A grown up, fancy version of lunchables but for dinner aka the best kind of choose your own adventure, the kind you can eat!
Mike and I first discovered our love for charcuterie together. Way back in the day, years and years ago, a hot new restaurant opened in a literal alley in a very sketchy part of town. It was hipster before being hipster was a thing. They offered flights of meat and cheese for an insane amount of money (to us, back then) and we fell in love.
After our fourth visit there in 2 weeks, we wised up to the fact that we were spending an absurd amount of money on something that we could easily do at home. After all, the restaurant literally told us where they sourced their charcuterie from. This was way before made-in-house was a thing. So, we went right to the source, bought a bunch of our favorites, which we handily already knew, and went to town.
Ever since, we’ve always made charcuterie and cheese boards at home. The best part is coming up with fun little accompaniments, because stuff that makes everything prettier makes things tastier too, right?
Charcuterie is the french term for prepared meat products like hams, sausages, terrines, and pâtés. While traditionally that was more or less it, these days a charcuterie board implies a big spread of cured meats, cheeses, fresh fruits, spreads, crackers, and breads.
Part of the fun of charcuterie is that everything is prepared and all you have to do is pick out your favorites and make everything look pretty. It’s easy and delicious and can feel fancy or casual, but always luxurious. You can go from grocery store pâtés to local artisanal cheeses and everything in between.
Why are charcuterie boards so popular?
I think it’s because people like choice and abundance. Place a charcuterie board down in front of people and they get to pick and choose what they like, making flavor combinations appeal to them – kind of like a food version of choose-your-own-adventure. With one or two items, it’s a low key appetizer or light meal, perfect for pairing with drinks. If you go all out, it’s also super easy for fancy entertaining or for a casual date night in. We’ve used charcuterie boards as easy-yet-fancy appetizers for dinner parties that can be quickly thrown together more times than I can remember.
You don’t have to go fancy though. Sometimes the best thing to do is to stick to one kind of meat, a really good mustard, and some olives. Keep it simple, keep it crazy, keep it you. It’s delicious no matter how you slice it (pun intended).
How to make a charcuterie board
First off, don’t feel like you have to go crazy. I love a simple charcuterie board. You can do just one meat and one cheese and have some mustard and good bread and call it a day. Or you could also go crazy and make a huge impressive platter! You do you. You are after all, the star of your meat and cheese bar.
- Grab your board. Just in case you’re wondering, do you need a fancy marble and wood charcuterie board? The answer is nope, you can use any old cutting board or plate you have at home! In these photos we used a baking sheet.
- Little bowls. Put down a couple of small bowls for things like olives, rillettes, mustards, jams, dips, nuts, anything that you don’t want spreading all over the board. The bowls add height to your board and also give you more space because you can lean/stack things against them. How many bowls depends on the size of your board or plate.
- Meats and cheeses. After the bowls are on the platter, add the sliced meats, either in neat rows or in a organic pile. Add the cheese. While the exact combination is up to you, a little further below we have suggested amounts, varieties, and mixes.
- Breads and crackers. Stack or lay out the carbs in little piles, keeping the crackers with the crackers and the breads with the breads.
- Spreads. We like to use a couple of different mustards (usually 1 English and 1 stone ground French) as well as whatever jelly we have sitting around.
- Fruit and garnish. Add some seasonal fruit and herbs for color and freshness! In the photos we use a little trick we learned from Cassia in Santa Monica: pairing charcuterie with Vietnamese herbs. It’s genius!
I also made some little flags, for fun, and plated the pâté in a restaurant-like fashion. Sometimes when we hit up restaurants, we notice that they smear pâté onto a plate to the edge like this. It’s super easy to do at home and we really love it.
How much charcuterie per person?
It’s nice to get a mix of meats and cheeses but the ratio is up to you! We base everything on a minimum order of 2oz.
- For an appetizer, get 2 different meats/cheeses per person (4oz total per person)
- As a main, get 4 different meats/cheeses per person (8oz total per person).
This is a rough estimate that’s dependent on how much (or little) you eat, but since its better to have too much food instead of running out (especially if its a dinner party), we usually get 4oz per item, so for the two of us as a main, we get 32oz of stuff and have enough for two nights of charcuterie.
What to put on a charcuterie board?
If you want to go all out and make the perfect charcuterie board, this is our formula:
- Something machine-sliced: These are your cured meats like prosciutto, sliced thin for a salty, savory hit. Since you probably don’t have a meat slicer, if they don’t already come sliced, get these from the deli and ask them to slice them as thin as they recommend (different meats require different thicknesses).
- Something hand-sliced: These are the cured meats that you want with a little bit of a heartier/heftier bite, sausages and the like that you can slice yourself at home.
- Something spreadable: These are the squishy spreadable things that add a bit of fat and are smooth and rich on the tongue. We like to go for a couple pâtés or terrines, and always add a small scoop of rillettes too.
- Cheese. Not all charcuterie boards include cheese, but the best ones do, in my opinion! You can just add one as an accent or do a combination that highlight contrasting flavors and textures. We like to go about 70/30 meats vs cheese, usually one brie and one harder cheese like gouda (more on this below).
- Carbs. Carbs are the base upon which your (probably pretty expensive) meats and cheeses are enjoyed. Crusty bread, untoasted and toasted, crisp rye crackers, homemade sourdough crackers, water crackers – the list goes on. While the point of the carbs on a charcuterie board is a blank canvas for the flavors of the meats and cheeses, a really good selection of crusty toasted baguettes and crispy crunchy crackers can turn an ordinary grocery store meat and cheese board into something extraordinary.
- Bright Notes. These are your fruits, olives, mustards, pickles, herbs, and jellies. They shouldn’t be an afterthought, actually, they should be the star of the show! These guys are what people really find themselves enjoying after the first couple of bites, because they offset the richness of the meats and cheeses with complex flavors and mix-and-match combinations. We like to go crazy with different mustards and always include some nice cornichons and olives.
Best cured meats
These are our favorites:
- Soppressata: a dry Italian salami made from pork that comes in different flavors like black pepper or spicy. Salty, rich, and flavorful. You can get this sliced thin at the deli or cut slightly thicker slices at home.
- Saucisson sec: a thick dry cured French sausage usually made from pork, saucisson sec is similar to salami or summer sausage. It’s meaty, mild, and comes in a variety of flavors like red wine or garlic. You can get this sliced thin at the deli or cut slightly thicker slices at home.
- Calabrese: a spicy cured pork sausage from Calabria, Italy. Bright red, rich, and robust. You can get this sliced thin at the deli or cut slightly thicker slices at home.
- Mortadella: a large Italian pork sausage studded with small cubes of pork fat, whole black pepper, and optionally pistachios or olives. Mortadella is soft and smooth and silky. It might remind you of baloney, but it’s nothing like baloney. Get this sliced thin.
- Prosciutto: By now everyone and their grandma knows prosciutto and it’s no wonder why, it’s salty, rich, and just melts in your mouth. What’s not to love about thinly sliced cured ham?! Get this sliced thin at the deli.
- Jamon (Serrano and Iberico): The Spanish version of dry cured ham. Sweet, nutty, and earthy, this delicate ham is cured longer than prosciutto and has a deeper, stronger flavor. Serrano is the more common jamon and Iberico is the more specialty, made from black Iberian pigs. Get this sliced thin at the deli.
- Bresaloa: Air dry salted lean beef that’s been aged, made famous in the Lombardy region of Italy. It’s kind of like a beefy version of prosciutto, but less fatty and milder in flavor. Get it sliced thin at the deli.
- Finocchiona: a Tuscan salami on the sweeter side flecked with fennel seeds. This is one of my favorites!
Best pâtés, terrines, and rillettes
Head to a charcutier (a place where they make in house charcuterie) for a selection of spreadables to up your charcuterie game. Spreadable things are incredibly addictive, especially on crackers and bread.
- Pâté: The most decadent and delicious of the pâté is foie gras but a more accessible pâté is probably chicken liver pâté or chicken liver mousse. It’s light, rich, and silky smooth. We also like a simple peppercorn pâté or a rustic country style pâté de campagne.
- Terrine: Terrine mostly refers to the loaf-shaped pan that they’re cooked in. Sometimes they’re layered or baked in puff pastry. We love duck and pistachio terrine for its simple heartiness and amazing time tested flavors.
- Rillettes: Rillettes are meat or fish that’s been chopped or shredded and confit/cooked own fat to make a thick spread. If you’ve had potted whitefish dip or potted salmon, it was probably a rillette. Rillettes are heartier than pâté and incredibly satisfying. Our favorite is pork rillettes.
The best cheese is a cheese you like! That being said, if you want to expand your cheese horizons, these are some of our favorites that aren’t the usual cheddar, brie, and mozzarella.
Epoisses de Bourgongne or Saint-Andre: These two are creamy, soft cheeses perfect for spreading. The Epoisses has a pretty pungent smell, but when you taste it, it’s creamy, salty, and sweet. At room temp it’s absolutely luscious. If you’re against stinky cheeses, you should go for the Saint Andre, a triple cream which is dense, buttery, and rich. It’s like brie, but better!
Kaasaggio Robusto Gouda: It’s our new favorite cheese obsession. Flavor wise, it’s a blend of parmesan and gouda, with the salty nuttiness of Parmesan and the sweet butterscotch-y flavors of an aged gouda. It has a an intense amount of those addictive little crunchy crystals that are only found in really good aged cheese.
Castello Double Creme Blue: I’m not a huge fan of blue cheese, but I have a deep respect for their sharp, deep flavors. I’m slowly liking blue cheese more and more and if you want a gateway blue cheese, this is the one to try. Castello is a Danish cheese, tender and mild compared to other blues while still having a delicate bitterness with a creamy finish. Kind of addictive to be honest!
Saint Paulin: This is one of those cheeses that everyone will love. It’s a semi-firm pressed cheese that has a pleasing edible yellow-orange rind and a velvety buttery smooth interior. It’s very similar to a harvarti – super subtle with a hint of sweetness and the taste of fresh milk.
Bread and crackers
We like having a variety of breads and crunchy things too.
What are the best garnishes for a charcuterie board?
- Spreads: jams and honey add a touch of sweetness. They’re perfect with cheese!
- Nuts: walnuts, macadamias, marcona almonds, pecans, pistachios, all the nuts!
- Seeds: this sounds funny, but seeds go exceptionally well sprinkled onto cheese, especially soft ones like goat cheese. Have little dishes of poppy seeds, toasted sesame seeds, toasted sunflower seeds, pepitas
- Olives: Pick your favorite olives! We like picholine (small green French olives), Nicoise (small black French olives), and Manzanilla (firm smoky green Spanish olives).
- Fruit: Any seasonal fruit will do, in the summer berries and stone fruits are nice and in the fall and winter things like pears and apples.
- Mustards: whole grain, dijon, spicy brown, honey mustard, English; mustards add heat and acidity.
- Pickles: cornichon (those cute little French pickles), picked onions or shallots, pickled vegetable such as beets, peppers, radishes, beans, etc.
How do you say charcuterie?
Go forth and meat and cheese with abandon!
Toast your baguettes in a 350ºF oven for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, slice your cheeses and salamis, if needed
Arrange your mustards, olives, cornichons, and other spreads in small dishes.
Smear your pâté, rillettes, and soft cheeses along the edges of deep plates.
Remove baguette from oven and arrange in a large bowl or two. In a separate bowl, snap into small pieces (if homemade) and arrange your crackers.
Serve immediately with tongs, forks, or other serving utensils.
As a main, either double the volume or variety of the proteins.
The meats and cheeses are just a base, you should add jams, jellies, herbs, and other fruits or veggies according to your taste.
Estimated nutrition is a good representation but will be highly variable based on your selections.