More Than Salami: A Preserved Meat Primer


by Alifair Skebe

Salami is an Italian salted, fermented, and dry cured sausage typically made of pork and sealed in natural or plastic casing and hung to dry. The processed meat product has become a staple in the American omnivorous diet and in the food industry, with standardized forms appearing on almost any grocery or convenience store shelf – whole or sliced in grab-n-go packs labeled pepperoni, soppressata.

Sliced Salami

Quite recently the term charcuterie has started to appear on many restaurant and tavern menus advertised as a board of cut, cured meats at the same time that American is experiencing a resurgence in craft beer and ciders and farm-to-table, fresh local foods. One might wonder what to expect on such an auspicious and elusive board. What often shows up at the table is a board topped with salamis and on occasion, a prosciutto.

Charcuterie, a French term for any processed meat product, is synonymous with the Italian term salumi, the broader taxonomy of which salami is only one category. Even though these terms are synonymous, they do not connote the same products and categories of meats. Since food is culturally specific, the traditions and methods of food production are affected by the customs, rituals, regional terrain, breed of animals, and needs of an isolated population. Types of meats and recipes can vary widely between even the neighboring countries France and Italy.


With the introduction of the Chinese pig into England in 1760, and its subsequent crossbreeding with the more svelte European boar produced a luscious, fatty porker that, as it spread across Europe, revolutionized food making practices.[1] Many of today’s preserved meat traditions can be traced back to that fatty, hybrid pig.


Spanish Jamon curing in the dining hall

Charcuterie includes various categories of meat such as ready-to-eat meats: the dried sausage saussicon sec, an equivalent of salami that also includes Andouille, chorizo, and frankfurters. Ready meats also include jambon, the cured hind leg; rillettes, potted pork belly sometimes mixed with goose or rabbit; gallatines, made of head meat; pates, terrines, and porc roti, roast pork loin; and confit, meats preserved in fat. Charcuterie that needs warming include Quiche Lorraine, a pie made of ham, egg, and custard, as well as pigs ears, feet, and tails. Lastly, there is charcuterie that requires cooking: uncured sausages in casing or rolled flat without casing, blood sausage, sausages in brioche, puff pastry, or short-crust, tripe, and lard, the French term for bacon.

Salumi includes similar categories as its French counterpart including the cured, salted, fermented, smoked varieties as well as cooked sausages, confit, and pates. These include some of the most popular cuts in America: prosciutto, dried from the hind leg of the pig of which the smoked variety speck is included; capacollo or coppa, made of the head and neck muscle; guanciale, made of the jowls; prosciutto cotto, baked ham; and pancetta, a salt-cured bacon made of pork belly, to name a few. Mario Batali’s “Salumi: A Glossary” is an excellent primer for the many types of salumi one might find at an American specialty food shop.


Each region across the globe has its own preserved meat traditions, with its own flavors, aromatics, textures, and preparations; many regions across Europe, Russia, and the British Isles as well as sub regions within nations may have similar production methods, although they often butcher the meats in slightly different ways. These practices lead to variants in the types of meat produced and make Italian salumi slightly different from French charcuterie, but also surprisingly similar to each other as well the Spanish, Swiss, and German varieties at their borders.

Christmas 2013 cheese and charcuterie platters

Classic charcuterie platter

Thusly, an American Charcuterie Board, if laden with Italian cold cuts, might be better termed a Salumi or Antipasto Board. Expect a knowledgeable restaurant or tavern to serve a Charcuterie Board featuring not only dry-cured or smoked sausage and ham hocks, but also a fair portion of pate, and if lucky, rillettes. Expect the most excellent of Salumi Boards to include a heat-cured sausage Mortadella, speck, an aromatic finocchiona, the beef salami bresaola, or the spicy ‘Nduja.

[1] Grigson, Jane. The Art of Making Sausages, Pates, and Other Charcuterie. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1968.

Cheesemaking Simplified

Cheese Making Simplified

Cheese making is at least 7500 years old according to our current archeological records. Ancient pottery shards from cheese strainers containing cheese cultures were recently found in ancient sites in Poland and China.


Cheese Bogucki Pot sieve 400; fragments of ancient cheese strainer found in Poland, c. 5500BC

Ripening the Milk

Cheese production begins with milk from four animals: cow, sheep, goat, and water buffalo. The milk is poured into a vat for pasteurization or thermalization and heated before adding a starter culture. For raw milk cheeses, a starter culture is added directly to the vat without heating the milk. The milk is then given a few minutes to an hour to begin acid production before adding rennet to begin the coagulating process.

Cutting the Curd

After curds begin to form, they are cut with stretched steel blades that resemble a large comb. Cutting the curd must be done at just the right time so as not to loosen any fine curds necessary in curing the cheese.

Curding at Sprout Creek Farm, NY

Removing the Whey

Most cheeses require straining to remove whey. Some cheeses, such as Gruyere, are cooked in their whey before straining. The combination of heat and increasing acidity aids in syneresis, or the expulsion of moisture from the proteins in the curd. Cheddar curds are stirred and folded in a process known as cheddaring, which minimally heats the curds and allows them to knit together while simultaneously expelling whey.

Heating the curds in traditional copper kettles

Heating the curds in traditional copper kettles

Washing the Curd

After straining, some cheeses are washed with a water bath that removes any lingering whey and lactose. Adding water to the curd produces a very moist cheese like Muenster or Brick. Gouda is washed in hot water, which helps to dry the curd and create its characteristic texture.

This Medieval woodcut shows many uses for milk and cream. The center fromager is washing and straining the curd to make cheese; peasant churns cream into butter; large wheels of cheese age on shelves in the background.

This Medieval woodcut shows many uses for milk and cream. The center fromager is washing and straining the curd to make cheese; peasant churns cream into butter; large wheels of cheese age on shelves in the background.

Handling the Curd

Many cheeses that are brined or surface salted are collected into molds or pressed directly under the whey. Blue cheese, for example, is pressed into a hoop, salted, and left for a week before perforating its edges to allow air inside. Gouda and Swiss are pressed under whey, which encourages a smooth texture and prevents escape of air in the aging process. Cheeses such as Cheddar and Pasta Filata (mozzarella) are kept warm in a vat to ferment before salting. Pasta Filata cheeses are then worked and stretched in the warm water before curing.

Pouring the heated mixture of curds and whey into the colander and cheesecloth to form cheese

Pouring the heated mixture of curds and whey into the colander and cheesecloth to form cheese

Pressing the Curd

Curds are collected and then pressed into molds such as baskets, crocks, wooden hoops or metal cylinders. Soft cheeses require almost no pressure while some varieties require up to 25 pounds of pressure per square inch to form. Generally, the warmer the curd, the less pressure required, which may be another reason for cooking the curd of those 75 lb. wheels of Alpine cheese!

19th century cheesemaking tools

19th century cheesemaking tools

Salting the Curd

Adding salt is important for many reasons. It encourages improvement of curds, slows acid development, helps prevent spoilage, and controls ripening and flavor. Salting cheese follows three techniques: adding salt to the curd before pressing such as Cheddar, surface salting after pressing, and brine salting. Brine salting or washing the surface of the cheese (also known as smear-ripening) can occur once or continue periodically throughout the aging process.

Curing the Cheese

Cheeses range from un-aged, “fresh” cheeses to young cheeses that can be aged from two weeks up to two months to aged cheeses that can be aged from three months to many years. Nascent cheeses are placed in modern humidity-controlled “caves” that imitate the original cave environments of traditional cheeses. Cheeses such as Brie and Camembert are meant to be enjoyed under two months of age, as the aging process will spoil the surface cultures of the cheese. Other cheeses, like a fine wine, become more enjoyable with age as their texture and flavor intensify through the aging process.

The Cheese Traveler team selecting cheeses with a cheese maker at The Cellars at Jasper Hill

The Cheese Traveler team selecting cheeses with Vince Razionale at The Cellars at Jasper Hill