Charcuterie Boards… Like a Chef

In Eat, October 2020 by Bobby McFarland1 Comment

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Along with homemade sourdough bread, charcuterie boards have dominated the food side of social media in 2020. Maybe it’s because they’re a great way to present and consume something delicious without actually having to cook, maybe it’s because they’re basically Lunchables for grown-ups and we’re all nostalgic for simpler times—regardless, I support the trend.

Charcuterie comes from the French words “chair,” meaning flesh, and “cuit,” meaning cooked. As Hannibal Lecter-esque as that sounds, the name harkens back to times before refrigeration when butchers had to process whatever cuts of meat couldn’t immediately be sold to extend their shelf-life and up their marketability. Today, these scrap-saving techniques of humble origin have heralded some of the most desirable foods on the market.

Just as “charcuterie” has broadened into an umbrella term for any deftly pre-processed or cured meat beyond the French catalog, “charcuterie boards” have grown to include things like nuts, olives, jams, fruits and, most importantly, cheese.

A Template for Successful Charcuterie Boards

Perhaps another reason for charcuterie boards’ popularity is that they’re just as much an activity as they are an appetizer; you’re not just composing a dish, you’re curating an experience. As curator, you want to provide a thoughtful selection without overwhelming your guests, choosing components for visual, textural and flavor diversity while minimizing redundancy. We’re playing with savory, salty, tangy, earthy, spicy and smoky, so, when choosing your offerings, try to check as many of those boxes as you can.

I prefer a practical approach to plating charcuterie boards, pre-cutting anything hard or tedious for my guests’ convenience and placing like-colors apart from each other so the board appears as an edible mosaic—but if you’re the artistic type, feel free to get creative.

Finally, remember there’s a difference between lunch meat and charcuterie. Steer clear of pre-sliced pepperoni packets, cheese cubes from the dairy aisle or anything else that should only be consumed alone in front of the refrigerator.

  1. Meats
    (choose two or three)

I put charcuterie into three categories: whole muscle, sausages/salami and paté/spreadables.

Whole muscle refers to any cut of meat left whole and cured: think prosciutto (a whole cured ham), coppa, or pork collar off the shoulder, also known as capicola, or bresaola (air-dried beef shoulder). Personally, I love speck (smoked prosciutto) and hot coppa, to bring an extra element of smoke or heat to the spread. Buy these thinly and freshly sliced from a deli, specialty store or supermarket that you trust.

There’s plenty of diversity in the sausages/salami category, so it’s fine to choose two if they’re discernible enough to the eye and palate. It’s perfectly acceptable to serve a coarsely ground dry-cured sausage, like sopressatta or Spanish chorizo, with mortadella because they look and taste so different—just consider pre-cutting the slices of mortadella so it can fold in half and fit nicely on a bread slice or cracker.

Patés and spreadable meat might sound unappealing, but I assure you, some are not as polarizing as chicken liver or foie gras mousse. I’ve been seeing more and more pork and duck rillettes—essentially fall-apart tender-cooked meat whipped into a savory spread—in grocery stores lately. N’duja is one of my all-time favorites: a spicy, tangy, fatty cured pork native to Calabria, aptly described as “spreadable salami.”

2. Cheeses
(choose two or three)

As with meat, you’ll want to choose distinct cheeses. I like to mix up the textures: think a manchego, a brie and a spreadable chevre. A good rule of thumb is to stick mostly with crowd favorites but throw in something challenging that might surprise people (in a good way).

This might mean buying a gorgonzola dulce: a sweeter, creamier blue variety known to convert the formerly blue cheese-adverse. And while I personally love brie’s borderline offensively-pungent cousin, taleggio, I usually try to bridge the gap with a more mildly funky
camembert or robiola.

Finally, don’t be afraid to try a cheese you’ve never had before—shop somewhere that has a cheesemonger or a knowledgeable staff and ask for guidance. More than once, I’ve spent a half hour talking cheese with Jeff at Wegmans and I always walk away with something new to try (often after a stop in the wine and beer section).

3. Bread/Crackers
(choose one or two)

Sliced baguette or Italian bread, served fresh or toasted with olive oil, salt and pepper, is a must. Crackers are optional, but appreciated, as long as they don’t crumble or crack too easily. 

4. Spreadable Accoutrements
(choose one or two)

To not include jam, marmalade, or honey on a charcuterie board is a missed opportunity, especially if you’re serving sharp or funky cheese. Other options include caramelized onions, caramelized onion jam or whole fresh honeycomb (which can be a real showstopper).

On the savory side, whole grain mustard, olive tapenade and even salty cultured butter are welcome additions to most boards.

5. Stackable Accoutrements (choose one or two)

I consider anything that can pile on to a piece of bread with meat and cheese a stackable. Think what a roasted red pepper, a pre-cut marinated artichoke heart or a slice of fig can do to a bite with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto.

6. Snackable Accoutrements (choose one or two)

“Snackable” refers to olives, grapes, berries, nuts and cornichons that are more conducive to eating alone than with a bite of meat and cheese. Think of them as things to snack on while you contemplate your next real bite.

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