By Aaron Hutcherson
Scroll through your social media feed and you'll probably see “charcuterie” boards of all types: breakfast boards with pancakes, bacon, syrup and fresh fruit; dessert boards with chocolates, cookies and brownies; and even fast food versions with french fries, chicken nuggets and a selection of sauces for dipping.
While the term has been used to encompass almost any selection of finger foods arranged on a surface, a true charcuterie board offers a selection of smoked and cured meats, sausages, pâté and the like, along with some supporting characters - crackers and cheese usually among them. (A cheese board, on the other hand, focuses more on a selection of cheeses.)
Charcuterie boards are great for entertaining or enjoying solo, because you can feed any amount of people without having to cook, which is always useful around the holidays - and for those days when you just can't muster the energy. While in general anything goes, there are a few guidelines you should keep in mind to get the most out of these spreads.
Here's what you need to know so you can build a charcuterie board for maximum enjoyment.
What foods belong on a charcuterie board?
Meat. The term “charcuterie” comes from the French “chair” (“flesh”) and “cuit” (“cooked”), so meat should be the star of the board.
As such, variety - in terms of flavours and textures - is the name of the game.
I'd recommend at least three types, such as slices of prosciutto or country ham, cured links of spicy chorizo or andouille sausage, a spreadable pâté or mousse, and crowd-pleasing salami or pepperoni.
Bread and crackers. These items are the canvas upon which charcuterie board masterpieces are made.
If you only have one option on offer, it should be something fairly plain, so that it doesn't distract from the flavours of the other ingredients on the board.
When it comes to bread, thin slices of baguette or even sandwich bread cut into four pieces - it's best toasted to give it some structural integrity - and water crackers or the flatbreads pictured above are good options.
Cheese. As with bread and crackers, if only including one cheese, go with a type that universally plays well with others, such as cheddar or havarti.
Going beyond that, (again) think about flavour and texture: a soft and creamy brie or Boursin; a firm, salty Parmesan or pecorino; a funky wedge of blue cheese; or tiny balls of mozzarella.
Sweet stuff. Everyone knows how craveable the combo of sweet and salty is, so let's put it into play here.
Options include fresh fruit (slices of apples or pears, or clusters of grapes), dried fruit (apricots, raisins, figs or dates), various jams and marmalades, and honey.
Briny and bright. These items work well to cut through the fat found in much charcuterie.
Some items to consider are various pickles (cornichons, onions or cauliflower), brined things (such as olives or artichoke hearts), and whole-grain or Dijon mustard.
Crunchy bits. Nuts - which I sure hope you've toasted - and veggies - radishes are a personal favourite - can add a nice crunch to play off the crisp of the crackers or toasted bread.
How much meat and cheese should I buy for a charcuterie board?
The general rule is roughly 60g per person of each of meat and cheese if serving the charcuterie board as an appetizer and double that if it’s intended to be a full meal.
Because I have a fear of running out of food, I tend to always have a little bit extra in case the gathering lasts longer than I planned or people are hungrier than usual.
Plus, many of these items are built to last and can be enjoyed for days or weeks to come, so there isn't much need to worry about food going to waste.
How should I assemble and serve?
Equipment. For starters, you need a surface on which to place the items. As we are talking about charcuterie boards, after all, wooden cutting boards are typically what I grab, but other options include any other appropriately sized platter or surface you have available.
You can even build it directly on a clean counter or table if you want (though I'd recommend putting a layer of parchment or butcher paper underneath for easier cleanup.)
Besides a surface, you'll also need small ramekins and bowls for any dips and spreads, and utensils, such as knives and spreaders, for serving.
Time to build. Start with any large items to make sure they have space on the board, so first place your wedges of cheese, whole sausages and bowls or ramekins.
Next, add sliced meats - create playful fluffs of bresaola that looks as inviting as a tussled comforter, arrange rivers of sopressata that snake around wedges of cheese and bowls of jam, and fold salami roses that have taken over social media feeds.
Then, fill any remaining space with whatever else you plan to serve, making sure not to overcrowd it so that it's easier for people to cut a piece of brie or slice of chorizo.
You can choose to decorate further with fresh herbs or edible flowers, but I'm with Coco Chanel in that extra accessories aren't necessary.
Let's eat! It's best to let cheese soften slightly and come to room temperature before serving, so let it sit out for 30 minutes before you plan to eat.
If serving things that guests need to cut themselves, such as large wedges or whole sausages, cut a few pieces to get it started.
Lastly, though massive charcuterie boards are impressive, smaller ones are more practical.
Particularly if the gathering lasts for a while, it's best to refill as time goes by or have a backup board ready to go that you can swap in after a couple of hours for best food safety practices.
For More Festive Entertaining Hacks, Please check out the latest IOL Food magazine