Every Sunday, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it is incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.
When I first heard about “Charcuterie” by Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn, I knew I wanted to have the book in my collection even though the art of Charcuterie was entirely new to me. While cured and salted foods are some of my favorite, they aren’t something that I feel comfortable making. This book was a reach for me, but that’s what Macheesmo is about.
An Almost Lost Trade
The foreword for this book is written by one of the world’s best chefs, Thomas Keller. Even though it is just a few pages, it got me excited about the book because this category of food, Charcuterie, is all around us. But in our hustle and bustle, buy everything pre-made and packaged life, we forget were these foods come from. The culture behind these foods and the tradition that is their backbone. That tradition is Charcuterie and this book brings the art to your kitchen.
What is Charcuterie?
I could tell from the cover that Charcuterie was something that I considered delicious. But what is it really? What is this book going to really focus on? The word is a combination of the French words for “flesh” and “cooked.” I don’t really speak French, but that’s what the book said so I’m going to say that is right.
The art of charcuterie – and it is really an art – has been expanded to include many things outside of that definition of “cooked flesh.” It includes everyday foods like bacon, corned beef, beef jerky, dill pickles, and sauerkraut. What makes it so interesting to me is that the average American has become completely removed from the process. A lot of people like a good steak, but a lot of people can make a good steak. A lot of people like a good slice of bacon, but practically nobody can make one.
The first really substantive chapter covers my favorite rock. As the authors say, salt has been “shaping civilizations as it graces our kitchen table” for millennia. As you can imagine there are some awesome recipes in this chapter including bacon, an all-purpose brine, and traditional dill pickles.
What I like about this chapter is that it eases someone, like myself who is a bit hesitant to dive in to charcuterie, into the idea. These are foods that I eat all of the time. And all it really takes to make them is salt and some tips on preparation? Of course, it takes years of practice to get perfect, but it’s a simple equation.
Also in this chapter you will find the complete parts of the pig – an invaluable guide if you ever hope to really dive into this craft.
This chapter added a new level onto the previous chapter. Smoking is a fantastic way to flavor and cure meats, but it is very hard to get right in the average kitchen. Let’s face it: the average American kitchen is designed to prevent smoke from occurring. Now we have to create it.
The authors also introduce us to two different kinds of smoking: hot and cold. Hot is fairly simple to make in a modern kitchen. It is basically just cooking with the introduction of smoke. You still want to cook it at a low temperature, but you are cooking it. Cold smoking is hard to obtain and you probably need specialized equipment to get it. The authors almost issue a challenge saying that it requires “ingenuity.” I might just take that challenge…
“Embrace the sausage” is how the authors start this chapter. Sausages are one of the things that all meat eaters love. There is little to debate: sausage is delicious. This chapter includes all kinds of sausage including Italian style sausage, Chorizo, Mortadella, Andouille, summer sausage, and yes, hot dogs.
The one thing about sausage, and this is actually true for most of the recipes in this book, is that it requires just a bit of specialized equipment. But the authors cover this equipment in solid detail. They explain what you need and make it very accessible. The thing that I realized about this book is that if you buy it you are obviously intrigued by this craft enough to not be bothered by the need of a bit of special equipment. You are venturing into the history of food and needing a grinder or something to achieve that success is not really a big deal.
There are many more delicious pages in this book that go into detail on Pates, confits, and accompaniments for all of the above. I don’t really feel a need to go into detail on all of these because if you are interested in the prospect of making your own cured products than you will be interested in these chapters. End of story.
I think that this is a fairly common reaction that people have when you mention that you are making your own bacon. This is intriguing to me. People are completely happy buying bacon in a store, but have some fear of making it in their kitchen. In fact, I might argue that if you have a bit of guidance, making it at home is probably healthier and safer. That’s because you are intimately involved in the whole process.
When you make your own cured meats you see, feel, and smell the meat before it is cured. You know the ingredients that go into the cure and the quality of those ingredients. Basically, you have almost 100% control on the process. I’m not quite sure why that scares consumers, but for some reason it does.
Less chat and more charcuterie. One of the goals that I have with this website is to expose people to knew foods and techniques and bring confidence back to the kitchen. I can promise you that some of the things in this book will be featured on Macheesmo in the next few months.
If you want to follow along, I recommend you pick up a copy. Not only does it have awesome recipes, but it gives a glimpse into techniques and a history that have been almost lost.