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My friends and I have Friday night down to an exact science. We run to the nearest Trader Joe’s and start working through our grocery list: three kinds of meat (usually prosciutto, sliced salami and a whole summer sausage), three kinds of cheese (brie, manchego and truffle goat—always) and two kinds of crackers (honestly, whatever catches our eye). We then pop over to a another store and grab a bunch of inexpensive wine before heading to my friend’s apartment and assembling a killer spread. Once everything’s set up, we cheers—and our little wine and cheese night begins.
Though low-budget and low-maintenance, this Friday night ritual has introduced us to an entire world of culinary arts: charcuterie (and making the perfect charcuterie plate).
Charcuterie, which literally translates to “cooked flesh” from French, encompasses all kinds of cured meats: pork, beef, poultry and more—the key lies in the method of preparation. Francine Segan, food historian, tells StyleCaster charcuterie dates back to ancient times; before the advent of refrigeration, people had to get creative when it came to food preparation. So they used salt, brine and fat to their advantage, and their experimentation resulted in many delicious food products that we still enjoy today.
Over time, charcuterie became less a necessity and more an art, of sorts. People study it, specialize in it and even compete in charcuterie-centric competitions. Here, we talk to some of those specialists to get the lowdown on all things charcuterie. Because even those of us who have our Friday nights down to an exact science could stand to learn a thing or two about assembling the perfect charcuterie plate.
There are two quick steps anyone who wants to assemble a charcuterie spread should take before diving in. First, decide where you’re going shopping—a butcher shop, speciality store or standard supermarket. Then, figure out what you’re looking for.
If you’re an “on a mission” customer (like yours truly), you probably already know exactly what you want, Matt Levere, a butcher who won second place at the 2018 Charcuterie Masters competition in New York, tells StyleCaster. But if you’re more of a charcuterie beginner—or a not-so-novice looking to try something new—you might not have a grocery list to work from. Instead, you’ll have to suss out what exactly you’re in the mood for.
Start by asking yourself some questions, Levere suggests. Are you looking for an appetizer or meal? Do you like beef, pork, poultry or lamb? Do you want something sweet or savory? Mild or spicy? Look for something that fits your tastes—or ask a store employee for guidance. Opt for a few different kinds of meat; Aurélien Dufour, chef and owner of Dufour Gourmet, tells StyleCaster he aims for five every time he makes a charcuterie plate.
Then, it’s cheese time. Levere’s go-to is to pair like with like—bolder sausages with sharp, aged cheddars and milder salamis with lighter, creamier cheeses. But his wife likes mixing everything with everything. Again, it boils down to personal preference, so ask yourself some of those questions from before to figure out what, exactly, you’re looking for.
But how much do you buy? Segan recommends about two ounces of meat per person, and Levere says he aims for a 50/50 split between his meats and cheese. That means you should be buying two ounces of meat and another two ounces of cheese for every person attending your get-together.
If you’re an “on a mission” customer, you probably already know exactly what you want. But if you’re more of a charcuterie beginner, you’ll have to suss out what exactly you’re in the mood for.
Odds and Ends
Remember, meat and cheese is just the beginning. In fact, those two things account for only 50 percent of any charcuterie board Levere makes. The next 25 percent is made up of breads and crackers. And the remaining 25 percent is all filler—what Segan calls “fun little add-ons.”
Crackers and breads are a necessity, but there’s no right or wrong way to shop for them. You probably don’t need to consult that set of questions you turned to while meat shopping; instead, Segan recommends grabbing whatever catches your eye. “There are all kinds of crackers—all kinds of wonderful breads,” she says. “Grab whatever looks pretty to you.”
Just be sure to get a variety of stuff—and enough to pair with all the meat and cheese you got. Oh, and if you want to take things to the next level, try toasting any bread you buy. (A pro tip from Segan.)
Then, it’s time for that filler. And the options are endless. Cornichons, mustards, jams and preserves. Fresh apples, pears and grapes to cleanse the palate. Nuts for some added crunch. Balsamic vinegar to further deepen the flavor. And DuFour says he likes to add a little salad frisée—for some color and, you know, to add a little green to the mix. “One of my favorite things with a charcuterie board is that you can load it up with all kinds of stuff,” Levere says. “All the flavor—all the different tastes.”
And of course, you can always throw some wine in the mix. Dufour recommends a Burgundy or a Bordeaux (he’s partial to the latter since he’s from the region).
“One of my favorite things with charcuterie board is that you can load it up with all kinds of stuff. All the flavor—all the different tastes.”
As many charcutiers will tell you, stocking up on ingredients isn’t the final step—assembling your spread is. So once you’re done grocery shopping, it’s time to create a seriously stunning charcuterie plate.
“A charcuterie board needs to look like a piece of art,” Dufour says. “Something you’d want to take a picture of and hang on your wall.”
But that doesn’t mean you need to go full-on artiste. Though Levere says he’s seen everything from prosciutto flowers to apple bird sculptures, he prefers to keep things simple. “I just go in parallel lines vertically,” he says. “You have the chorizo on the left and the salami on the right.” That way, things don’t get mixed up—and you can remember which element is which.
Dufour takes a similar approach. He cuts things into small pieces, typically triangles. “I keep each element in separate spots, instead of mixing them together,” he says. Then, he places them on a wooden charcuterie board. Yup, it’s that easy.
“I would just say: Start simple and learn as you go,” Levere says. “If you have good high-quality meat and cheese on the board, that’s an amazing display already. You’re never going to hear someone say, ‘Look at this ugly charcuterie board. I’ve lost my appetite!’”
Originally published in August 2018. Updated July 2019.