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March 30, 2022

A Beginner's Guide to Charcuterie


The latest craze...

It feels like in the last five years the world has suddenly discovered and embraced these beautiful platters of dried meat, cheese, and other eclectic additions. They are such a universal hit because they feel fancy while giving people choices on what they want to try out. And with Easter and summer parties on the horizon, it’s natural to want to offer a charcuterie board of your very own...But where do I even begin?

A Short History

True to form, I did a quick bit of research, (aka typed “charcuterie” into Wikipedia to see what articles there are). It’s a “French term for a branch of cooking devoted to prepared meat products, such as bacon, ham, sausage, terrines.” If you go to the article, it continues describing the long history going back to ancient Greece and different ways to prepare meats. But continuing the journey and looking at articles within Wikipedia about charcuterie boards, I eventually found a great article down the rabbit hole within a blog called, “The Food Historian.” As expected, the idea of a board being covered with meats, cheeses, and additional items that flavor wise pair well can go back to when it was “standard peasant laborer fare.”

Fast forward to today, and the generation that grew up on Lunchables has definitely evolved the charcuterie board to become whatever we want/need it to be.

Let’s Break it Down

The basic Charcuterie Board, based on the definition of the word, would consist of prepared meat products, with the addition of bites and flavors that pair well with the different meats.

At one point, a genius connected the famous “cheese course” that is a staple in France to the meat board, giving the world a meat and cheese board. From there, and clearly being inspired by the different forms that Lunchables have taken over the years, different iterations have come about. One example can be seen at the Omaha restaurant, Pitch. They have created a charcuterie board that is 100% worth trying out.

And as a close friend discovered recently, a) yes, charcuterie can be made at home and b) it is absolutely a suitable option for dinner. I am here to give a little advice and guidance to making your very own charcuterie board and to impress the masses.

Tips, Tricks and Tidbits

First off, like the Pirate Code, everything about charcuterie boards is a guideline, and making it your own should be the ultimate goal.

Second, prepared meats and cheeses can be expensive, but there is a way to make it work for your budget. My favorite go-to for anything food to entertain is Aldi, especially the meat and cheese options. The deals are fantastic and there is some really high-quality items available. Also, if you go at the right time, they’ll also have serving dishes for a great deal. Trader Joe's also deserves an honorable mention for their cheese selection.

Third, remember it’s the details that make or break it. One meat and cheese plate that I have enjoyed a couple times includes these small, sweet peppers, and honestly, I keep ordering it for those peppers. Garnishes and presentation allow your creation to go from basic appetizer, to a work of art. The more color on the board the better.

The Traditional Charcuterie – Meat and Cheese

The best way to guide you is to walk through the process. Here is the final purchase of items for my charcuterie board. One thing to always take into consideration is the variety of diets people might have, so having a variety of type of proteins is beneficial.

Meats: Typically prepared pork options is expected, adding bites that are beef, poultry, fish or other protein options helps mix it up and allow everyone to have a bite.

Cheese: Mix it up! Similar to different protein options, also cheese from animals besides cows makes for a variety of flavors. But also, change up the texture. A couple hard cheeses are standard, but a soft cow’s milk or goat’s milk cheese really adds something extra to the board. Pre-slicing the cheese or not and leave a knife near is a valid question and I will answer to follow your heart. If you need more time to focus on a different detail, let the guests choose the cut of their cheese. Or pre-slice and give guests the option to take more than one if they disagree with the proper size cheese slices should be. Let it be a conversation starter!

Accompaniments: It’s not just a garnish. The easiest way to explain it is going to one of the first scenes in the movie Ratatouille, when Remy is taught to combine flavors in a bite and how it changes the experience. You want to add additional flavors to the mix that enhance the main flavors.

For cheese, you want to add not just crackers, but also bright, sweet flavors that can cut through the richness or the creaminess (e.g., berries, apples, grapes, dried fruit, jams, honey, etc.). For meats, adding a pickled flavor can offset the fat or salt flavors in the meat (e.g., olives, peppers). But also have palate cleansers beyond what beverages are being paired.

Finally, if there is a color missing, bring in a garnish to make the presentation appealing. The same way they suggest building your salad, try and have every color of the rainbow to the presentation. And above all, don’t shy away from being bold and creative. Let the charcuterie board make a statement. Because, similar to Lunchables, the guests can pick and choose what they want to try or not try.

Switch it Up!

As I mentioned in the beginning, it doesn’t have to be the standard definition charcuterie board. What if most of your friends don’t eat pork, or other animal products? What if there is a dairy sensitivity amongst the group so cheese isn’t the best option? What if it’s a breakfast party and no one wants meat and cheese? Or what about an after dinner board?

To show the versatility of a board, here are the ingredients for a dessert board. Notice there are a few carry overs from the first one. That’s the best part, the mixing and matching of different flavors for different goals gives you the chance to mix and match, learn and adapt for the next party. Grapes, goat’s cheese, and mixed nuts were three easy choices that can be on savory or sweet boards. But to take it to the next level (and proving why Aldi is an amazing resource), add more fruit, change up the carbohydrate from crackers to cookies, and add in more fruit and cheesecake, and now a dessert board has been born. The more seamless the ingredient can be taken as an individual bite, the better.

In Summary

The rules are suggestions and finding a group of flavors for a specific board allows you to mix and match. Ask yourself, if I was setting up bites for a chocolate fondue table, what would I add? It’s an easy starting off point. And you even apply that approach to cheese fondue and the savory, traditional fondue.

Go out there, buy some bites, invite some friends over, and have a trial-and-error party where you figure out the perfect charcuterie board for you.

Happy Snacking!
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