Your Restaurant Charcuterie Program
Customer demand for charcuterie, especially house-made charcuterie, has been predicted1 to grow, and sales have reflected that prediction. This trend works well with the increasing focus on sustainability, as many charcuterie products are made with parts of the animal that have traditionally been discarded, reducing food waste and increasing profits.
Because it is most often ordered as an appetizer, serving charcuterie is a great way to boost check averages and draw in customers who are looking for a little value added to their meals. Charcuterie can be made in-house, which is always a customer draw, or it can be ordered pre-made and then sliced and prepped to order. Because charcuterie platters use basic ingredients like cheese and sausage that can be used in other recipes, there is also the opportunity for cross-utilization.
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What is Charcuterie?
Charcuterie is a term for prepared meat, most commonly used today to refer to platters of specialty meats eaten as an appetizer or snack. Traditionally, it was mostly pork, but modern charcuterie platters sometimes also include beef, chicken, turkey, or duck products. While the meat is generally considered to be the centerpiece, a charcuterie platter often also includes items like cheese, bread, crackers, nuts, olives, or fruit that complement the meats' flavor profiles and textures. Below are some of the ways meat can be prepared for use on a charcuterie platter.2
- Paté is often described as sausage without the casing. These are usually made of a mixture of meat, spices, and fats that are ground or pureed together. Paté can be coarse to fine in texture, and are often served shaped into a mold, loaf, or inside a pastry.
- Terrine is very similar to paté in that it is made of pureed meat. However, it is also layered, commonly with seafood or vegetables. This technique allows complementary flavors and textures to blend in a single spread.
- Mousse is another type of meat spread that is made to have a much lighter, smoother texture. Part of what gives mousse this texture is a higher percentage of liver, which is sometimes cooked with cream and egg.
- Rillettes is traditionally made from confit, salted meat that's cooked in its own fat. The meat is shredded and mixed with some of the fat to create a paste-like texture.
- Boudin is a type of sausage made from spiced, ground meat. The two most common varieties are blanc and noir. Blanc, or white, boudin includes cream and chestnuts to give it a lighter color, while noir boudin uses blood to give it its signature black color.
- Saucisson is a type of fermented salami that is dry-cured with salt, then left to age while growing mold that naturally protects the meat from bacteria. Some people remove this molded casing before eating, but many professionals recommend leaving it on.
- Jambon is a cooked and cured ham. Because the ingredients and preparation are so simple, it is important for the ham to be high quality.
- Prosciutto is also a type of ham, but it is dry-cured and not cooked. It is usually sliced very thin and has a buttery texture. The highest quality is called Prosciutto di Parma, which can only come from Parma, Italy.
- Smoked poultry is not a traditional inclusion on charcuterie platters, but is seen more often on modern trays. Turkey, chicken, and duck breast can all be smoked and sliced to add a different flavor profile to your assembly of meats.
- Game sausage can be made with a wide variety of ingredients, including meat bases such as wild boar, rabbit, lamb, venison, and duck.
In-house vs. Premade
Charcuterie made in-house has an undeniable appeal to guests, but it's also a large up-front investment. To produce your own charcuterie, you will need special equipment like humidity-controlled walk-in coolers for drying and aging meat and a butcher room to handle meat as whole animals come in. You'll need to either hire butchers or train your chefs in butchering, and you'll have to go through a licensing process with the state for meat processing.3 It sounds like a lot of trouble, but it allows you to make use of every part of the animal, from prime chops down to the bones for broth, and lets you have complete control over the quality of what you're serving your customers. Because of the level of investment required to create charcuterie in-house, it is typically only done in fine dining restaurants.
If you choose to purchase the meat products for your charcuterie already made, you may wish to appease the locavore crowd by finding a local producer. Being able to advertise a local brand of charcuterie promotes sustainability and follows the local eating trends. These brands are often smaller and willing to work with restaurants to create attractive and lucrative charcuterie boards. Some companies even offer consulting to help establish a restaurant charcuterie program.4
Assembling a Charcuterie Board
The best charcuterie platters use contrasting flavors and textures that play well off of each other. Consider choosing a hard sausage or salami, soft paté or rillettes, and at least one or two cured meats. Pair spicy meats with mild and sweet options, and try to find a good balance between light and rich flavors. One expert suggests including no more than one smoked meat, as the smoky flavors can be overwhelming.5
Charcuterie platters are rarely made solely of meat. Cheese often shares the spotlight and, like the meat, should be chosen for its complementary textures and flavors. Creamy cheeses and harder, sliceable cheeses should be served with their own knives to prevent flavors from intermingling. Each person will generally eat about 2 ounces of charcuterie and cheese.
In addition to cheese and meat, many charcuterie platters include condiments that offer contrasting flavors. Fruits like figs and grapes are commonly used, as are spreads like sweet jams and chutneys, all of which also serve to bring color to the platter. Nuts are also commonly used as a garnish to bring in some crunch, as are small sour pickles, olives, and even cocktail onions, which also bring in some acidic flavors that often work well with the rich and creamy flavors of the meat. Grainy mustards can also be used to add an acidic flavor and spice, something horseradish-based spreads can also provide.
Bread products are commonly included on charcuterie platters to provide a base on which to build bites of meat, cheese, and garnishes. Crackers are a common choice, as are toasted pieces of bread. Platters should usually offer at least two bread or cracker options, with more variety included on larger platters.
Charcuterie is most often offered on a serving board, giving it a more rustic appearance. Boards are available made from several varieties of wood, as well as bamboo, slate, and melamine. The melamine boards are made to look like either wood or stone, but are lighter. If you want to play up the rustic element, boards are available with bark lining along the sides and there are round trays made to look like wood slices directly from a tree trunk.
Having the correct cutlery on hand is important to a charcuterie service; after all, how else will customers cut their cheese or spread their paté? Below are some of the cutlery pieces necessary to serving charcuterie boards.
Spreader knives have wide, blunt blades that allow customers to spread patés, terrines, and creamy cheeses on crackers and pieces of bread. These are available in a wide variety of designs, so there may be a piece that matches the flatware pattern you're already using in your restaurant. When purchasing these, keep in mind that you will need to have one for each spreadable item on the platter and will need to consider how popular you expect your charcuterie boards to be.
If your charcuterie boards will include cheese, you'll need cheese knives to either send out with the boards for the customers to use or to use in the back of the house to prep the cheese. There are three main types of cheese knives to consider. A standard cheese knife is made with a blade and handle like a standard knife, except the blade is usually wider at the top than the bottom and sometimes has holes in it to help prevent the cheese slices from sticking. Some of these also have handles on either end of the blade to make getting through very hard cheeses easier. Another option is a cheese slicer, which is a T-shaped tool with a wire stretched taut across the top. The wire makes slicing cheese easy, but it is not suited for very hard, aged cheese. The last option is a cheese plane, which looks similar to a spatula but has a blade built horizontally into the metal piece that shave cheese from a block.
Carving knives are helpful for preparing meats for charcuterie boards. These are available in a variety of shapes and sizes, and have handles of plastic, stainless steel, or wood. Because many of these meats require very thin slices, it is also beneficial to have a honing steel on hand to keep your carving knives as sharp as possible.
If you will be serving a high volume of charcuterie in your restaurant, you may want to consider investing in a commercial slicer. This tool allows you to prep lots of meat quickly, but some models can also slice cheese. For a charcuterie program, you would need a slicer with adjustable thickness, and would likely need a 12-inch blade with a 1⁄3 HP or higher to be able to handle cutting through dense or hard meats. If you plan on cutting cheese with your slicer, make sure the slicer is rated for that, as not all slicers can handle the density of most cheeses.
Once you have designed the perfect charcuterie board, you need to get the word out about it to help ensure it is successful. Social media is a great way to initially announce that your business will offer charcuterie, and table cards provide a means of displaying enticing images that tempt customers into trying a charcuterie board. When listing the board on the menu, be sure to include the names of any local producers you have partnered with and highlight any house-made ingredients.
One of the most important first steps is properly training your staff. An enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff can help educate customers and spread that enthusiasm, and can upsell adjacent products. For example, many wines and beers pair well with certain types of charcuterie. Sparkling wines and highly carbonated beers are always a good match, as their light textures help cut the richness and fat of the meat.
- Goodbye Quinoa, Hello Charcuterie. CTV News. Accessed August 2017.
- How to Pick the Best Meats for a Charcuterie Board. Bon Appetit. Accessed August 2017.
- The Economics of In-House Charcuterie. OpenTable. Accessed August 2017.
- Charcuterie Program Consulting. Charlito's Cocina. Accessed August 2017.
- How to Build a Charcuterie Board Like a Pro. Epicurious. Accessed August 2017.