried meats, such as salami or basterma) is a cool, dark place that you’ve delegated specifically for meat preservation. This could be a charcuterie cabinet, a cellar, or another holding area. This way, the temperature, humidity, and live cultures present won’t be invasive of the cured meat’s favored conditions. If you need to store these types of meats long-term, vacuum-seal and freeze them.
Storing foods in fat is an alternative method to plastic used all over the world to preserve cooked product. This method is seen most readily in the example of a duck leg confit buried in a crock of rendered fat until a cook is ready to use it again. Other storage techniques include rendered lard mixed with rice flour and pepper spread over the surface of hams to ensure keeping. While this method is most often seen in the crafting of European hams, it can be applied to a slab of bacon just as well. Fabric and clean paper are other methods for wrapping cured meat items, specifically those that are fermented and have living cultures within them or on their surfaces.
Culture and Health
My hope is that with these tips, cured meats will be easily, deliciously, and thoroughly integrated into the average diet. Meat preservation is an awe-inspiring and resilient practice that all peoples share, and our homage to its usefulness, beauty, and enjoyment will ensure that cured meats endure and serve culture and health for a long time to come.
Over the past 17 years, Meredith Leigh has worked as a farmer, butcher, chef, teacher, nonprofit executive director, and writer, all in pursuit of good food. Meredith works part time for Living Web Farms, where she travels extensively teaching charcuterie and food production and processing. For more information, visit her website.
Listen to Advisory Board members Meredith Leigh and Gianaclis Caldwell share their love of small-scale food craft.
The analogies drawn between art and food, along with creative and accessible photographic discussions, make this book an essential primer on the mystery, science, art, and technique of charcuterie. Ideal for home cooks working in small spaces, Pure Charcuterie is a must-have for experienced and new cooks alike, as well as any home artisan. This title is available at www.MyFermentation.com/Store or by calling 800-978-7464. Mention promo code MFRPAKZ5. Item #8707.