June 8, 2012 |
Before culinary school, I had never heard of charcuterie before, so I didn’t know it is actually a part of my everyday life. Simply put, it is a facet of cooking devoted to specialty meats like (to name a few) pancetta, sausages, terrines, pâtés, confit, and most famously, BACON; the main meat generally used in charcuterie is pork. Part of my garde manger (cold kitchen items: salads, charcuterie, sandwiches, etc.) class was to do a research paper on charcuterie because it is usually a part of the garde manger chef’s repertoire. Being a lover of just about any kind of meat product, especially cured and smoked meats, I had a lot of fun researching this subject. I thought, like my Truffles research paper, I would share it with all of you as it is packed full of interesting information. Enjoy!
Derived from the French words for flesh (chair) and cooked (cuit), charcuterie, as an art form, began around the fifteenth century in France when shops began to sell pig products to the local townsfolk. The French charcutiers were not allowed to sell uncooked pork, so they had to create many cooked (or salted and dried) dishes to be sold later, for instance, pâtés, rillettes, sausages, bacon, trotters, and headcheese. These charcutiers were highly esteemed in their communities as they played a critical role in maintaining their town’s food supply by cooking and preserving the meat for the community. After all, the need for meat preservation is what spawned charcuterie in the first place, and it has been carried on throughout the ages in every culture. Salting, smoking, and cooking meats preserve them for long periods of time, which was very important without modern-day refrigeration; it meant storing meats throughout the long winter months when fresh meat was scarce. Interesting traces of charcuterie can be found in early human civilizations: some sausage recipes have been traced back to the golden age of ancient Greece, and the ancient Egyptians were known to fatten their geese for the livers (perhaps making the first pâté de foie gras).
Curing, brining, smoking, and confit are among the most popular methods charcutiers use for preparing meats. Curing without water is called dry curing, and curing with water is called wet curing, or brining. Salt is the most crucial element when curing and brining; its origin for curing meat is an ancient practice – there are some formulas for salting ham written around 200 B.C.[i] Dry cures often use just salt only, sometimes sweeteners are added or a tinted curing mix (TCM); these cures are applied by either rubbing or packing them on or over the meat. The most famous example of a cured meat is bacon, which is smoked after curing. Pancetta is also made by curing, but it is not smoked after curing, and the pork belly is usually rolled and tied for the drying process, whereas bacon is just left as a flat section of pork belly. Prosciutto is another common form of cured meat. For brining, meat can be submerged completely into brine, or the brine can be pumped into the meat (by injecting the brine into arteries or rapidly injecting it into the meat by multiple-needle pumping). Brining has become very popular with Thanksgiving turkeys; it adds moisture and flavor to the meat.
Smoking meats extends the freshness by protecting the meat from oxidation, it adds a desirable aroma and flavor, and adds color to the meat. The two methods of smoking are hot smoking and cold smoking. Hot smoking cooks meat between the temperatures of 120°F and 180°F. Cold smoking is used mainly for adding smoky flavor and color to the meats; it does not actually cook the meat as the temperature stays between 70°F and 90°F. Confit is the technique of slow-cooking meats submerged in fat, then cooling the meat in the fat so the fat solidifies, creating a protective layer from light and oxygen, allowing the meat to be stored for weeks without spoilage. Not only does the fat act as a protective housing for the meat, but when the meat is brought out of the fat to be cooked, it will be extremely succulent and moist. The most popular forms of confit are duck confit and pork rillettes; pork belly can also be prepared using the confit technique.
Sausages are one of the most popular forms of charcuterie. There are four classic forms of sausages: raw, cooked, poached, and cured. The raw sausages are made from raw meats, and typically need to be cooked before eaten (by sautéing, grilling/broiling, baking, or braising), unless they are cured and dried, like salami. They can be spreadable, like teawurst or mettwurst, for example, or they can be sliceable, like cervelat, land jaeger, or sopressata. Cooked sausages are made from precooked meats and fat, which are ground while still warm, and mixed with salt and seasonings. They are then encased and poached. Some examples of cooked sausages are liverwurst, blood pudding, and headcheese. Poached sausages are also known sometimes as “cold cuts.” Bologna, kielbasa, and andouilles are all forms of poached sausages. These are sometimes lightly smoked when raw, then poached, then chilled in water, and then refrigerated to be sliced as cold cuts, or they can be carved to order and served warm. Cured sausages are made only from raw meats which are seasoned with Prague Powder #2, then cured in the fridge for twenty-four hours, kept warm for seventy-two hours in 70°F, and then air-dried in a dark (well-ventilated) cool room for up to six weeks or longer. Salami is a very well-known cured sausage. Sausages can come either in bulk (loose meat), or linked (encased in natural, synthetic, or collagen casings) form.
Pâtés and terrines are sometimes referred to as the “backbone” of charcuterie.[ii] They mainly come in one of three ways: straight forcemeats (which have been ground or emulsified), country-style (coarsely ground), or mousseline (fine-textured, and usually made from lighter colored meats like chicken or veal). Both are made from these forcemeats which are put into a mold to bake; pâtés are usually baked within dough that has been placed into a mold (typically called pâté en croûte). The earliest documented form of a pâté en croûte dates back to 75 B.C. when a Greek chef, by the name of Epinatos, was working in Egypt, and came up with the idea to prepare various mixtures of meat, fat, blood, and honey, and then bake these mixtures in bread.The empty air pocket which forms inside the top of the pâté en croûte is usually filled with aspic (consommé mixed with gelatin), which helps to seal the pâté en croûte from oxygen, and makes for a beautiful presentation when it is sliced and plated for service. Pâtés and terrines are typically served with sauces or condiments to add acidity, sweetness, and visual completion to the plate.
As charcuterie is a dying art in today’s modern society, charcutiers are one of the most highly respected professionals in the culinary world. Their patience, creativity, passion for practicing and discovering new items and techniques, is a never-ending mission; they are always learning. In my research, I came across a very powerful passage in Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing which sums up charcuterie, and my personal feelings towards it: “I asked a chef friend, a teacher expert in the ways of preservation, Dan Hugelier, why now, given that we can ‘preserve’ food fine in a fridge or freezer or in Cryovack, sealed in oxygenless packages, why was confit, why was charcuterie—a culinary specialty largely defined by preservation methods—still relevant? Dan looked at me as if I were an idiot and said, ‘Taste.’”
[i] Sonnenschmidt, Fritz. “Charcuterie: Sausages/Pates/Accompaniments.” Delmar, New York, 2010. Print.
[ii] Ruhlman, Michael and Polcyn, Brian. “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.”
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 2005. Print.