Charcuterie For Dummies
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Spices are the spice of life. You can find a lot of localized flavors in the charcuterie of an area, which can make this craft very fun for those who are adventurous. The rule of thumb, quality in equals quality out, applies very much to spices and other auxiliary ingredients for your recipes. / Adobe Stock

Following are some tips for finding and using the best ingredients:

  • Spices and ingredients produced locally to your recipe are a great starting point. For example, if you are producing a recipe that calls for Calabrian chiles, don’t settle for red pepper; look specifically for Calabrian chiles.
  • Purchase whole-seed spices. Even if your recipe calls for ground spices, purchase the whole seed and invest in a spice grinder. You will get a much fresher representation of the spice.
  • A little heat goes a long way. Warming a spice before you use it will wake up the oils and other flavor chemicals in the spice.
  • If your recipe calls for a toasted spice, toast it. Don’t skip the extra step because you’re feeling a little lazy.
You can easily find most spices on; a quick Google search will also reveal several good options. While purchasing spices at the grocery store isn’t the worst option, it isn’t the best either. The spices at the grocery store could be months, if not years, old. Plus, due to the volume, buying them will be far more expensive than buying in bulk.

Storing your spices in an airtight container is the best way to preserve their flavor for extended periods of time.

Salt of the earth

Salt is one seasoning that tends not to get much love from the general public. In fact, salt is usually regarded as a naughty spice because of its overuse in processed foods. Like all things, salt can also be toxic; for example, it was used in warfare as a way to destroy vast expanses of farmland.

However, salt is also critical for bringing out flavor in our dishes. It has preserving and medicinal powers, and our bodies require salt to maintain homeostasis. In ancient cultures, it was used as currency, and medieval European villages were built around salt mines like the one shown.

salt mine ©DEA/C. SAPPA / Getty Images
Ancient salt mine

Even today, salt is a very important addition to any kitchen. In charcuterie it is critical for producing flavorful and safe products. Aside from the flavoring benefits of salt, it is critical for slowing the rate of spoilage in meat.

One way that salt does this is by drawing water out of protein tissue. Bacteria need moisture to survive, and so reducing the amount of water available to bacteria is of paramount importance.

Several types of salt are available for use in the kitchen:

  • Iodized salt. Also referred to as “table salt,” iodized salt is a fine-grain particle of salt that is blended with trace amounts of iodine. Iodine deficiency was at one time a common cause of defects in children in their developmental stages. Iodizing salt reduced this global problem. However, iodized salt is not ideal for charcuterie because the iodine can have a negative impact on the flavor of your products.
  • Kosher salt. Kosher salt is a large, flaked salt that is not iodized. Its shape and size are ideal for many volume-based recipes because you have less mass per volume measure. Kosher salt is a suitable option for charcuterie.
  • Sea salt. Salt that is extracted from ocean water is called sea salt. There are many ways to gather sea salt. One common method is through evaporation using large, open-air beds of water in fields (see figure). Many higher-end French salts like Fleur de Sel are made in this manner. Sea salt can also be gathered by rapidly evaporating ocean water using heat. Sea salt is preferred because of its flavor and because it is the most natural form of salt. Many regional recipes may actually call for sea salt from the area due to its flavoring properties. All the recipes in this book call for sea salt.
Sea salt production ©Malcolm Chapman / Getty Images
Sea salt production

Sodium nitrite / nitrate

Sodium nitrite is a potty word for most health-conscious folks, and this is due in part to the conflicting research on the health benefits and detriments of nitrates and nitrites. If you want to find research to support a stance that nitrates and nitrites are bad for you, that’s pretty easy. Conversely, you can also find research in support of nitrates and nitrites. I won’t get into the weeds on this topic, but instead will simply take the position that, as with all things, moderation is key.

So what are these nitrates and nitrites? Well, simply put, sodium nitrite is an inorganic compound that is found naturally in several root vegetables and dark-green leafy vegetables. It can also be found in the soil, and in some parts of the globe there are large concentrations of the chemical where it can actually be mined. Sodium nitrite’s contribution to meat preparation is two-fold:

  • Sodium nitrite reacts with meat myoglobin to preserve the red or pink color in the meat after cooking.
  • The greatest value of sodium nitrite is that it inhibits the growth of botulism in meat. Botulism loves warm, anaerobic environments (little to no oxygen). One such environment is inside sausages and another is inside a smoker. Refrigerator temperatures can slow or stall the growth of botulism, so nitrates aren’t a necessity in fresh sausages. They are, however, a must when producing salami that is fermented at 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and then stored at or just below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Nitrites are also a must for any meats that are smoked.
When you are making salami, you will use sodium nitrate because over time, it slowly breaks down into sodium nitrite; this slow breakdown controls the release of the nitrite over time. This is a beneficial quality for making dry-cured ground charcuterie.

When shopping for sodium nitrite, its common name is pink salt #1 (shown in the following figure). Sodium nitrate is known as pink salt #2. Both salts are pink as a safety precaution so that they aren’t mistaken for table salt. Pink salts #1 and #2 should not be mistaken for Himalayan pink salt, which is a fancy mineral salt and does not contain the required concentrations of sodium nitrite or nitrate.

Pink salt #1 ©David Pluimer
Pink salt #1

Pink salts #1 and #2 are diluted forms of sodium nitrite and nitrate, respectively. They are typically diluted down to 6.25-percent concentration. The USDA requires that sodium nitrite / nitrate not exceed concentrations of 200 parts per million. To keep things simple and safe, all of the recipes in the later chapters of this book will be based on weights, so you will not have to learn how to calculate nitrite or nitrate concentrations.

Celery juice powders

Have you ever noticed bacon, sausage, or salami that touts being “nitrate free”? This labeling isn’t being 100-percent truthful. Here is the quick and dirty on this topic. Some vegetables contain high quantities of nitrites and nitrates, like beets, kale, celery, and mustard greens.

If you want to produce a “nitrate-free” bacon or salami, one way is by using celery juice powder, which is a concentrated extraction of celery root. This extract powder contains nitrates in concentrations adequate for making bacon and salami. The USDA, however, requires that producers put “nitrate free” on the packaging. This is because nitrates weren’t added; instead, celery juice powder, which contains the nitrates, was added.

I don’t like vegetable juice powders in the place of proper sodium nitrite because the labeling is deceptive and because celery juice powder gives off a flavor that can be easily detected.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Mark LaFay is a tenured entrepreneur. He started two successful businesses in the music industry, and he is the co-founder of Lectio and Roust. Mark is also the author of Chromebook for Dummies.

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