A Gentleman’s Guide to Charcuterie

It’s the meat version of a sundae bar. Here’s how to do it right.

Bringing a hunk of animal protein to any social gathering is simply a power move. It could be steaks for the grill or pounds of thick-cut bacon to brunch. No matter the form, your audience will be appreciative of your haul (unless they’re vegetarian, in which case, “butcher” a cauliflower). But transporting raw meat is messy (not to mention a food safety hazard), and you’re going to have to wait extra time for it to cook. Instead, what you should bring to your next party is charcuterie.

Let’s say it together now: shar-koo-terr-ee. The word might have a slight intimidation factor, but it’s just a French mash-up of chair (flesh) and cuite (cooked). Cooked flesh. In practice, this means a delicious selection of meats that have been smoked, cured, braised in fat, chopped up, and sliced. It’s less annoying than the Paleo diet, while still embracing the fundamentals of caveman cuisine.

Like an adult version of Lunchables, a proper charcuterie plate is an exercise in DIY culinary expression to suit any palate. There’s paper-thin prosciutto, bricks of pâté, vibrant spicy chorizo, and hand-carved slices of Spanish jamon Iberico. Shredded duck rillettes. Straight-up lard spread on bread. Do charcuterie right and you can carry in a bag of butcher paper-covered goodies, unwrap them like it’s protein Christmas, and you’ll be able to arrange an impressive plate in minutes. 

First, obtain the meats. Charcuterie is best sourced at specialty stores, but it’s more common than it seems. Staffed as they are by staunch meat aficionados, many butcher shops do a strong sideline in the genre. We’re not talking about the vacuum-sealed packages of salami circles hanging in the Whole Foods produce section. We want the fresh stuff, cut on a deli saw right before it’s purchased.

Treat your buying experience like a wine tasting. Don’t be afraid to ask for free samples. How else will you learn the difference between prosciutto, air-dried pig thigh; speck, its more interesting and heavily smoked cousin; and coppa, cured pork shoulder and neck? Dark bresaola, salted and air-dried beef, looks scary until you try it. The farther afield you stray from the cuts you know, the better it’ll get.

The above examples are all whole-muscle formats in which the fat and meat are still as they existed on the original animal. In cured sausages, like chorizo and salami, a mixture of minced fat and meat is forced into a casing (this pasty filling is called forcemeat, which should definitely not be Googled without SafeSearch enabled) before being packed in salt, smoked, or left to air-dry. Novices might try kulen, a heavily smoked, spicy Eastern European sausage, or nduja, a soft Italian meat spread that is often challengingly funky but still delicious, much like stinky cheese.

Finally, there’s the really mushy stuff. Charcuterie is all about pushing textural boundaries that American palates aren’t entirely accustomed to outside of Jello. Hence the appeal of pâté, terrines, and rillettes—all important charcuterie vocabulary. Pâté is a soft mixture of meat, fat, and often pork or chicken liver cooked with spices, cream, and add-ins like nuts or chunks of vegetable. The result is a stable mush that might be served on its own or in a terrine—the French word for a terra cotta cooking dish as well as a particularly chunky pâté. (One common variation is the peasant standard Pâté de Campagne, or “country pâté”.) Rillettes are smoother, made from a single animal (pork or duck are common) that has been slow-cooked in fat, cooled, and mixed with more fat into spreadable medium.

Sense a theme here? Much like Magic Mike, the poetry of charcuterie is rough and corporeal; hence part of the appeal. It’s a way to get closer to the animal, a way to embrace unprocessed fat (we need 70 grams a day, after all) and the chew of muscle against a carbohydrate surface. Contrast makes it compelling, hence the need for multiple kinds of charcuterie on a well-composed plate. Pick one whole-muscle meat, one sausage, and one pâté, then continue on with the adventure.

While more standard cuts of meat (like ribeye or filet mignon) are usually sold by the pound, specialty stores will list charcuterie by quarter pounds because that’s all you’ll need. Don’t be intimidated by a $30 per pound price tag—$7.50 isn’t so steep, and a little goes a long way. A quarter pound of charcuterie per every two people is a good proportional rule, even if your friends are committed carnivores.

Once you’ve unpacked all the delicacies, it’s time for plating. Our ongoing rusticity fetish calls for a piece of slate or a plank of wood reclaimed from a Brooklyn bowling alley or decommissioned colonial cathedral, but it doesn’t really matter what you put the charcuterie on. Any cutting board will do just fine, and besides, everyone will be too busy eating to notice. Array the meats, place knives for the soft stuff, and add some accompaniments like mustard, pickles, or jam—anything with a sour or sweet edge that will brighten up the heavy protein flavors. Saw up a baguette and position it nearby. Showtime.

Maybe it’s easiest to think of a charcuterie plate as the meat version of a sundae bar. What initially seems pretentious is actually anything but. It’s meant to be fun, and how can it not be? As the charcute-curator, you can choose whatever strikes you, gradually figuring out your preferred compositions. For the advanced student, the far fields of foie gras, head cheese, and blood sausage await. But in the end, it’s all just so much animal.

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