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What Is Charcuterie?

 

What is Charcuterie?

char·cu·te·rie/SHärˌko͞otəˈrē/

Noun:
  1. Cold cooked meats collectively.
  2. A store selling such meats.

Let’s start from the beginning.  Thousands of years ago mankind started eating meats.  This fatty and protein rich diet provided enough calories for the brain to develop and eventually we evolved into what we are today. The hunters had a problem.  When they killed an animal it would have to be eaten shortly after the kill, otherwise it would rot and go bad.  There was too much work that went into the hunt to let the food go to waste.  This led to the development of Charcuterie.  The ability to cure meats allowed us to preserve the rewards of a hunt, for years if necessary, thought the use of salts and time.

Just like some of the upscale and popular food we eat today, Charcuterie had very humble beginnings.  Initially, it was peasant food because of the ability to make it cheaply using those lesser quality cuts.  Sausages weren’t made from expensive tenderloin or loin.  Instead, they were made using less expensive cuts such as pig butt (shoulder) or trimmings. Cultures such as Italy, Germany, and Poland are now well known for their sausages and preserved meats.  Lucky for us restaurants can afford to buy and cure a whole pig and consumers can afford to buy the beautiful and delicious end product.

 

The most popular items on a charcuterie plate

Typically, you will find paper thin cuts of cured meats like ham and bacon.  You may also see sausages, pâtés, salami’s, foie gras, terrine and roullades. The chef’s imagination and creativity can come alive on a charcuterie plate!   There will usually be 3 to 5 different meats on the plate and some helpful condiments like pickled vegetables, mustards or a small green salad. Whatever the acoutrements are, they should have an acidic taste to cut through the fattiness of the meats.

The single most recognizable piece of charcuterie is prosciutto (back leg); it is on almost every Charcuterie plate.  You may
also see some sort of salami.  There are hundreds of different kinds of salami, many named after the region where they were produced.  Lardo (cure backfat) is very popular now and my favorite. Other popular charcuterie plate hits include: Lonza (loin), coppa (neck muscle), culatello (front leg muscle stuffed inside the stomach), and a dried form of  pancetta (belly). Other goodies such as head cheese and terrines may appear on a charcuterie plate, but they are not quite as popular.

How it’s made

Charcuterie is actually pretty easy to make.  However, butchering the pig is the hardest part.  It must be done with care because processes such as making prosciutto requires whole muscles to be cured.  Once the selected meat is separated, it is packed in a special botulism-killing salt for about a week.  However, the overall curing time depends on the weight of what is being cured.

Salami is also reasonably easy to make. The meat is ground and any spices or other ingredients that will be used are mixed into the meat. The sausage is then stuffed into a casing. At this stage it should look familiar: breakfast sausage, italian sausage, bangers or bratwurst.  If the meat is raw and not aged it is sausage, but once you hang it to dry for a while, it becomes a salami.

 

The breed of pig matters

Up until the 16th century, only a few countries raised pigs for food. Alternatively, there are now many different breeds of pigs all throughout the world.  In the United States, Berkshire pigs are one of  the most popular pigs used for charcuterie, but there are many others.  A different breed originating from Hungary and Eastern Europe called the Mangalitsa has recently become popular due to their 3 inch thick back fat.  Another pig, the Mule Footed pig,  is a “boutique” pig that occasionally shows its snout around town.  Both the Mangalitsa and the Mule footed pig are rare and almost joined the way of the dodo bird, but have been brought back by farmers who want to supply a great product.  Let us not forget the ever popular black iberian pig.  Some say it’s the best in the world due to strict regulations on how they can be raised.  Chef Polcyn visited an Iberico farm in Spain to research his”Salumi” book, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.  and found that the pig received 2 acres of land to graze on pastures filled with chestnut and acorn trees providing lots of fatty foods for the pigs.  The pigs were not fed by the farmer.  Hence, the pigs are a very natural product free from hormones and antibiotics and have gained a great reputation. Lucky we are in 2012 that there are so many good varieties of pig for a chef to choose from.

 If the  restaurant you work at is using crappy commodity pigs, please give your chef a little slap on the wrist for me.

 

 

Bio on the guest article author:

When I stumbled onto Nick Fila’s blog and saw how knowledgeable he was, I invited him to write for iamWaitress. He said yes! Here he is…

I am a cook working in the Metro-Detroit area. I have had the pleasure of working in some of the best kitchens in the Detroit area. I am about to graduate from Schoolcraft College in Livonia; known for its small classes, Master Chef instructors and of course, the American Charcuterie expert Bryan Polcyn, Author of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (I staged at his restaurant: The Forest Grill)

Don’t forget to check out http://www.thoughtsofayoungcook.com.  Feel free to comment on the my blog or email me at nickfila61@gmail.com with any questions or comments.

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