Instruct students on balancing flavor, texture and variety on charcuterie boards and garnishes.
By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
One of the newest food trends, from small gatherings at home to weddings and large corporate catering events and every place in between, are charcuterie trays.
They aren’t new in the sense of being newly created. They are new in the sense of being incredibly popular. Although I have been serving charcuterie trays for years, I recently learned how they were becoming an exciting addition to the food scene when my wife and I took a trip to Canada.
We arrived late at the Fairmont Hotel in Banff, Alberta, and were directed to a hotel restaurant that was still open. It was a charcuterie bar for want of a better phrase. The bar was set up like a sushi bar with tables and booths around the room, with the focal point being a counter with a refrigeration case running nearly the width of one wall. In front of the case were tall stools, for guests to sit at the charcuterie bar and order.
The menu was enormous but was basically divided into categories: dried meats, spreadable meats, cheeses, breads and garnishes. There were two young people in immaculate chef coats and hats standing behind the counter. One was cleaning and the other looked at us and asked what we would like. My wife was trying to decide between duck prosciutto and bison sausage when the cook said, “May I take care of you?” The cook prepared several small charcuterie boards, each one featuring two or three types of charcuterie, a cheese or two, and a variety of garnishes that were made in-house. He explained each of the garnishes and what charcuterie item they accompanied. For example, he said, “I recommend you use the mango chutney with the duck terrine.” It was an incredible dinner which I fondly remember over 30 months later.
In light of the charcuterie tray trend for both amateur and professional cooks, I decided to write an article on teaching students how to make charcuterie trays and boards for their own Thanksgiving events. And, by the way, another benefit of teaching charcuterie trays is you can grade them on looks alone (in-person or virtually) and not have to taste them.
Below are 10-point questions with answers your students can take on how to make a charcuterie board or tray. You can assign them to create one in class, or they can work on it as an at-home Thanksgiving assignment and submit or upload pictures and descriptions.
- What is the modern definition of charcuterie?
Answer: Although charcuterie goes back to 15th Century France, as the term is now used in the United States, charcuterie basically means prepared and cooked meats created to be served cold.
- Describe a charcuterie and indicate on what it is served?
Answer: It is served on a board or tray. The tray will contain different types of charcuterie with toast, bread, and/or toast points. However, in a modern context there are many other components to a good charcuterie tray.
- What meats are found on a modern charcuterie tray?
Answer: The strongest component on the board is the charcuterie itself. It may include sliced, cooked or smoked meats, sausages, terrines and pates. They are all served cold or at room temperature.
- What other items are found on a charcuterie tray (not including meat)?
Answer: The major items found on charcuterie include crackers and bread, garnishes and cheese.
- How do you garnish a charcuterie tray?
Answer: The tray is garnished with different items that will accent or complement the charcuterie and cheese. The accoutrements highlight the various tastes as well as provide varying textures. They should also add color to the presentation. These items include dried or fresh fruit, jams/jellies, mustards, chutneys, small pickles like gherkins, pickled vegetables and/or pickled onions. There is a balancing act here. Cooks want a variety of items to make the tray interesting but not too many to make the tray look overcrowded and cluttered with miscellaneous foods.
Note: Cut fresh or dried fruit into bite-size pieces. Large slices of a peach might look good but won’t be easy for the guest to pair with the charcuterie. Small round cuts would be better. Other fruits that work well include grapes, golden raisins, dried apricots, dried cranberries and sliced fresh or dried figs. Stay away from items that will turn brown with oxidation such as apples. Nuts work well but be aware of salted nuts. Many charcuterie items are salty and cooks want their guests to taste the item and the accoutrement - not taste a salt bomb.
NEVER garnish with anything that is not edible. I guarantee someone is bound to eat it even if you put a non-edible flower or plastic decoration on the tray. (I covered this in my first 50 Minute Classroom article, “Teaching Presentation in 50 Minutes.”)
- Should a charcuterie tray focus on one or two items or include more of a variety?
Answer: A variety is better. Students can put together crackers and provolone, but just think how much better it would be if it was two types of salami, prosciutto, provolone, aged white cheddar, two types of crackers, toast points, gherkins, and dried cranberries with fig jam.
In building variety, try not to let one item overpower the other. In other words, have a balance of charcuterie, cheeses, crackers/breads and garnishes/accoutrements. Ten types of cheese with one type of charcuterie and no accoutrements would be unbalanced.
Also, there should be a variety of tastes and textures. All items cannot be spicy, sweet or salty. Textures could include soft items like soft cheeses or pates combined with non-soft items like hard cheese or dried sausages. If students use an apricot jam for a garnish, they probably should not have dried apricots on the tray as well.
- Does presentation matter?
Answer: YES! Look for contrast in tastes, textures and colors.
Look for a dramatic serving tray, plate or board. Find something of a different shape, size or material. Try to stay away from trays that are overly decorated themselves. For example, students want the prepared items to be the star, not the painting of the horse and carriage on the plate. Remember, the serving tray needs to be food safe. A nice clean wooden cutting board is fine, but not a wooden board from the storeroom.
Charcuterie boards and trays can include more than one board or tray. For example, when I make a board it is common for me to have the crackers, bread and toast points served on a separate dramatic serving tray and the meats on another board.
- How to use height on a charcuterie board?
Answer: Laying everything flat on a tray looks dull; place some items higher than others. For example, have a cheese that is stacked on top of itself or a ramekin or small container of a pate on the tray.
Avoid placing all charcuterie tray items into bowls with high sides. Similarly, avoid a serving tray or board with high sides. This automatically reduces or loses the height created by the elevated food items.
- Should the items on the board be ready to eat or large size ready for cutting?
Answer: Although it is possible to have large sections of cheeses or charcuterie on a tray and have the guests cut them for themselves, this makes things difficult for the guests and more importantly will destroy your display. It is better to have everything cut into pieces ready for the guest to eat.
- What is the biggest mistake most people make serving a charcuterie tray?
Answer: Forgetting to include serving pieces for each item that requires it. Be sure to include: forks for picking up the cheese and charcuterie; small knives or spoons for the spread; and serving pieces for the garnishes. It is difficult for a guest to get apricot jam onto a toast point without a serving piece.
Author’s Note: My most popular article of all time for the Gold Medal Classroom’s 50 Minute Classroom is “Teaching Thanksgiving Side Dishes in 50 Minutes.” Take a look at the article if you need teaching ideas in November beyond charcuterie trays.
Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 17 years.