The practice of salting meats to preserve them dates back at least as far as the Romans, though it was the French in the 15th century who truly mastered the art of manipulating meats—smoking, curing, etc.—to last long before refrigeration. But when the industrial food beast was born and companies became more concerned with making money than with providing sustenance, the once-utilitarian processes were exploited, and consumers grew wary of the use of “variety meats” to cut costs.
Luckily, the recent artisan foods movement has spawned a band of butchers whose goal it is to restore their craft to its former glory. Their evolved iterations of pâté, terrines, and sausages are made with unexpected blends of thyme, juniper, or rosemary, and even their mortadella—once thought of as a lowly luncheon meat like bologna—is claiming a place at the table.
Even though charcuterie often seems heavily seasoned and distinctly different from, say, an unadulterated cut of pork belly, it’s the quality of the animal—not just its parts—that makes the difference between handmade salumi and a log of pepperoni from the supermarket. Any restaurateur and butcher that is sourcing high-quality animal meats is using all the parts. The biggest hurdle is convincing the consumer to drop the myth that they’re all made of lips and…you know.
To help you navigate the charcuterie plate at your local farm-to-table restaurant, we chatted up butcher Nathan Adra to learn more about the art of prepared meats.
The Expert: Nathan Adra is the meat man behind Red Apron Butcher, in Washington, D.C. “I look at meats like any other recipe you’d tweak,” he says. By experimenting with every part of the animals he sources, Adra came up with his own original spins on traditional meats, like porkstrami (a take on pastrami made with pork sirloin rather than beef brisket). Their popularity has helped Red Apron grow to open its third shop this year.
What you need to know to understand and enjoy charcuterie
Charcuterie is at the hear of nose-to-tail cuisine.
Adra says: As a butcher, when you get quality animals from a farm, you are getting the whole animal, which opens up more possibilities for enjoying the meat. If you order 20 pounds of pork loin like you do when you work at a restaurant, it limits you. At a butcher shop, you can sell people a cut of meat they’ve never seen before and let them discover new flavors and textures. When you have the whole pig, maybe you’ll smoke the loin, cure the belly, and make sausage out of the shoulders. You can turn it into a lot more.
Your charcuterie will only as good as the product you start with.
Adra says: You can add all kinds of flavoring to meat, but if the animal you start with is of poor quality, you are always going to end up with a muddled flavor and texture—there’s only so much you can disguise. Our meat is Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), an organization that is free to farmers and monitors the quality of their animals under rigorous standards, from the farm to how they are raised up until we get them. The difference shows in the meat from butchers who do abide by these standards and grocery-store quality meat.
When composing a charcuterie plate, think about texture and garnishes.
Adra says: When you eat, all the senses are engaged—not just the taste. The depth of flavor and texture are important. When building a charcuterie plate, I recommend a mixture: Rillettes, which are braised in their own fat and emulsified; salamis and hams; soppressata; prosciutto, lomo, or another cured pork. I always include pâté—whether it’s coarsely ground or more paste-like—because it provides a great point of difference. Also remember: The accompaniments are as important as your meat. All the meat is preserved in salt; it will dehydrate you and your palate. Garnish it with something acidic, like a pickle, to clean off your palate in between bites, or at the end.
Prosciutto is not speck is not pancetta is not bacon.
Adra says: Prosciutto is meat from the leanest part of the pig thigh; the hind leg, or ham, is cured, smoked, and aged. A good prosciutto takes two years to make. We don’t always have it, and when we do it’s pretty expensive. When we don’t have prosciutto, I usually recommend lombo or lonza, which have a similar hammy texture but come from the lumbar region of the pig.
Speck comes from the same region (the ham) but is intensely smoked and salt-cured—not aged. It is redder in color and stands up better to heat, which is why you see it in warm dishes more than you see prosciutto. Neither of these should be confused with pancetta or bacon, which come from the belly of the pig, and are not cured and must be cooked.
There is no such thing as pepperoni in Italy.
Adra says: It means red pepper. It is an American creation and is usually all-beef because it’s served on pizza, and there are a lot of people who eat pizza that do not eat pork. The closest thing you’ll find in Italy is salami picante, which is usually pork with cayenne pepper and Calabrian chili powder; I sometimes like to mix in some fennel pollen. I personally prefer it because pork fat, as it cures, keeps the salami more moist and gives it better texture.
With cured meats, the way you slice them is crucial.
Adra says: Ham should be sliced thinly, so it almost dissolves on your tongue. If it is too thick, it will be difficult to chew and swallow.
Because salami contains diced fat—sometimes mixed with nuts or truffles—you want to cut it thicker to accentuate the garnish inside. Every piece should have a piece of that additive.
Soppressata and fennel sausage are dependent on how firm or dry they are. The softer it is, the more chewable and thicker it can be; if it’s dry, it will be dense and more difficult to chew, so you should slice it thinner.
Summer sausage—a Midwestern smoked sausage that is not cured—lends itself to a thicker cut.
Why cold cuts at the supermarket are not charcuterie.
Adra says: The difference is the quality of the meat and the additives. Take hot dogs, for instance. A lot of people have a skewed mentality when it comes to hot dogs. There are a lot of binders and agents that are used in the mass brands to hold the product together. However, we make our own hot dogs. We are also using scraps, but we are using the same quality scraps that would be eaten raw or fresh. We aren’t saying that we don’t use any nitrates—to an extent, it’s unavoidable when making hot dogs—but it is about being able to explain why and how much, and being able to stand behind the quality of animal meat and where it is coming from.
It makes me sad when people don’t want to try some of these meats because they get a bad rap. Think of Lambrusco, which ironically comes from the same region as mortadella—the original bologna, which also gets a bad wrap. Lambrusco here has also a reputation for being a cheap sugary wine, but if you have a true Lambrusco, that is not the case at all.
Photo courtesy Greg Powers