Charcuterie Intro & Book Reviews

    This is my first charcuterie article, so I'm going to basically summarize what charcuterie is, and then proceed to reviewing the books I have read on the subject.

    What is charcuterie?

    Basically it's making "processed" meat products. This includes, but is not limited to making:

    • sausages
    • bacon (this technically is a cured meat but it needs special mention... it's it's own food group, right?)
    • salamis (again, a cured meat, but hey, everyone knows salami)
    • terrines
    • pâtés
    • cured meats
    • smoked meats.

    In short, it usually involves, one or more of these preservation techniques:

    1. Salting/brining (because salt kills a lot of stuff, and tastes pretty good too)
    2. Fermentation (using microbial cultures to create safe microbial ecosystems, and to innoculate/out-compete the toxic bacteria, it also adds flavour).
    3. Smoking (not the cigar/cigarette/vaping kind, obviously. Using natural wood smoke preserves meat and gives it that smokey flavour)

    ...and generally mixing it in with spices where needed, and if the product was minced up in the process, stuffing it back into an easy-to-manage package like sausage casings.

    What charcuterie isn't:

    While charcuterie is literally translated from the French term to mean "pork butcher". Many people still think that to do charcuterie, you must be limited to pork meat only, but this is not the case. These days, charcuterie can involve any meat you like. Goat, rabbit, venison, lamb/mutton, beef, chicken, fish, quail, and many other meats are used.

    It's not all meat though, numerous spices, dextrose, and preservative salt types (usually sodium nitrate, or sodium nitrite, not sodium chloride which is your average table salt) are used to both preserve and add flavour. Please note that these salts are not interchangeable, and the sodium nitrate/nitrite can be toxic in seemingly small quantities. It's usually added to cultured meat products in quantities less than 3% of the total meat weight.  Make sure you read those recipes and measure ingredients very carefully, and ensure that unused preserving salts are clearly labelled as hazardous, and kept safely out of reach of children (young or even those old enough to have kids of their own).

    Why do charcuterie?

    Originally, the sole purpose of charcuterie was to preserve meat. Whether that was to get people through the winter, or long sea voyages, or just in case there was a bad season. In short it a form of preserving food for survival. These days, the preservation process is largely done for the flavour benefits, and does not always involve some form long-lasting product at the end. Charcuterie also can forgo the preservation focus to make more flavoursome meat products that, quite frankly wouldn't survive very well without refrigeration.

    Misconceptions about charcuterie:

    It's very low quality...

    There's an old joke, that people don't want to know how laws and sausages are made. As if there's some deep dark secret inside. Obviously at least one animal has been killed, (probably more) but the general assumption is that you're eating something "questionable". Ok, it's undeniable that over the centuries that sausages and other charcuterie products have been made, that some people have used poor hygiene practices, low-quality ingredients and "filler" of almost every variety. This obviously caused a great deal of problems.

    However, in modern times, there are some very strict meat quality controls in many countries, and the assumption of low-quality meats just isn't true. Is it all going to be wagyu eye fillets, of course not, but it's likely to come from a food-grade carcass.

    Deli = charcuterie:

    Another misconception about charcuterie is based on what people find in the local deli. Please note that while many delicatessens do carry numerous charcuterie products, the products based on milk and eggs, and any other animal products that are not meat, are not charcuterie products.

    It's all cultured meat...

     

    Yes, the salamis, some aged meats, and many of the other charcuterie products involve fermentation. The microbial cultures are used to preserve and flavour the meat. However, there are many charcuterie products such as bacon, ham, prosciutto, etc which are more cured, (heavily salted) than cultured. Many of them are further flavoured and/or preserved by smoking the meat as well. Some products will just be salted and/or smoked, avoiding culturing entirely.

    If bacteria is used to preserve the meat, hygiene isn't an issue:

    No, I mean, heck no! People who think this do not understand cultured food products like cheese, sauerkraut, salamis at all. Hygiene is more important than ever when fermenting foods. Ultimately, you're creating an environment fit for growing bacteria, moulds and fungi. Most people know that there are many varieties that are toxic for humans, either directly through infection, or indirectly by creating toxins. Obviously, you want good microbes, not bad ones growing in your food, and an erroneous (or careless) attitude to hygiene will eventually poison you and your loved ones. I'm so not visiting your place for a meal if you think hygiene is unimportant.

    All fermented foods (even more so for meat products) require extremely clean kitchen/preparation environments, with sanitized utensils, containers, surfaces, and thoroughly washed hands at the ABSOLUTE minimum.

    So given all the risks, why do I do charcuterie?

    There are many reasons, such as:

    1. I know what I put into my sausages, and can flavour them to taste.
    2. I have friends who farm animals. I have access to some amazing meat. It's not always in a freezer-friendly, or spatially efficient forms though.
    3. Freshly made pâté is amazing.
    4. Home-made bacon is not even in the same class as store bought.. I don't eat much store-bought bacon anymore.
    5. I already make my own cheeses, mix and bake my own bread and pizza bases, grow my own tomatoes, basil, garlic, and make sauces out of them, why not make the prosciutto/bacon/salamis for the pizza as well? Then I barbecue and smoke it in my kamado. How many meals like that can you say that you grew or made every ingredient (sans flour). There's a reason I haven't had a Domino's pizza in the last decade... even though Domino's is cheap and easy... for me, it's just not worth it.

    To do this effectively, I need to know what I'm doing. So that's where some books come in handy.

    Ham's book reviews on Charcuterie!

    Book 1 - "Professional Charcuterie: Sausage Making, Curing, Terrines & Pâtés", By John Kinsella & David Harvey.

    Cover of "Professional Charcuterie" by John Kinsella & David Harvey This book is actually a gastronomy textbook and recipe book in one. Please don't let that scare you off because it doesn't have the usual "dryness" you'd normally expect from a textbook. Professional Charcuterie has numerous images (many drawings and some black and white photos), and a surprisingly to-the-point writing style. It is mostly written from a U.S. perspective, and as such the notes about food safety, hygiene, and the laws pertaining to food businesses are all from the U.S. of A. Even so, the information is relevant regardless of wherever you may be.

    Having said that, the book structure is well thought out, and despite being nearly 300 pages long. The first 74 pages give you the basic theory, and then the rest of the book is recipes, appendices, glossary, and index.

    As a first book on charcuterie, and reference book.... I'd honestly have a hard time imagining one that's better. It covers:

    • origins and history of charcuterie,
    • various equipment for a variety of different "price points",
    • the details about the risks of working with meat,
    • the pros and cons of natural vs synthetic sausage casings.
    • different procedures and styles of charcuterie, and then
    • offers a lot of recipes, many I'm still excited to try.

    I have had this book for over two years, and I still find myself coming back to it whenever the opportunity strikes. I can do a large batch of making sausages when a shipment of new meat arrives, stick it in the freezer and then go months without making any meat products, so a book I can quickly skim over and then look at the recipes shows a remarkable consideration of the reader's needs, and shows that it's written with long-term use in mind.

    If I had to fault the book, it's that the information regarding the actual acts of making charcuterie products is perhaps a little light. If you want to fill in those gaps, I'd recommend watching a few YouTube videos on your topic of choice. You can certainly make a lot of fantastic products without the "nitty gritty" details. But I feel that my confidence was bolstered when I read some more detailed instructions, and actually see what others are actually talking about.

    Overall, I'm very happy to recommend this book as a introductory text with long term reference use in mind. It certainly does not go into the inner workings of fermentation, or chemical changes that curing might bring. However, for many home users, I'd say that it's a very nice addition to the recipe book collection.

    Book 2 - "Charcuterie: The Art of Salting, Smoking & Curing", By Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

    Book cover of Chacuterie

    Will add this review soon, but I've opted to skip to Salumi because I've read that most recently.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Book 3 - "Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing", By Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

    Book cover of Salumi

    Yet another book by Michael Ruhlmann and Brian Polcyn... (I promise I'm not trying to sell you on their books specifically.. I just have these books because I bought them as a set).

    Please forgive my photo of the book's cover. That "greenish tinge" on the stringed meat on the right is a result of the glossiness of the cover. This book certainly does not encourage the creation of sickeningly green meat products, I can assure you.

    Technically, as a topic, salumi is a subset of charcuterie. So it's not going to cover everything in a charcuterie book. However, for those die hard prosciutto, and salami fans, this book will give you more details on that.

    As an experienced dry-rub bacon maker. (Although dry rub is a bit of a misnomer as the moisture from the meat itself will form a brine with the salt rubbed into the surface). Dry curing appeals to me in sheer simplicity. The fact that brines are a good, but often more involved/finicky way of curing meats and cheeses, means I often choose to simply rub salt rather than using a brine. As such, dry curing is a particular interest of mine.

    Salumi is an interesting book. At 270 odd pages long, it introduces you into the world of salumi making from the ground up, and includes a section on how to break down and butcher a carcass, involving a series of detailed drawn illustrations and discusses the differences between American-style butchery and the traditional Italian style.

    While I don't think butchering your carcass from scratch is necessary to make great-tasting salumi products, it's very helpful to understand the cuts, and differences between the near-endless varieties of salumi.

    I personally found the introduction very helpful. It discusses the differences between salumi and chacuterie, although I personally felt the differences could be more clearly explained. Only on page 58 do you start getting into the dry curing theory. From page 86, you get a bunch of recipes (which is where Professional Charcuterie left off), and then on page 126, the book goes into a "deeper dive" on dry curing techniques and practices. These advanced salumi recipes all involve ground meat, and require the additional safety considerations mentioned on page 116-125. As the final section of the book, from page 203 onwards, there's a bunch of recipes that suggest how to incorporate various types of salumi products into your everyday cooking. So everything before page 203 is about making salumi, whist everything after that is about using salumi.

    While this book could indeed be used as a beginner's book. I'd probably describe this text more for intermediate use. As a book on the general charcuterie processes, this isn't a good choice, because it doesn't cover all that, even though there will be some overlap. However, if you love salami half as much as I do, I'm sure you'd find this book helpful.

    Now I just want to discuss that salumi making can be simple or extremely involved. I'd strongly suggest you stick to the simpler recipes at first, as they are amazing in their own right, and it will help you to develop a reference point for you to judge the more advanced styles for yourself. Whether you try this book, another one, or some online recipe, I feel this advice is worth sharing.

    Enjoy, stay safe, and keep learning!

    Ham.

     

     


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