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Cured, an Introduction to Handcrafted Charcuterie

Charcuterie, the French word for assembling cured meat products, refers to artisanal dry cured meat, most commonly of Spanish or Italian origin, which is often served on charcuterie boards along with cheese, crackers, nuts, and fruits. Artisanal meat products have been handcrafted throughout history; prior to the availability of refrigeration and freezing in the home, preserving meat in this way was a necessity. Now artisans and chefs are passionate about reintroducing these products, of which there are more than 600.

The Science of Charcuterie

Salt, meat chemistry, temperature, and the environment are used to remove moisture from meat and develop flavor so that charcuterie products have water activity that ensures they are shelf stable and safe to consume without heating. Three factors impact the water activity of meat: 1) the amount of moisture in the product; 2) the solute concentration (salt content); and 3) environmental temperature. Salting meat so that it is uniform throughout the product preserves whole muscle products such as ham. For a 20 lb ham, it takes 40 days (2 days per lb of meat) at refrigerated temperatures for the salt to penetrate to the middle of the ham and preserve it through osmosis. After salt has penetrated the ham, the product is aged to impart the desired flavor profile.

For dried sausages, salt and pH are used to lower the water activity of the meat. Live starter cultures, most often Pediococcus, Micrococcus, and Lactobacillus, are added to the meat during mixing to decrease the pH of the sausage from approximately 5.8 to 5.0, which is the approximate isoelectric point of myosin and actin, the most abundant water-binding proteins in meat. This is the point in which these proteins have the same number of positive and negative charges, which corresponds to their lowest water-holding capacity. This, in conjunction with drying, keeps water activity so that the product is shelf stable. Dextrose is added with the lactic acid bacteria so that they have a food source. Flavor development in charcuterie is due to volatile flavor compound composition, acid content, and non-volatile compound composition, including proteins, fats, and their breakdown products. Microflora in the meat facility, mold (specifically, certain species of Penicillium), animal breed, and animal diet also contribute to flavor.

Dry-Cured Ham

Dry-cured hams (including prosciutto, Iberian, Serrano) and American country hams go through a three-phase process, described as winter, spring, and summer. Prior to the use of refrigeration, animals were slaughtered during the winter, and hams were rubbed with salt in the natural environment at near refrigeration temperatures. In current practice, hams are first cured with salt (commonly 8 lb of salt per 100 lb of pork) for approximately 40 days at -32˚F to 40˚F, which is described as the winter season. Hams are then exposed to slightly warmer temperatures (generally 50˚F–55˚F) for periods of 10 to 90 days so that the salt distributes equally throughout the ham, a step referred to as equalization, the spring season, or resting. After the spring season, the product is aged, also called ripening or summer. The United States produces artisan dry-cured hams in Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Missouri, and Iowa; these dry-cured hams are typically aged anywhere from 90 days to 2 yr.

Dry Sausages

Dried sausages like salami are commonly made from partially frozen pork lean and pork fat, typically from the shoulder, according to Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. The lean and fat are ground separately, and the lean meat is mixed with salt and sometimes curing salt (sodium nitrite) prior to mixing with the fat. The starter culture is then added with other ingredients, including dextrose as a food source for the bacteria, and ingredients that are characteristic of specific sausages. For example, Tuscan salami is characterized by the inclusion of red wine and fennel. After mixing for 1–2 min, the sausage is then stuffed into casings, which are either natural (hog or sheep) or cellulose. The casing can be treated with an antimicrobial solution to lower bacterial counts prior to stuffing. After stuffing, the sausage is commonly maintained at 85˚F for 12 hr to incubate the starter culture and produce lactic acid. After this fermentation period, the sausage is kept at approximately 60˚F and 70% relative humidity for 8 to 90 days, depending on the diameter of the product. The decrease in pH to 5.0 causes a 30% reduction in weight due to water loss, which results in a shelf-stable product.

What you will need to get started:

Meat – Pork is the most popular type of meat used for sausage production. Other meats that are used include beef, lamb, veal, chicken, venison, duck and even fish and seafood. Best cuts of meat are usually from the shoulder, pork butts, beef chuck, and the neck area. Make sure the meats are free of sinew and gristle which can make the sausage tough and jam up the grinder when grinding meats.

Fat – Pork fat back is considered the best for sausage production. Jowl fat is equal if not superior to fat back and pork belly can also be used. The pork shoulder butt has an almost perfect lean to fat ratio for many sausage recipes. Other fats used include lamb or beet fat.

Salt – Essential in sausage production especially for dry-cured and smoked sausages as a flavor enhancer it also limits bacterial growth.  Salt is important because it extracts myofibril proteins in meat needed to bind and emulsify fat. Kosher salt is recommended and should always be measured by weight. Generally, the concentration of salt is 2.5-3.5% of the weight of the ground meat before any ingredients are added.

Curing Salts – Used in the production of various types of sausages, pink salt or tinted curing mix (TCM), also goes by various names including Prague Powder and Insta Cure. Curing salts aid in the prevention of food borne bacteria like botulism. They also add color to the product.

Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) - Dry sausages and for other foods including cheeses, yogurt, beer, and sourdough bread all are the result of bacterial fermentation. The lactic bacteria used in salami making are salt tolerant and produce lactic acid from the glucose (dextrose) in the meatwhich has the effect of lowering the pH, raising the acidity level, and eliminating harmful bacteria.

Starter Cultures – Starter cultures eliminate the guesswork of determining if enough LAB are present in the meat thereby producing more consistent results. Starter cultures are commercially available from a variety of sources and include patented formulas like Bactoferm™ F-LCthat are capable of acidification as well as preventing the growth of food borne illnesses like Listeria.

Sugar - Essential to the process of making fermented dry cured sausages is the presence of sugar in the form of glucose (often called dextrose). Glucose is a sugar that contains carbon hydrogen and oxygen atoms. LAB convert glucose to lactic acid which lowers the pH in the meat mixture thus inhibiting the growth of less desirable bacteria. Meat muscles contain some sugars that are not easily converted in the initial phases of the curing process so other sugars are often added.

Spices & Herbs – Dried spices and herbs are common in sausage making. Be sure that they are fresh and have a pleasant aroma. Grinding whole herbs and spices will provide a better flavor.  Fresh herbs can be used but if substituting for dry herbs they will need to be increased by at least three times. Taste-testing the sausage mixture is recommended for taste as well as texture.

Ice/Cold Water – Used to add moisture and to keep the mixture cold.Secondary Binders & Emulsifiers - Non-fat dried milk , panada, rice, potatoes, eggs, and soy protein are all types of binders, emulsifiers that can also act as fillers in sausage production.

Garnishes – Folded into a forcemeat to add complementing or contrasting flavors and textures, garnishes include fresh herbs, whole spices including peppercorns or fennel seed, diced vegetables, smoked meats, nuts, fruits, truffles, and cheese. Vegetables should be blanched or fully cooked when added to forcemeat. Nuts can be toasted for enhanced texture and flavor. Test the mixture for taste and texture.


The standard for sausage preparation is a 2:1 lean to fat ratio (65-70% lean meat to 30-35% fat). Some ratios are as high as a 1:1 lean to fat ratio (50% lean meat to 50% fat) or lower at a 4:1 lean to fat ratio (80% lean meat to 20% fat).

That's about all I'm going to give you for now, this is a very lengthy topic! I suggest joining our Culinary Arts Diploma Program. Up your game today!

Cheers, and have a great weekend!

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