From humble beginnings often come magnificent ends. Case in point: charcuterie. You might have a vague sense that charcuterie refers to “sausages and things;” you might even be aware of how to pronounce it. (Shar-CUTE-er-ee for the uninitiated.) But what does this mysterious term—charcuterie—actually mean, and what all is included under its purview?
Preservation Is the Name of the Game
Charcuterie can itself be categorized under the grander heading of “preservation.” In every culture the world over, before the advent of refrigeration, people had to find ways to extend the life of foodstuffs to last beyond the harvest, from produce to livestock. Furthermore, especially for the non-elite classes, they needed to ensure that every usable part of every animal got used: the natural precursor of the current nose-to-tail movement. From this practical, seasonal, and often frugal mentality we get everything from pickles and jams, to beer and wine, to cheese and bacon. (See what I mean about magnificent ends above? Bless you, forefathers.)
Charcuterie, etymologically speaking, means “pork butcher.” Over time its use has extended to all meats that are cooked and/or processed, in order to extend their usability and to be served cold or room temperature. The goal of the many methods and styles involved in charcuterie is to remove the water content from meat to halt its natural decay over time. Depending on style, this can be done in a number of ways including salt or brine, air drying or smoking, or preservation in fat. Charcuterie takes many different forms, the most common of which are outlined below, and a beautifully composed charcuterie board should include selections from all of these categories, as well as condiments like a grainy mustard and accoutrements such as crackers and cornichons. Up to the task? Read on.
Sausages and Forcemeats
File under “how the sausage gets made,” literally. The defining characteristic of sausage is that it utilizes meat that is ground (i.e., forcemeat), and is then stuffed into a casing with salt and spices. (Fun fact: bologna’s spice blend includes nutmeg and celery seed. Hot dog’s includes garlic, mace, and paprika. Mind blown.) Casings may be natural, such as intestines (see “nose-to-tail” as above) or synthetic, typically from plant cellulose. Crushed ice is commonly used in the making of sausage to ensure the integrity of the meat, so that the individual tidbits don’t become gummy or denatured during the sausage-making process.
Fresh sausages are stuffed for cooking later on and have a much shorter shelf-life. Cooked sausages are heated during the process and are ready-to-eat at the end of production. Air-drying, smoking, and/or curing extends the life of sausages into months without refrigeration, plus makes for an alluring, practical advertisement while hanging in butcher shop windows. Nearly every continent lays claim to regionally specific types of sausage, with variations in type of meat, texture of the forcemeat, and spice blends giving us everything from Mexican chorizo, to Polish kielbasa, to Moroccan merguez. If you have the time and wherewithal, sausage can absolutely be made at home, with some simple equipment you can attach to your stand mixer. Check out our German Weisswurst Sausage recipe.
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You know how the sausage gets made because you made the sausage.
Bacon and Cured Meats
If “curing” sounds to you like a way to fix something that is unwell, well, that’s a fine way to think about it, though the treatment is more preventative than prescriptive. Curing is a way to rid meat of that which will eventually begin to rot it—that is, water—by a treatment of salt, sugar, and sometimes smoke. Any or all of these elements draw moisture from the meat while also seasoning and “cooking” it. This process gives us wonders such as bacon, prosciutto, braesaola, corned beef, and ham (talk about a cure-all), which are typically made from whole cuts, rather than ground meats. If you’ve always thought of bacon as just a magical element that sprang into existence as proof that there is a benevolent force at work in the universe…well, that still may very well be true. But you can also be your own benevolent force and totally make it at home. Yes, bacon. Like, from scratch. Get our Oven Smoked Bacon recipe.
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You don’t need to bring home the bacon when you’ve made the bacon.
Pâtés, Terrines, and Rillettes
Further proof of a universal benevolence or at least the ingeniousness of our peasant forefathers: pâtés and terrines are finely ground meats mixed with cream and other seasonings that are either cooked within a pastry crust (terrine), or in a crock submerged in a water bath (pâté), into a texture that is nearly silken and desirably served cold. Rillettes are similar to pâté, but are made from a slightly coarser grind and typically without the dairy element, with the incredibly noble goal of making the meat itself spreadable.
Continuing with the nose-to-tail theme, you’ve probably mostly encountered the term “pâté” attached to the word “liver,” and yes, pâté is a place to use organ meats such as liver, heart, and kidney, but pâtés can also be made from some traditional cuts and even seafood. If you fancy yourself a gastronomically-inclined adult and have yet to experience the sublime afternoon pleasure of a chicken liver pâté paired with some toasted baguette rounds and a zesty white wine, or better yet—Sauternes, well then, now you have #goals. You’re welcome. Is this another something you might be able to make yourself? Why yes. Yes it is. Get our Chicken Liver-Port Pâté recipe.
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Confit specifically refers to the process of cooking meat slowly within its own fat, with duck confit being the most widely known version. The fat is rendered out of the meat, while the meat itself cooks slowly to tender perfection. The fat then acts as a preservative for longer-term storage. Once the confit meat is consumed the fat can be reused for things such as some of the best fried potatoes of your life (if this isn’t reason alone to partake in some duck confit). So, if you see things like “tomato confit” or “artichoke confit” on a menu, should you cry foul? Is confit only for meat or that which renders abundant fat? As one culinary instructor once told me: “There’s no reason to call it that. There’s no reason not to call it that.” Wisdom. You know what else is wise? Using your slow cooker to make some yourself. Get our Slow Cooker Duck Confit recipe.
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Header image courtesy of Getty Images/Creativ Studio Heinemann.