Charcuterie is the art of salting, smoking, brining, or otherwise curing meats, most commonly pork. The term is also used to refer to delicatessens and stores which specialize in prepared meats, and is used in France to distinguish such a store from a butcher shop handling fresh meat. The French have specialized in charcuterie since at least the 15th century, and the skills involved are still highly prized, especially in professional kitchens. Some cooking skills offer training in charcuterie, and students can also apprentice with a skilled charcutier.
The term is a French word, originating in the Latin caro, for flesh or meat, and coctus, or “cooked.” Charcuterie is often mistranslated as “pork butcher,” but in fact it merely means “cooked meats.” Butchering is a separate although equally valuable art which has to do with handling slaughter and selling fresh meats.
The roots of charcuterie lie in the need to preserve meat so that it can be savored slowly over the course of months, rather than rapidly consumed. Cured meats are present in all cultures, and many of them historically struck a fine balance between safe to eat and potentially dangerous. The challenge of charcuterie lies in preserving meats in a flavorful way which consumers will appreciate while ensuring that the meats will be free of bacteria and harmful molds. While the skill of preserving meats is no longer required, many consumers have acquired a taste for cured meats over the centuries, leading to a steady demand for charcuterie skills.
Some common examples of charcuterie include ham, sausage, confit, and pate. In France, consumers can also find rilettes, a dish related to pate, and galantine, meat rolled around savory fillings and glazed with aspic. Pork, lamb, and poultry are commonly used in charcuterie. Traditionally, the butcher delivers the animal whole to the charcutier so that he or she can personally cut the meat as desired. Some butchers are also skilled charcuteriers, offering fresh and cured meats in their shops.
Many French restaurants offer a charcuterie plate, with an assortment of examples of cured meats. A single cut of charcuterie may also be included in an individual dish, as is often the case with confit. In many cases, charcuterie can be eaten without being cooked, as the curing process has safely cooked the meat. In other instances, the charcuterie does need to be warmed or cooked, either for taste or safety.