Whether you’re shopping for fancy cold cuts, ordering a whole charcuterie board or simply selecting a salami, there are some key cured meat terms you should know. You don’t have to be a master salumist to learn what’s going on behind the scenes. Explore these charcuterie terms and discover how mold and salt play their parts, why fat is everything and how 24-month-old prosciutto is not only entirely edible, it’s heavenly.
Illustrations by Erika DaSilva
The process of allowing cured meat to hang for a period of months or years, surrounded by dry, circulating air, in order to remove moisture and inhibit bacterial growth, and encourage natural fermentation and mold, which concentrates and enhances flavors.
A savory gelatin made from concentrated bone stock (particularly veal, which contains large amounts of collagen) used to top or set a meat, vegetable or seafood terrine. Originally used as a method of preservation to stop air from reaching its perishable contents, it’s now a celebrated recipe component and can be infused with complementary ingredients, like wine, mustard, vegetable puree, dried mushrooms or herbs.
A type of food poisoning caused by C. botulinum toxins, which are very heat resistant and grow in anaerobic conditions, like the exterior of dried or fermented meat. Botulism can be prevented by applying or incorporating nitrates and nitrites, two of the main components in curing salts.
A solution of salt, sugar and seasonings like herbs, spices and citrus dissolved in water. A brine breaks down muscle protein, making it more tender and allowing the flavor and liquid to penetrate, resulting in a juicier final product more likely to retain its own moisture.
One who prepares and/or sells charcuterie. Most charcutiers are also butchers, especially of pork, and will often also specialize in the preparation of organ meats like liver and kidneys.
The process of cooking something immersed in fat. The fat can be the animal’s own (as in duck confit) or any alternative, like butter, pork fat or olive oil, typically kept over low heat. Vegetables like tomatoes, garlic and carrots can also be cooked using this method.
The process of salting or applying nitrites to meat or fish in order to preserve it for later use, as well as enhance its color and flavor.
A blend of protein, fat and water. In the case of charcuterie, the blend is piped into casings and boiled or steamed. Emulsification is used to make hot dogs, mortadella and bologna, for example.
A protein that acts as a catalyst to a chemical reaction — fermentation, in the case of charcuterie. Meat’s natural enzymes break down its tough, mild-flavored protein into tender, extra-flavorful amino acids. Enzymes are responsible for the tangy “funk” in cured meat.
The amount and cut of fat within charcuterie. Some kinds of sausage are classified by their fat distribution — mortadella, for instance, must contain 15 percent fat cubes, soppressata incorporates larger fat chunks than other traditional dry salamis, and blood sausage includes a higher percentage of fat to balance and round out the flavor of the blood. When working with leaner meat, especially game like venison, rabbit and pheasant, fat is frequently added to the ground mix to prevent the meat from drying out and add flavor.
The section of smooth, hard, white fat under a pig’s back skin (as opposed to the lumpy yellow and off-white fat found within the abdomen). Fatback is rendered to make lard or cured with salt and herbs to make Italian lardo. Sliced and deep-fried with the skin on, this cut results in pork rinds, cracklin’ or chicharron.
The process of beneficial bacteria breaking down salted, dried meat in order to preserve it and enhance the flavor. Some describe the flavor added by fermentation as “tangy” or “funky.”
The liver of large water fowl, usually goose or duck, that has been either force-fed (“gavage”) or naturally fed large amounts of corn in order to maintain the liver’s fatty content. Many modern foie gras operations are turning increasingly to more humane methods in order to achieve the fattiness desired.
Meat, fat and seasonings ground together or ground and mixed, used to stuff other meat or vegetables or fed into casings using a manual or electric sausage stuffer. Forcemeat can also refer to any ground mix used to make a terrine, pâté or roulade.
The weight of a piece of meat before curing and drying. As the moisture evaporates from a combination of salting and dry conditions, the weight decreases. A dry-cured salami may lose up to 1/3 of its weight during its months of curing.
The coarseness to which meat and fat is processed through a grinder. Grinding meat and fat together allows for more thorough incorporation and adds flavor when working with leaner cuts. Some sausages, like liverwurst or ‘nduja, call for a very fine grind that allows the finished product to be spread; others, like soppressata, call for a coarser grind that preserves the integrity of the meat and results in a chewier, denser product. For products that require emulsification, like bologna or mortadella, the grind must be fine enough to result in a paste that is formed into a sausage shape during cooking.
Instacure 1 (“Prague powder 1”)
Instacure 1 is a curing agent that contains 6.25 percent sodium nitrite and 93.75 percent salt, used to draw moisture out from charcuterie, allowing it to dry properly and prevent the growth of mold and bacteria. Instacure 1 is used in cured meat products that still need cooking before consumption, like bacon.
Instacure 2 (“Prague powder 2”)
Instacure 2 contains about 6.25 percent sodium nitrite, about 1 percent sodium nitrate, and about 92.75 percent salt. The addition of sodium nitrate allows for meat products to be eaten “raw” after curing, like salami.
Microorganisms like Penicillium (a white mold) and Aspergillus (a green mold) that grow on the surface of charcuterie. The mold’s enzymes help break down protein and fat and facilitate fermentation while adding flavor and protecting the exterior against other competing microorganisms as a natural antioxidant. Once fermenting is complete, the mold can be removed for aesthetic purposes. Yellow or black molds indicate spoilage and should not be consumed.
A protein, often animal liver, cooked in butter with aromatics and seasonings, then blended with cream or egg whites to form a silky spread. Fish, like salmon, scallops or sole also take well to this application.
A finely or coarsely ground blend of meat, organ meat and herbs or seasonings. Some pâtés contain milk (for a smoother texture), egg (which helps it set in its mold), or bread (which helps stretch the ingredients and forms a firmer loaf).
Meat, fish or poultry that’s been chopped or shredded, seasoned with salt and pepper and preserved slowly, confit style, in its own fat, the fat of another animal, olive oil or butter to make a thick spread for sandwiches, crudité or pasta stuffing.
A blend of herbs, spices and other flavoring agents like wine or garlic rubbed over a whole piece of charcuterie before curing and aging.
Incorporating salt, a key ingredient in preservation for thousands of years, into the meat curing and drying process helps draw out moisture, inhibits the growth of harmful microorganisms, adds flavor and improves shelf life. Sea salt was originally used in this way, but with the development of nitrate- and nitrite-heavy curing salts, the process is more consistent and results in a safer product.
Any kind of Italian preserved meat (usually pork but sometimes beef). Can be confused with salami, which indicates a specific preparation of spiced, ground pork dried and fermented in a casing.
Exposing meat to smoke causes the outermost layer to “seal off,” making it hard for bacteria and other microorganisms to enter and infect it. Using hot smoke will cook meat as well as preserve it, and using cold smoke allows meat to remain raw so it can then be cured and dried while retaining a desirable smoky flavor.
Incorporating non-meat or -fat ingredients into charcuterie, like pistachios in mortadella or pâté, fennel in finocchiona, or peppercorns in soppressata. Chili peppers, dried fruits and mushrooms can also be incorporated this way. Studding may also refer to the practice of inserting the sharp ends of cloves into a piece of meat (typically ham) before cooking.
A dish of ground meat, organ meat, vegetables, boiled eggs, herbs and/or other seasonings packed or layered in a ceramic or steel loaf-shaped mold, cooked in a water bath, cooled, turned out and sliced for serving. Sometimes an infused gelatin (see: aspic) is set on top for a decorative effect that also adds an additional layer of flavor. Terrines can be par-cooked, wrapped in puff pastry and baked for “pâté en croute.”
Binding a salami or whole cured muscle (like culatello) with butcher’s twine after casing (if casing is used) and before curing. This helps hold the sausage or other shape together evenly during drying and keeps the meat compressed, preventing it from spreading as it cures.