Charcuterie is a catch-all term for processed meat. These meats can range from dry-cured Spanish hams to smoked snack sticks. The craft of making charcuterie evolved from the need to preserve meats before the advent of refrigeration and utilize odds and ends of protein. With the modern luxury of refrigeration, the preservation of meat is no longer a necessity for most households, but the craft of charcuterie lives on. Using a combination of salt, smoke, time, and fermentation, charcuterie transforms fresh meat into a concentrated version of itself, changing the taste, texture, and stability.
The variety of processed meats is endless, but they all share a general starting point–extending the stability of the meat. To do this, you have to limit the amount of bacterial growth. This is achieved by creating an inhospitable environment for bacteria by reducing the available water (aW) in the protein, increasing the pH, and/or removing all the oxygen.
With dried meats, salt and/or heat is used to reduce aW or dry the meat. Alternatively, by using acids or fermentation, you can raise the pH to a point where harmful bacteria cannot survive. Pressure canning uses high heat to kill off bacteria then seals the meat in an anaerobic environment which prevents bacteria from reproducing.
Using these three principles, people have been able to put up meat for millennia. The practice has spawned countless styles of charcuterie and techniques. For sake of brevity, we will be focusing on a few general categories–whole muscle, pates and spreads, fresh sausage, and fermented sausages.
Whole Muscle The category of whole muscle charcuterie includes hams, bacon, biltong, coppa, prosciutto, and many more. While all these charcuteries are different, the recipes all follow the same general premise. Whole muscles are preserved with a combination of salt, smoke, and/or dehydration.
Because the interior of a whole muscle is anaerobic and therefore ideally close to sterile, the surface is where any spoilage will occur first. So whole muscle charcuteries are usually salted only on the outside to prevent bacteria from growing. The amount of salt used changes depending on the style and environment.
Charcuteries that originate from arid climates tend to be less salty than hams from places with higher or more fluctuating humidity. The basic premise of a cured whole muscle is to salt the meat for a period of time and allow for the salt to penetrate the meat (curing) and draw out excess moisture (lowering aW). That is followed by a drying time to further reduce aW. Smoking speeds up the dehydration process and imparts a flavor that we have evolved to love.
Most whole muscle charcuteries are hung to dry after the curing process. Depending on the size of the meat and the anticipated drying time, the process can be done in a home refrigerator or a dedicated drying or curing chamber. Centuries of cured hams have been made in cellars and caves that have the ideal temperature and humidity. It is recommended that you monitor the humidity and temperature of any space you plan on dry curing meat in before starting any projects.
The stability of these charcuteries varies as much as the styles. Some hams are stable for years in a cool environment, while most varieties of available whole muscle charcuteries are best kept under refrigeration.
Whole muscle is the simplest form of charcuterie. While it may be intimidating to dry cure a whole ham, the core concept is not much different than making jerky. If you are interested in attempting a whole muscle charcuterie project, starting small then working your way up is a good way to get your feet wet. Smaller muscles will cure faster and require less drying time. Large hams require a lot of space and extended periods of time, sometimes a year or more.
Pates and Spreads Pates and spreads like rillettes are less stable than most charcuteries and focus more on utilizing the odds and ends of the meat than preservation. Here, meat or offal is processed, usually with a large amount of added fat to change the form of the protein. This can be as simple as cooking, shredding, and whipping the meat with fat like with a rillette.
For the most part, these charcuteries are not stable unless refrigerated or pressure canned. The cooking process does extend the life of otherwise quick-to-spoil proteins, and added salts and nitrates will further extend their stability, but these are not long-term charcuteries.
Fresh Sausage Fresh sausage is ground meat that has been seasoned and kept in raw form. Like pates, this category is about utilizing non-prime cuts and reforming them into a more desirable product. Making sausage is as simple as seasoning ground meat.
Because sausage is ground or minced, it has exponentially more surface area than whole muscles. This increases oxygen exposure and makes it extremely susceptible to spoilage. Most fresh sausages are highly perishable for this reason unless they are heavily salted, smoked, or dried. But understanding how to make fresh sausage is the foundation to making fermented sausages (salami) which is where the world of charcuterie gets really interesting.
Fermented sausages Fermented sausages like salami vary drastically in flavor and texture–from minimalist to heavily spiced, and from spreadable to rock hard. But they all share the same core concept: ground meat is cured, cased, and allowed to ferment and dry.
Fermentation is the basis for long-term meat preservation without refrigeration and the cornerstone of making salami. Cultivating beneficial bacteria to reduce aW and/or raise pH is how you take a highly perishable ingredient like ground meat and make it extremely stable.
The curing process for salami begins with salt and nitrates. The salt and nitrates season the meat and prevent some bacterial growth by drawing water out of the protein, reducing aW. There are exceptions of course: some salami makers have made salami without the addition of nitrates for generations, and some makers prefer to use nitrate substitutes like celery juice (which naturally contains nitrates). But for safety reasons, I highly recommend understanding and using modern nitrates (cure #1 and cure #2 or their equivalents) in all salami products.
In addition to the salt and nitrates, beneficial bacteria from a starter culture consumes sugars and converts the sugar into acid, raising the pH of the ground meat. This more acidic environment prevents harmful bacteria from growing. This is one of the reasons fermented sausages have a distinct tang to them that is often imitated in cooked sausages (like most summer sausages) with dry milk, fermento, and encapsulated citric acid. It is recommended that you follow manufacturer instructions on handling, preparation, inoculation, and incubation with all starter cultures.
After the sausage is seasoned, inoculated with starter culture, and incubated, it must be allowed to hang and dry. This can take anywhere from a week to months depending on the size of the sausage. Salamis must be dried in an environment that is devoid of light and has proper temperature & humidity, generally around 52°F and 75% humidity.
The weight of salami is recorded before the drying process begins and checked periodically through the drying process. Most salamis are "done" when they reach ~30% weight loss, though this depends on the type of salami.
During the drying process, careful attention must be paid to the curing chamber and the contents within. Keep an eye out for mold. Certain types of molds are harmful, while others are desirable. The desirable molds can help prevent case hardening, which is when the exterior of the salami dries out too much and does not allow moisture from the interior of the sausage to exit. This can result in uneven texture and spoilage. Temperature and humidity are critical as well, too warm and the meat could spoil, too cold and the fermentation process slows down or stops altogether. If the humidity is too high you risk spoilage and unwanted bacterial growth, while low humidity will cause rapid drying, which can cause case hardening.
There is an increased risk in fermenting sausages due to botulism, which stems from the Latin word for sausage. Botulism is a serious and potentially fatal illness caused by toxins that grow in anaerobic environments. Cased sausages that are kept in an unrefrigerated environment can be a vector for the potentially deadly toxin. That being said, cases of botulism are rare. Understanding best practices for making fermented sausages and using the proper equipment and judgment are important. I highly recommend using proper sanitation practices, starter cultures, pH meters, nitrates, and a controllable or stable drying environment for any and all fermented sausages.
The beauty of salami is that the process changes and intensifies the flavor of the meat as well as the texture. The curing, fermentation, and drying processes alter the protein in ways that cannot be replicated.
The craft of charcuterie is one that some people have spent a lifetime perfecting and understanding. This guide is meant to help you understand the basics and get you started. Charcuterie making can be complicated and intimidating. But it's a culinary rabbit hole worth exploring if you like eating high-quality meat and it will make you appreciate how salt, time, and smoke have shaped how we eat.