How to Build a Charcuterie Board Like a Pro

Photo by Meg Baggott / Styling by Jenn de la Vega

It’s pretty easy to make a restaurant-worthy charcuterie board at home. What sets charcuterie apart from generic deli cold cuts is time, salt and texture. Factors like fermentation and beneficial molds help make charcuterie uniquely delicious. Compare a roast beef, which can be cooked in hours, to an Italian bresaola that’s salt-cured for months.

The word “charcuterie” comes from the French words chair, which means “meat” or “flesh,” and cuite, meaning “cooked.” Many cultures used salt to preserve foods before the advent of modern refrigeration in the 1950s, a fairly recent development when you consider salt processing dates to 6000 B.C.

Romans were the first to standardize pork butchery and trade. France later set the bar for cured meats, thanks in part to a particular respect for the animals and their diets. The French turned preserving meat into an art form.

What started with pork has expanded to beef, duck and lamb. Charcuterie also includes bacon, sausages and pancetta, but here, we’ll stick to platters best served cold or at room temperature.

How to Build a Cheese Board Like a Pro

Types of charcuterie and where to source them

While many of these suggestions may be available at your grocery store, some of the higher-end items will be found at specialty butcher shops or online. Plan to provide two ounces of meat per person, if used as an appetizer. Up to four ounces is preferable if it’s the main event.

When you plan charcuterie, offer three to five items. Make sure they span the range of fatty, spicy and spreadable, and that they come from two or more animals.

Charcuterie is divided into three types: forcemeats, sausages and salumi, an Italian word for “salted meats,” which includes preserved whole cuts of meat.

Forcemeats are spreadable mixtures of meat and offal (organ meats) like rillettes, pâtés and terrines. Sausages are ground meats stuffed into casings and then cooked or dry-aged. Preserved whole meats are whole legs or large boneless cuts of meat that are salt-cured and aged for months. A good example is prosciutto, a whole leg of pork.

Pick your first item, and then balance its texture and flavor with your next choice. Hard salami slices contrast nicely with spreadable pâté. Unless you want your house to smell like a campsite, try to include just one smoked item. Similarly, stick to a single truffle-infused choice, as it can blast your palate and overwhelm the rest of the board.

Here are three charcuterie boards that introduce different textures, flavors and price ranges.

Prosciutto, soppressata, finocchiona, chicken liver mousse and pork rillette / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Jenn De La Vega
Prosciutto, soppressata, finocchiona, chicken liver mousse and pork rillette / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Jenn de la Vega

The beginner charcuterie board

With more affordable cuts, these options offer bang for your buck and are the easiest to approach.

Prosciutto: Easily the most recognizable pork offering on this list. Each region of Italy has its own signature recipe and flavor profile, but the most common are from Parma, Tuscany and San Daniele. Culatello is a boneless cousin of prosciutto with a higher meat-to-fat ratio. If you’d like to avoid the fat, Spanish lomo and Italian lonza are alternatives made with pork loin.

Soppressata: Think of soppressata as “adult pepperoni.” This salumi is generally made from dry-cured, coarse-ground pork with red pepper flakes from Southern Italy, though regional variations do exist.

Finocchiona: Packed with fennel seeds, this skinny Italian salami was first created during the Renaissance. If you’re not a fan of anise, try French saucisson sec, made with garlic and pepper.

Chicken liver mousse: This creamy, buttery spread is a gateway pâté for those new to offal.

Pork rillette: Calling all pulled-pork lovers! This rillette is slow-cooked with spices, cut up, often pounded into a paste and topped off with rendered fat.

How to Pair Wine with Prosciutto

Wine pairing for beginner charcuterie

Light- to medium-bodied red wines with firm structure, like Gamay, Frappato, Zweigelt and Cabernet Franc are always a safe choice for charcuterie boards. The wine’s bright acidity and fresh berry flavors work together to cut through any fatty offerings and creamy textures. Potent spice flavors like fennel and red pepper threaten to overwhelm wines that are delicate and lacking in concentration, a sturdy structure is key to keeping up, but avoid anything with firm tannins as they clash with anything spicy. Red wines on the lighter, fruitier side can be enjoyed with a bit of a chill and works well when serving a cold charcuterie board.

Speck, chorizo picante, coppa, duck rillette and mousse du périgord / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Jenn de la Vega
Speck, chorizo picante, coppa, duck rillette and mousse du périgord / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Jenn de la Vega

The intermediate charcuterie board

Here, we introduce spice, smoke and decadent truffle. These recommendations won’t break the bank, but you may need to do some digging to find them.

Speck: This lightly smoked prosciutto hails from Northern Italy. Also worth seeking is guanciale, cut from the jowl, or a spice-cured fatback called lardo.

Chorizo picante: A Spanish pork salami, chorizo picante is spiced with hot paprika. These are not to be confused with the fresh chorizo sausages of Latin America.

Coppa: Short for capocollo, coppa is an Italian and Corsican dry-cured pork neck and shoulder salume (capo is Italian for head, while collo means neck). A spicy version is also available.

Duck rillette: In this rillette, duck leg confit is shredded before being mixed with spices and Armagnac. It’s then crowned with duck fat, which is more delectable and slightly lower in saturated fats than pork.

Mousse du Périgord: A signature creation of Les Trois Petits Cochons, a famed charcuterie formed in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, this blend of chicken and turkey livers is infused with herbs and bits of black truffle. Expect a bite that’s silky and smooth, with a top layer of aspic, a meat jelly.

Wine pairing for intermediate charcuterie

Layers of smoky and spicy flavors at the foundation of this charcuterie board, while deliciously indulgent can be fatiguing. White wines with vibrant acidity and vivid fruit flavors like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay are a refreshing foil to these more serious flavors. Be cautious of wines that lean too heavily on herbal or mineral flavors as they will come off as severe, mineral tones will melt into the smoky flavors while herbal tones may skew bitter leaving behind only searing acidity, so be sure to select a white with ripe stone or tropical fruit flavors.

Jamón Ibérico de bellota, bresaola, black truffle salami, rabbit rillette and pâté de campagne / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Jenn de la Vega
Jamón Ibérico de bellota, bresaola, black truffle salami, rabbit rillette and pâté de campagne / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Jenn de la Vega

The advanced charcuterie board

Make way for these haute meats. They skew toward high-end (read: expensive) and can challenge your palate, but can also be the most rewarding for adventurous palates.

Jamón Ibérico de bellota: This is where jamon reaches its peak. It’s a Spanish ham where the pigs are allowed to graze acorns and herbs freely, which gives the meat a very unique aroma. A more affordable version is jamón serrano. For a woodsy addition, Bauernschinken is a similar option that’s smoked with juniper.

Bresaola: An air-dried beef round from Northern Italy’s Lombardy region. D’Artagnan, an online purveyor, carries a delightful wagyu beef version sprinkled with sumac.

Black truffle salami: Creminelli offers a tartufo salami that’s intoxicating. It’s embedded with summer truffles whose flavors and aroma integrate beautifully with the pork.

Rabbit rillette: Versions of this rillette can be perfumed with juniper, mace and/or thyme. Rabbits aren’t as fatty as other animals, so these are often topped with duck fat.

Pâté de campagne: Country pâté can be tough for some folks because of its visible parts of offal and fat. Trust in a high-quality pâté that showcases gorgeous chunks of ham. For an impressive upgrade, try pâté en croûte, a rustic loaf of pâté wrapped in pastry.

Wine pairing for advanced charcuterie

The leaner meats found on this board spiced with earthy flavors and plenty of salt can steamroll delicate flavors. Full flavored and round white wines like Chenin Blanc, Moschofilero and Arneis have the chutzpah to keep pace but the acidity to rival the decadence of this charcuterie board. Yellow apple and sunny acidity offer reprieve from the deeply earthy truffle and salt but also highlight the gamy flavors of rabbit and country pâté.

Tips for serving

  • Charcuterie can be enjoyed as an appetizer or a meal. If you want prosciutto for breakfast, go for it. For entertaining, charcuterie is a popular option in part because it can be plated ahead of time and covered with plastic wrap.
  • Remove all inedible material like twine, cloth and tough salami casing before slicing.
  • When you plate charcuterie, drape each slice like you just shaved it yourself. Not only does it look attractive, it keeps each piece separated so that guests won’t struggle to peel them apart.
  • Choose a flat platter if everything can be picked up with tongs or a fork. It’s especially important if anything needs to be sliced, like a loaf of pâté.
  • Lipped, round serving trays are great if there are jars or ramekins that may slip. To prevent small containers from sliding, wet a small cocktail napkin and fold it so it’s hidden beneath the jar.
  • Have fun with thin-sliced meats by wrapping them around melon, asparagus, batons of cheese or grissini.

How to choose accompaniments

Charcuterie’s cured with lots of salt, so you’ll want palate cleansers like fresh or dried fruit, crudités, nuts, crackers or sliced bread. Buttery pâtés are often paired with mustard, compotes or cornichons.

For a fancy finish, drizzle aged balsamic vinegar or high-quality olive oil over the entire plate. Sprinkle a few large flakes of Maldon salt or fresh-ground peppercorns for extra crunch.

Four Types of Salami and Wines to Pair With Them

What to do with leftovers

When the party’s over, thin-sliced meats are perfect for sandwiches. Rillettes and pâtés can be spread on a baguette to make an easy banh mi with pickled carrots, cucumber and cilantro.

Rewrap sliced meats in parchment paper and a layer of plastic wrap. Leftover cold cuts can also be transformed into fancy bacon crisps by baking them at 350˚F for 5–8 minutes.

Salumi will keep for a couple of days if you stack them and wrap tightly. But since the fats and increased surface area has been exposed to air, it can still turn quickly.

Ready to level up?

Try making your own. Get into the kitchen and grab a copy of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005) by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, or their follow-up, Salumi. For a deeper look into what’s happening in the U.S., look for Olympia Provisions: Cured Meats and Tales from an American Charcuterie (Ten Speed Press, 2015) by Elias Cairo and Meredith Erickson.

For truly adventurous meatheads: Try head cheese. My favorite way to eat it is warmed slightly in the oven, drizzled with nice olive oil, fennel pollen and served atop brioche toast. Try it paired with a Cru Burgundy, or pull out an aged Barbaresco from the cellar for a stellar combination.

Bonus charcuterie tips

  • Cubes are fine for cheese and cold cuts, but chunky charcuterie might be hard to bite or deliver too much salt per portion. Salted cured meats are best sliced thin and served immediately.
  • Eat the sliced meats with your hands, forks or toothpicks. Don’t forget a knife for the pâté and rillettes, however.
  • Since charcuterie tends to be in the red-brown range of the color spectrum, lay down a bed of sturdy greens like arugula as a base. In addition to being visually impressive, it makes cleaning much easier.
  • Invite cultured butter and cheese to the party. Let butter soften to room temperature so it’s easy to spread. Cheeses from the same regions as your meats will complement each other nicely. Read all about cheeses in our comprehensive guide.

Now it’s your turn. Tag @WineEnthusiast and @Randwiches when you share your finished charcuterie platter online and please, invite us.

Jenn de la Vega is a caterer based in Brooklyn, New York. She’s the author of Showdown: Comfort Food, Chili and BBQ (Page Street Publishing, 2017) and recipe tester for The Last O.G. Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019).

Published on May 11, 2019
Topics: Charcuterie


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