How to Build the Perfect Charcuterie Board

perfect charcuterie board

How to Build the Perfect Charcuterie Board

Its rise on social media gave the charcuterie board's popularity a wild boost. What was once only occasionally consumed at wine bars, restaurants, and maybe at friendly get-togethers has now become something people do for themselves if they have a bit of free time. The reason? It’s tasty, fun, and looks good in Instagram pictures and Tik-Tok videos.

But claiming that charcuterie becoming trendy is solely the responsibility of social media would be a disservice. Its history, after all, counts centuries. The charcuterie board rose to prominence in 15th century France and then slowly and surely spread first across Europe and next to the rest of the world.

What the pretty pictures and videos on social media did was put it at the center of attention among more people from the demographic that had little knowledge of it before. Once they knew about it, they wanted to try it, and once they tried it, they loved it. When utilized correctly, social media is capable of a lot of good.

But here’s a secret social media doesn’t often discuss: not all charcuterie boards are made equal. Some look and taste better than others, and that’s because assembling a well-balanced charcuterie board is an art. It involves choosing the right board, the right accompaniments, and, of course, the right meats for charcuterie board.

Let’s delve deeper and break it all down.

What is a charcuterie board?

Charcuterie (pronounced “shar-koo-tuh-ree”) is a French term initially referring to various delicatessen-style meat products, along with pâtés, confit, ballotines, etc. These days it encompasses most dry-cured meats, brined meats, and forcemeat products.

The charcuterie board is a spread that typically consists of several varieties of cured meat products, accompanied by some combination of cheese, fruit, honey, nuts, and crackers. 

What goes on a charcuterie board?

The most crucial ingredient is meat, that’s true. But while choosing the right meat for charcuterie board is essential, it’s no less critical to properly select accompanying flavors that will balance out your meat products.

Traditionally, the meat is accompanied by some combination of cheese, fruit, honey, nuts, and sweet and savory dips. I’ve been served charcuterie boards that were compiled of meats (and a few dips) only, and I must admit they were much less visually and taste-wise impressive than the ones that comprised multiple ingredients balancing each other’s flavor profiles.

Here’s a quick rundown of what you’ll need:

  1. Meats: the rest of your charcuterie assembly process will revolve around which meats you’ll choose to construct the board. Try combining several varieties with distinct flavor profiles and different textures (sweet vs. spicy; chewy vs. buttery).
  2. Cheeses: cured meats with a sweeter flavor and tender texture pair best with strong hard cheeses, while spicy and savory meats pair better with softer cheese with milky and creamy flavors. For a well-balanced board, offer at least 2 types of cheese to act as foils to one another. But if your goal is to build a perfect charcuterie board, then you should aim at no less than 4 types of cheese, ideally made from different animals (cow, sheep, goat) milk. Pro tip: don’t go too wild with cheeses; make sure you’ve got at least one type that everyone’s familiar with (ex. mozzarella).
  3. Fruits, jams, honey: sweet accompaniments are going to cut through all the salt and spice from cheese and meat to create a snack with a more nuanced flavor profile. Honey, in particular, is known for accentuating hidden sweet and nutty undertones in cheese and meats, a trade that has made it a mainstay ingredient on cheese and charcuterie boards.
  4. Nuts, olive oil, vegetable preserves, savory dips: while meat and cheese already provide savory elements to the board, other non-sweet ingredients are a great way to add more texture to the board and create more complex flavor combinations. Nuts and pickles, for example, add an extra crunch to each bite, playing to our pallets' love for crunchy textures. Savory dips and sauces like mustard, salsa, or hummus take on basically the same role as they take in sandwiches, cutting through and complimenting the fat in the meat.
  5. Crackers: the primary purpose of crackers on a charcuterie board is to have it act like a small transport of your assembled combo (cheese, meat, dip). But a well-selected cracker will enrich the texture and flavor as well. 

 

4 S-Words of a Charcuterie Board:

If you’re having trouble deciding which ingredients should go on your charcuterie board, then remember the rule of 4 S: a perfectly balanced charcuterie board needs to combine salty, savory, spicy, and sweet ingredients.

  • Salty: cured meats are already generally salty, but strong cheese, nuts, pickles, and crackers act as salty accompaniments;
  • Savory: certain cured meats and cheese are responsible for this, which is why variety is essential (no less than four types of cured meats and no less than 2, ideally 4, types of cheese). Arguably, this is the category olive oil goes in, as well;
  • Spicy: certain cured meats again take charge (pepperoni, chorizo, etc.), but you can flex your fantasy and add more complex elements like chili-infused cheese, spicy salsa, or a sweet and spicy pepper jam!
  • Sweet: various fruits and fruit preserves, especially from fruits that are traditionally paired with cured meats (fig, melon, citrus, berries), will add balance to the board. But if you’re just going to add one sweet ingredient, then stick to honey. It goes well with most cured meats, cheeses, and nuts.

What are the best meats for a charcuterie board?

One crucial detail to remember is that cured meats themselves should be able to balance each other. Imagine your charcuterie board has suddenly been stripped of all ingredients besides meat. Would there still be a variety of textures (tender, smooth, chewy, fatty) and flavors (savory, sweet, nutty, spicy, smoky)? If all the cured meats you chose taste and feel the same, there’s no reason to assemble the board, to begin with.

Variety is the key to the perfect charcuterie board (which is why you need no less than four types of meat, ideally, each responsible for different flavor profiles).

Top 10 Cured Meats for Your Charcuterie Board:

Over the years, certain cured meats have become staples of a charcuterie board. If you have trouble deciding yourself, you can always turn to the tried and tested options while balancing the assortment according to the abovementioned rules.

Prosciutto, specifically Prosciutto Crudo (dry-cured Italian ham), is possibly the most common ingredient on charcuterie boards. Prosciutto Crudo has a sweeter flavor with a bit of saltiness to it and a fatty, buttery texture.

Jamón, namely jamón serrano, may look like prosciutto but has a distinctly different flavor and texture. It has a somewhat dry, chewy texture and a more intense, smoky, and savory flavor; unless we’re talking about the jamón Iberico variety, which has a tender, juicy texture and a sweeter, nuttier flavor. But jamón Iberico is rare and expensive, and when served, many prefer serving it separately so that other flavors don’t overwhelm it.

Salami is another standard option. Regular hard salami will do fine, but if you want to elevate the board, try adding soppressata with its distinct coarse texture and savory, slightly spicy flavor. Or Genoa salami if you need a more tender texture and complex flavor (Genoa salami is flavored with pepper, garlic, and wine, creating a unique combo). Salchichon, a Spanish salami variety, is also a good choice, with its mild sweetness and a slight touch of spice.

Pepperoni is often used to add the spicy element to the charcuterie board. It’s one of the chewier options on the list.

Chorizo can be a bit tricky, as it can come in both spicy and sweet varieties, depending on which type of Pimenton (smoked paprika) was used to season it. Standard cured chorizo is typically intensely flavorful, with a smoky aroma and firm texture. 

Bacon might seem like an unorthodox choice, but who doesn’t love bacon? Whether you add the uncooked, fatty, and tender bacon, or crisp fried bacon to the board, it’s likely to please the audience. Choose how to serve according to your preferences.

Mortadella is a traditional slow-roasted Italian sausage that’s often additionally flavored with pistachios or green olives. Mortadella is one of the mildest options, flavor-wise, with a silky texture due to its high-fat content.

Bresaola is a tad different from most meat products on this list, as it’s traditionally made from beef, and a very lean beef cut at that. It has a somewhat dry texture and a sweet flavor with a hint of spice.

Lomo Curado is a whole cured pork tenderloin. As such, it has a very low-fat content and a tight, chewy texture. It’s seasoned with multiple spices, which provide its robust flavor.

Guanciale is a cured pork jowl or cheek. Due to the fat, its texture is smooth and creamy, while the flavor is an excellent balance of buttery, sweet, and savory.

Which cheeses go on a charcuterie board?

The best cheeses for charcuterie boards are those that accentuate the meat instead of pulling attention to themselves. Your choice of cheeses should balance the hard cheeses with robust flavors to pair with more complex and sweet flavors, with softer, somewhat bland cheeses to balance more delicate or savory flavors.

  • Soft and creamy cheeses: mozzarella, stracciatella, brie, ricotta, cheuvreux, etc.
  • Hard and robust cheeses: manchego, gruyere, gouda, provolone, cheddar, etc.

Which fruits go on a charcuterie board?

Again, it depends on the meats you’ll pair the fruit with. For meats with more tender textures and savory flavors, sweet fruits like figs and melons are a common pairing (a melon slice wrapped in prosciutto or jamón is a common snack by itself).

Zesty citrus is also common on charcuterie boards, oranges, and tangerines in particular - citrus pairs well with more spicy meats, like chorizo and pepperoni. 

But the most popular choices are undoubtedly grapes and berries. Their mild sweetness with a bit of tang pairs well with most cured meats and makes them an easy, time-saving option.

If your choice of fruit isn’t in season, you can substitute it with a fruit preserve like fig jam or orange marmalade

Which nuts go on a charcuterie board?

Nuts are relatively easy to add, as most will provide that crunch and subtle sweetness we’re looking for. Pistachios, walnuts, pecans, and almonds are all safe choices that go with everything. But add peanuts, cashews, or hazelnuts if you like them more. They’re still going to do the job.

Which crackers go on a charcuterie board?

The buttery and flaky crackers work best, I’ve found. Skip intensely flavored ones when choosing crackers for charcuterie board. You don’t want any cheese, bacon, or pizza-flavored crackers on your board. Stick to plain salted ones or herby ones (rosemary, thyme, etc.). 

The plain and dry crackers like grissini or pico are often served with cured meats as an appetizer and will work for a charcuterie board as well.

And remember, if you don’t have crackers in the pantry, you can always substitute with fresh white bread like sliced baguette or ciabatta, or even toast slices, if there’s no other option.

How to arrange the perfect charcuterie board:

Now that we’re done with the ingredients, here’s a step-by-step guide to how to build a perfect charcuterie board:

Step 1: Start with the dishes. If you’re adding stuff like honey, dips, soft cheese, olive oil, etc., that require separate bowls, assemble them first, so you don’t have to move cheese and meet around in the end. One of the bowls (typically honey) should be placed at the center of the board.

Step 2: Continue with cheese. Cut the cheese (triangles and cubes are common unless it’s brie or blue cheese, which are cut according to their shape) and space them out on the board, effectively creating “walls” between different meats.

Step 3: Place the meats. Using cheese as a guide, fold the meats and place them in a row right next to the cheese. Ideally, each meat will be paired with the cheese it goes with the best.

Step 4: Add nuts. As they’re small and can easily fall off the board, add little piles closer to the center or around the bowls.

Step 5: Add fruits. Fill some of the space between different cheeses and meats with fruit. Try to leave one edge of the board free.

Step 6: Finish with crackers. Line the crackers up on the side of either cheese or meat (so you get some combo of cheese-meat-cracker besides each other on the board) or on the free edge of the board. If you’re adding fresh bread slices or toast, then keep them separate on the edge away from fruit so they don’t get soggy.

What’s the difference between a cheese board and a charcuterie board?

While you’ll often find various cured meats on a cheese board and cheeses on the charcuterie board, the key is to look for the star of the show.

Assess the amount and variety: if there are more meats on the board than cheeses, you’ve assembled a charcuterie board and vice versa.

If the board was assembled by someone experienced, then flavors will also give a hint. The cheese for a charcuterie board is selected to accentuate the meat.

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