Part of history from the beginning of mankind is using cooking techniques enabling food to be kept so that none of it will be wasted and food reserves can be established. Ways of ways of preserving meat — confit, pate, sausage, bacon, ham, smoked salmon, smoked trout, lox and salmon cured with salt and seasoning are all part of the specialty called charcuterie — salting, smoking and cooking meat.
The word charcuterie combines two French words — char (flesh) and cuit (cooked). The term was originally limited to pork but over time these techniques have been used on other meats and foods.
In the cookbook “Charcuterie: the craft of salting, smoking and curing” by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, Ruhlman writes, “[y]ou can confit many cuts of meat. Goose, in addition to duck, of course, chicken or turkey — or a pork loin. It’s a remarkable thing: you can buy a supermarket pork loin, unnaturally lean now and flavorful as cardboard, and, with the basic confit method, turn it into something so tasty you’d swear voodoo were involved.”
The word confit literally means preserved. This was a French technique in which duck, for example, was salted for a period of time and then poached in its own fat, then immersed in that fat and kept until needed, Ruhlman said.
Charcutiers were esteemed French tradesmen, who belonged to guilds, and who played an essential role in maintaining the food supply in their communities, Ruhlman said.
Co-author Brian Polcyn, an accomplished chef who teaches charcuterie, refers to charcuterie as a practice because it is a technique that “you’re always learning, always practicing, never perfecting, because the conditions are always changing. …”
While charcuterie is an ever-present part of the European culinary scene, it is less prevalent in Oklahoma.
Nonetheless, there are places that offer it — Ludivine in Oklahoma City being one of them. Ludivine, 805 N. Hudson in Oklahoma City, has a charcuterie platter on the menu offering country pate, rabbit liver mousse, rabbit rillettes, house cured salmon, Berkshire Lardo, foie gras mousse and a daily cheese selection.
Another establishment gaining a reputation for curing meat on site is Fassler Hall, which makes all of its sausage in house with Oklahoma-sourced pork. A few of the sausages offered at the two locations (Tulsa and OKC) are — bratwurst, lamb sausage, hot Italian sausage and the hunter, a sausage made from venison, buffalo and pork.
In Oklahoma salting and smoking may have been the preferred method to preserve meats.
Salt not only flavors meat, it preserves it by disabling the microbes that feed on food. Salt pulls water out of the meat and thereby dehydrates it.
Sauerkraut, a tasty addition to a sausage meal, is basically salted cabbage. Olives, a staple of charcuterie platters, when soaked in saltwater are transformed from a bitter fruit into a delicious one.
The Egyptians were possibly the first to brine olives. According to the authors of “Charcuterie,” the Egyptians “were possibly the first people to preserve food with salt on a large scale,” which they used for their own food supply and for trade.
The authors said, because the Egyptians did not consume swine, the Celts were said to have invented ham during the Iron Age, around 1,000 B.C. The Celts shared ham with the Romans. A favorite ham of the Romans was Westphalia, which endures as one of the world’s finest hams. Westpahalia is a region in today’s northwestern Germany.
Vikings, who preserved cod, were sustained by this cured fish as they traveled to distant shores.
Ruhlman wrote, “The Vikings also secretly fished for cod in the New World, (keeping the discovery of Nova Scotia to themselves, centuries before Columbus crossed the Atlantic), then salting it to sell throughout Catholic Europe, no doubt a thriving trade on meatless Fridays and during Lent, when pork was off limits.”
Long journeys became possible only when cultures learned to preserve large amounts of food, Ruhlman said.
“Curing with salt and smoking go hand in hand,” Ruhlman added. Smoking inhibits microbes that would spoil meat and impart flavor. That flavor changes depending on the wood used.
“It’s critical to use only hardwoods in smoking foods,” Ruhlman said. He recommends, hickory, maple and fruitwoods while soft woods should be avoided because they contain unpalatable sap, or resin.
Ruhlman recommends using fruitwoods for a mild sweet smoked flavor and pear for smoking fish. Cherry is popular in Michigan to create smoked duck, he said.
“The pairing of applewood smoke and bacon is so felicitous it’s become almost commonplace,” Ruhlman wrote.
Home cooks can easily hot smoke, or cook meats at a temperature at or above 150 degrees, in a smoker. Ruhlman recommends 180 degrees as optimal for hot smoking sausages and 200 degrees for smoking whole cuts of meat.
Home cooks should take note that most recipes involving smoking require pink salt, or sodium nitrite, as a preservative against botulism poisoning, Ruhlman said. However, food that goes from the refrigerator to the hot smoker doesn’t require pink salt, he added.
If you have a story of your family or ancestors curing meat by salting or smoking, email me at email@example.com.