There may be no appetizer that offers a more impressive sensory experience than a charcuterie board. If you’ve ever been scrolling through your favorite food blog and seen a fabulous photo of a charcuterie board, you likely had to stop for a moment to take in the beauty and feel your mouth water.
The good news is that it doesn’t take a culinary master or an artist to create a beautiful and delicious charcuterie board. By following some elementary guiding principles, anyone can construct a charcuterie board that is photogenic and flavorful. We’re going to explain in detail how you can fashion a charcuterie board that is visually stunning and makes for a delicious experience for your family or guests at your next gathering.
What is Charcuterie?
The word charcuterie comes from the French char (flesh) and cuit (cooked) and pronounced “shar-koo-tuh-ree.” It typically describes a wide range of cured meats, from hard, thin sliced cuts to soft spreads. In France, the word also describes the shop that sells them.
Most charcuterie boards include a variety of colors, textures and flavors that are meant to create a visual feast as well as an edible one. Because charcuterie boards are meant to be picture-pretty, assembling a charcuterie board is just as much about arranging the different components as it is choosing what to include. Therefore, you may also hear that charcuterie used to refer to the art of arranging various foods on a charcuterie board.
When Should You Serve a Charcuterie Board?
Charcuterie makes for a great appetizer or meal for nearly any occasion. Some of the best times to create and serve a charcuterie spread include:
- Celebrations: Whether you’re celebrating an engagement, a new home, a birthday, a new baby, or any of life’s special moments, a charcuterie board is a perfect way to enjoy special occasions.
- Holiday Gatherings: The holiday season is one of the most popular times to indulge in delicious cured meats and cheeses, so a charcuterie board is right at home at a Christmas or New Year’s party.
- Dinner parties: Charcuterie boards serve as an easy and impressive appetizer when you’re entertaining. They can even serve as the main course if you’re hosting an informal gathering.
- Picnics: Charcuterie boards have an earthly feel that makes them perfect for a picnic. It’s easy to pack the ingredients separately and arrange them on a tray when you reach your destination.
- Romantic dates: What could be more romantic than enjoying a glass of wine and delicious food with someone you love? A charcuterie board is an excellent choice if you want to create a romantic date for you and your partner.
What Type of Board Should You Use?
Before you start arranging meat, cheeses, and more, you need to start with the board itself. Even if you never created a charcuterie board before, it’s likely that you have a board or platter on hand already that will work. Cutting boards, lazy susans, butcher’s blocks, and pizza paddles make great charcuterie boards. These are a few aspects of your serving board to consider.
Of course, the word “board” suggests that the base of your arrangement should be wood. Charcuterie boards are often wood, but not always. Slate boards, marble slabs, and ceramic trays can also work perfectly for a charcuterie board. Make sure whatever board or tray you choose is food-safe before placing food on it. If a tray was meant to be decorative and is not food safe you can line it with parchment paper for a quick and easy solution.
Perhaps more important than the material of your board is the size of your board. You want your board to look full and brimming with goodness. So if you’re creating a charcuterie board for only a few guests or a special dinner date, choose a small board you can fill up with the ingredients you have. For larger gatherings, opt for a large board or platter that’s big enough to create an impressive centerpiece for your table. Don’t think you have anything big enough for your gathering? Try to mix and match a few different boards for a cohesive look.
You will see charcuterie boards in all sorts of shapes. In addition to the typical circular or rectangular shape boards, you can choose a wooden board with natural, irregular shapes. It’s helpful to think practically about the tray or board you choose in addition to choosing one that helps you achieve a certain visual effect. Many people choose a flat surface for their charcuterie arrangements, but some find it easier to choose a board with a lip along the edge since this will help hold everything in without allowing it to fall off the edge.
What Goes On a Charcuterie Board?
A wide variety of ingredients can work well on a charcuterie board. Some charcuterie boards keep it simple by using just a few quality cured meats and cheeses with a few olives sprinkled in, while others pack an extensive level of variety. If you want to create a spread with plenty of variety, your charcuterie board shopping list should include the following:
- Cured Meats
- Bread or Crackers
- Jelly or Jam
- Spreads or Dips
Meat For Your Charcuterie Board
It is a good idea to provide variety in the types of meats. Your two basic categories are crudo (raw cured meat) and cotto (cooked meat). Cured meats, such as prosciutto, are saltier and more intense so balance them with the fattiness and sweetness of cooked meats like ham. Here are some suggestions:
Served either flat or in loose rolls and thinly sliced (not the thick cuts typically used in sandwiches).
- Whole muscle cuts of cured meat may include: prosciutto, jamon Serrano and jamon Iberico
- Italian cured pork legs that are salted and air dried; Spanish Serrano uses a different curing process, but has comparable taste and texture.
- Lomo de cerdo (“lomo” for short) – Spanish cured pork tenderloin. The Italian is called lonzo.
- Bresaola – Italian beef tenderloin that is salted and air dried. The Spanish version is called cesina.
- Guanciale – A bacon made from pork jowl, often considered similar to pancetta but with richer, porkier flavor.
- Mortadella – Basically adult bologna, but richer, silker and more complex. In addition to its distinctive polka dot marbling, some mortadella are cooked with black pepper or pistachios.
- Speck – A German cured, smoked, pork shoulder that’s similar to prosciutto but with more notes of juniper and smoke.
Something You Slice
While wafer thin slices are salty and opulent, your charcuterie board also needs a heft of something that can be sliced.
- Salami – Genoa salami is a favorite for charcuterie boards. Made with ground pork or veal mixed with white wine, salt, and whole white peppercorn. Add a spicy element to your charcuterie board with Calabrese salami. Spicy red pepper flakes and other spices are incorporated into ground pork meat. The flavored meat is stuffed into a casing and then hung in a curing chamber for a few weeks. This is one of our favorite charcuterie meats.
- Sopressata – Technically a type of Italian salami, but usually more coarsely ground, it is available in round or flattened pressed varieties (from which it is said the word sopressata comes from). Both spicy and sweet styles are available.
- Smoked Sausage – Smoked meats, such as kielbasa, bring additional richness to the palate. Usually one smoked meat is enough for your board.
- Capicola – Dried, salt-cured, whole pork shoulder or pork neck that is pressed into forms for a tight texture. Delicately spiced and slightly smoky.
- Coppa – Made from shoulder and neck cuts of a pig, seasoned with paprika, pepper, garlic, and other spices. This Italian delicacy is mildly spicy to moderately hot.
We don’t often think of meat as something you can spread, but maybe we should. Your charcuterie board should have a spreadable meat such as a pate, rillette, or terrine. Spreads can be made with virtually any animal from duck to chicken, salmon or boar.
- Pate – Comes in two broad categories: smooth or chunky. Pate is commonly made from chicken liver or duck liver.
- Rillettes (pronounced re-yet) – Usually rabbit, pork, or duck are slowly cooked in fat until tender. Meat is then shredded and combined with fat and seasonings until it is a savoy spread. Known as “brown jam” in France.
- Terrine – Similar to pate, except made from chunkier pieces and may incorporate vegetables. Terrine also refers to the dish it is baked in.
What Are the Best Cheeses to Include?
Classic rule of thumb: get a combination of different cheeses, such as soft, hard, aged, and blue. Here are some of our favorite for each type:
- Soft: brie, ricotta, goat cheese, camembert
- Hard: parmigiano reggiano, gruyere, asiago
- Aged: aged cheddar, aged havarti, sharp cheddar, goat gouda, comte
- Blue: stilton, gorgonzola, danish blue
How to Make Your Charcuterie Board Four-Star Rated?
Now that we have focused on meats and cheeses, let’s look at what else you should include in a state-of-the-art charcuterie board. The best charcuterie boards feature a lot more than meat and cheese, though the meats and cheeses still tend to be the center of attention. But what sets a charcuterie board apart is the accents. Just like getting dressed, the accessories often make the outfit. The additions of things like crackers, fruits, and spreads complement the meat and cheese and create a more well rounded combination of flavors, textures, and colors. Here are some complementary elements so you can put together a board that is sure to please a crowd.
Bread and Crackers
Bread and crackers provide the perfect base for guests to enjoy cheeses and spreads on your charcuterie board. If you include bread make sure it is hard, crusty bread such as a French baguette. You want it to be sturdy enough to be eaten as a finger food. Consider a mix of plain, artisan, and lightly toasted slices rubbed with olive oil and a cut clove of garlic. For crackers, choose at least two different kinds for a larger board so you have some variety. Some can be buttery crackers while some should be multigrain or nut crackers.
Pickles and Ferments
Pickles and olives provide a tart, briny flavor that pairs well with rich meats and cheeses. Enliven each flavor profile with bright, sour notes to cleanse and refresh the palate. Get creative with tart buttery olives, sweet gherkins, dilly green beans, gingery carrots, pickled red onions, artichokes, or green strawberries to reap delicious rewards. Tip: Add a citrus surprise to your olives by mixing in a few strips of fresh orange peel (without the white pith) and let sit for a few hours. Castelvetrano are our favorite olives; they are light green, plump, not as salty as most olives, more buttery and mellow.
Fruit and Jellies
Fruit elevates a charcuterie board giving a touch of sweetness and lovely color. Grapes, apple slices, pears, strawberries, figs, pomegranates, and more are right at home on a charcuterie board. Dried fruits also work well. Try sprinkling some dried apricots, mangoes, or dates around your board. Including jam, jelly, or preserves of your choice gives guests the opportunity to enjoy a baguette slice or cracker with a sweet topping. Chutneys are also excellent.
Spreads and Dips
Including some jars or bowls of spreads and dips brings a whole new texture to your board as well as new flavors. Mustard and horseradish are traditional for savory, and honey is a popular sweet choice. Cheese spreads are a great addition to your board. Hummus, bean dips, and tapenade will also make your board special. If you’re including plenty of baguette slices, you may want to add some seasoned dipping oil to your board.
Nuts add a nice salty touch to your charcuterie board. Smoky almonds, cashews, and pistachios are great salty add-ons. You may also want to add some pretzels as an additional salty touch.
Charcuterie Board Tips
Tip # 1 Arrange Cheeses in Proper Order
Arrange the cheeses from mild to strong from left to right, or in a clockwise pattern. Don’t forget to label the cheeses. Place one cheese knife for each cheese type to prevent mixing the flavors.
Tip # 2 Bring the cheeses to room temperature
About an hour before serving, bring out the cheeses and unwrap them so they can breathe and come to room temperature. Cold temperature dulls the flavor
Tip # 3 Plan enough servings
Typically you’ll need 3-4 ounces of cheese and 3-4 ounces of meat per person, if you’re serving the platter as a light meal. For an appetizer, you can do about 2 ounces of cheese and meat per person. For a big crowd we would advise that you offer 5 types of meat and and 5 types of cheese
Tip # 5 Accompaniments
Don’t serve meat and cheese without accompaniments. The add ons are not only there to fill the gaps but also add texture and flavor contrast to the meats and cheeses, making each bite a taste experience.
Assembling a Charcuterie Board
There’s no “right” way to assemble a charcuterie board, but having a process definitely helps. Here are some steps that you can take when you are assembling your charcuterie board.
Arrange the cheeses
Since the cheese wedges tend to be one of the biggest elements, it’s a good idea to start with them. Space them out across the board and angle them in different directions for visual appeal. (also don’t forget tip # 1)
Add the meats
Next, add the meats. A good rule of thumb is to arrange at least one type of meat next to each type of cheese. This helps ensure that they’re spaced out just like the cheeses, and also ensures you have plenty of room to include as much meat as you’d like since the meat is the star of the show.
Arrange the bowls
Add the bowls next: your mustards, jams, preserves, spreads etc. Make sure the bowls are spread across the board similar to the meats and cheeses. Do the same with your bowls of olives, pickles, and other ferments.
Add the fruit
Next comes the fruit. Fruit is used to surround the meats, cheeses, and bowls and to begin filling gaps in the board. When arranging, be sure to space out the different colors; don’t put red apples next to red strawberries.
Arrange the crackers or baguette slices
Crackers or baguette slices can be placed around the edge of the board or in any remaining spaces. They can overlap the meats and cheeses without a problem. When arranging your crackers or baguette slices, straight lines are OK, but don’t be afraid to curve them around or stand them up for a little something different.
Add the nuts
Nuts and dried fruits are perfect for filling in any remaining gaps in the board. Add them wherever you need them!
Finish the board with sprigs of fresh herbs. Tuck the herbs in a few places around the perimeter of the board and in at least two spots within the interior of the board.
See if anything needs to be moved to provide a varied color palette across the board.
Put your finished charcuterie board in an accessible location for your guests. Don’t forget the knives or any other serving utensils you might need.