Characuterie: The Meat Plate Gets Personal
Keep a detailed log and tag everything
Begin with the cooked meats
- For cooked-meats
- For cured-meats
Discard contaminated meat
Rillettes, salumi, testa, coppa, and soppressata: these are the prized products of a gastronomic cult that is making charcuterie their own, marrying the classic European tradition with New World ingredients. Chefs are sparking a trend of house-made artisanal charcuterie in restaurants across America, and diners are eating it up – even if they can’t translate the names.
Charcuterie-making is a tradition that demands the craftsmen-like skill of coaxing marvelous texture and flavor from cheap cuts of meat. It often falls under the “nose to tail” classification, which lends it economic, sustainable value – and further, it brings a homemade, artisan charm to a menu. Charcuterie plates are everywhere these days, reaching far beyond the restaurants of die-hards like Mario Batali and Brian Polcyn. And a group of young, ambitious chefs are taking the practice in-house: Todd Immel (Star Provisions, Atlanta), Spencer Minch (Delmonico’s, New Orleans), and Adam Stevenson (Earth & Ocean, Seattle) all incorporate homemade stuffed and cured goods into their menus.
But there’s more to charcuterie than just buying a sausage stuffer and some pink salt. Charcuterie is “a practice because you’ll never stop learning, always practicing,” says Brian Polcyn (Five Lakes Grill, Michigan), chef and co-author of Charcuterie . To practice is to inevitably make mistakes, the way Chef Zach Allen did when he began making salami. Allen, who oversees the charcuterie programs of Mario Batali’s Carnevino, B&B Ristorante, and Enoteca San Marco in Las Vegas, confesses to learning charcuterie “the completely wrong way,” by starting with dry-cured salamis (which are the most difficult), and consequently throwing out a ton of meat.
Chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco is known as a head-to-tail guru, and has a natural proclivity for working with fatty meats – or in this case, meats with fat. Cosentino recently opened his own charcuterie shop, Boccalone, and when doing so he took the all-or-nothing route and enlisted in a cured-meats boot camp: the Iowa State Cured Meat Short Course Program.
If the thought of “working the meat” has always intrigued you, then Allen and Consentino have a few tips they think would have been invaluable when they embarked on their own charcuterie journeys. Despite these pearls of knowledge, they say you should be prepared to overcook, overstuff, under- and over-season the first several batches while learning.1. Keep a detailed log and tag everything
When making any batch of meat, record everything. Every detail will help you to replicate, or avoid, a previously tested method. With dry cured meats such as salami, the curing time is roughly ninety days, so tag everything (because you’ll never remember the dates off the top of your head!). Cosentino suggests a tag including: “#001-salami, the ph level, the spices used, the mold used, the fermentation starter used, temperature of the refrigerator, its water loss, water activity – everything.” If you find that one salami sausage is spoiled, you’ll know to throw out that entire batch.2. Educate yourself
Learning about the health risks and science, such as ph levels and the various nitrates (mostly for dry cured sausages), is important. There are great references on the market, including books and websites (some websites also offer catalogues). Here are a few that Allen and Cosentino recommend:Books:
- Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, by Jane Grigson
- Cooking By Hand , by Paul Bertolli,
- Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing,by Rytek Kutas
- Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
According to Cosentino, there are two programs: cooked and cured. The cured program – salamis, coppas, sausisson secs – is the more difficult of the two. Therefore, beginning with the easier charcuterie (cooked meats) will help you learn the importance of air bubbles, carry-over time, and “working the meat” – the grinding and binding. Making fresh sausages will help you understand casings and stuffing techniques, Allen says. Once you become proficient, move on to whole muscles – prosciutto and guanciale – and then on to dry-cured sausages. Cosentino even recommends making only one type of charcuterie at a time and then taking on another.4. Tools
According to Cosentino, the two distinct styles – cooked versus cured – require different techniques and tools.
- Cooked-meats: terrine molds, instant-read thermometer, sausage-stuffer, and casings.
- Cured-meats: sausage prick, sausage stuffer, ph meter, water activity meter, a thermo-hydrometer (measures humidity and temperature, which can also be purchased at a good hardware store), a meat log (see Tip #1).
Exercising control should be taken literally. For dry-cured meats, controlling the environment’s humidity and temperature is crucial to ensuring that meats age properly. Though designating a special curing refrigerator is ideal, Cosentino recommends a rolling sheet tray rack (with a baker’s cover) as an alternative for storing meat in an all-purpose walk-in. Be wary of storing dry-cured meat in wine caves or wine refrigerators – wine corks are porous and sommeliers might object to aging meat aromas permeating the wine.6. Solid Recipes
This may seem obvious, but charcuterie is a science; a process must be followed. Inevitably, you will adapt your recipes over time, which is why it is essential to record everything. Accurate recipes are crucial when starting out: Allen recommends the recipes from Sonoma Mountain Sausages, a Sausage 101 website that he finds to be very accurate.7. Discard contaminated meat
Another obvious tip, but considering the time invested multiplied by current food costs, chefs might be reluctant to throw out months of energy and money. “If you make a mistake – like forgetting a nitrate – you can create a botulism bomb,” Consentino warns. Throw out the entire batch.
A little restaurant soul-searching along with these tips will help you determine whether an in-house charcuterie program is right for you. But if sausage stuffing isn’t for you, you can always leave it the experts who have made crafty meat preservation their life. “There’s no shame in outsourcing,” says Consentino, who built his charcuterie shop specifically to sell to others.
Below are a few pioneers in American artisanal charcuterie selling both wholesale and retail that come recommended by Allen and Cosentino and are, arguably, some of the best in the country.
- Salumeria Biellese 376-378 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10001 TEL: (212) 736-7376
- Salumi Artisan Cured Meats 376-378 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10001 TEL: (206) 621 8772
- La Quercia Artisan Cured Meats 400 Hakes Drive. Norwalk, IA 50211 TEL: (515) 981-1625
- Fra’mani Handcrafted Salumi (Berkeley, CA): 1311 Eighth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710 TEL: (510) 526-7000
- Fatted Calf – Wholesale only in the San Francisco Bay Area The Oxbow Public Market 644 C First Street, Napa, CA 94559 TEL: (707) 256-3684
- Boccalone Salumeria1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111 TEL: (510) 261-8700
- Boccalone Plant 1924 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94606 TEL: (510) 261-8700