A charcuterie is the name for a store that sells cooked meat products, primarily pork. The term can also refer to the meats inside the store. Unlike a butcher who sells raw cuts of meat, most of the food sold in a charcuterie will have been either cooked or preserved in a variety of ways. Understanding the techniques used to prepare the meat can be an important consideration when selecting from among the sometimes bewildering array of products. Personal preferences for protein and menu planning are equally important in making the appropriate choices.
In ages past before refrigeration, a village charcuterie was as vital as its bakeries to provide meats free from spoilage and disease. Practitioners were regulated under trade guilds. In modern times, the skill has become an artisanal craft, and such specialty stores have become increasingly uncommon. In some parts of the world, an equivalent establishment may be found within a delicatessen.
The oldest method of preserving meat is by brining, or curing it in either dry or wet salt, which does several things to meat. The neutral water in meat is replaced by salted water which is less hospitable to living organisms such as bacteria. Dry salt will extract the water and dehydrate the meat. Salts also denature protein molecules in meat, breaking down their structure in the same way that the high heat of cooking would.
Most salted or otherwise dried meats today, such as pork ham and jerky are cured with the addition of either sodium nitrite or nitrate, the latter being preferred for longer curing times. Meats cured in nitrite salt will often be recommended for final cooking at home. Both compounds provide chemical benefits beyond just sodium chloride, or normal table salt, including the suppression of deadly botulism, the disease named from the Latin word for sausage.
Bacon is a key staple of a charcuterie. The fatty skin of the pig is usually pre-cooked by smoking. This a long process under the low temperature of smoldering, aromatic woods such as hickory and apple.
A very popular charcuterie can be sausages, meat encased in a tube, usually the edible, empty small intestines of pigs or cattle. Sometimes, larger casings such as stomachs or bladder pouches are used; inedible casings are also used, especially for sausages that take longer to age. Meats in the charcuterie can be ground or chopped, are always salted, are flavored with a regional signatures, and often combined with extra fat such as pork lard.