Book Review: Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn

Charcuterie, or deli as I prefer to call it, is a specialty foodcraft that deals with curing and preserving meats. Having worked in various delis in my foodservice career, there was sadly little that we needed to do to actually prepare the meats that we served. Turkey, brisket and roast beef were roasted in the oven, long salamis were hung to dry, and maybe corned beef and tongue were house-cured. Any of the other deli meats — pastrami, bologna, salami, turkey roll, hot dogs and knockwurst, or ‘specials’ — all came out of commercial shops. Not that they were bad, mind you. In fact, Alle Processing (Meal Mart) is still my benchmark for pastrami.

Deli is one of those things that you can easily take for granted. Readily available in supermarkets and, well, delis, you could stop in for a sandwich or for a pound of meat for Shabbat. And of course working in a deli was deliciously wonderful.

And now, I live in Israel. What’s a New York boy to do?

[amazonify]0393058298:right[/amazonify]Obviously I’m not upset about making aliyah, but it means that if I want something that I took for granted back in the Old Country, I’m going to have to make it myself, or do without. Sometimes, it’s easier said than done.

While modern refrigeration and mega-marts have largely replaced the need to preserve the meat, it can’t replace the deliciousness of a piece of smoked pastrami or disk of hard salami. But the art of home-cured meat is one if the more exacting foodcrafts, on par with molecular gastronomy. Walking a thin line between botulism and carcinogenic nitrosamines, if you want to prepare your own cured meats, it’s best to start from a book. If you like [and can afford] hunting through used bookstores and websites, you’ll find recipes for sausages and the like in cookbooks from the late 19th century through the middle of the twentieth. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 2 includes some as well. One of the more popular modern books more readily available is Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman.

Charcuterie the book and charcuterie the art focus mainly on pig meat. For obvious reasons, kosher deli doesn’t. I think part of the reason that pigs were used was because of the other by-products cows, goats and sheep had, namely milk and cheese (pig’s milk won’t coagulate), and wool. Pigs were just meat animals, which is sad for them.

The book itself is written in a reminiscent style rather than an instructional style, which makes it less useful to a professional. Measurements are given in metric weights, and while less useful to a home kitchen, it shouldn’t be. The meat recipes cover a wide range of styles without being exhaustive, which is disappointing, and the recipes for condiments and accompaniments too many. Compared to the number of preserved meats available worldwide, I felt the book was a little lacking in depth for what I was expecting, given the reviews and such. It’s not a de facto resource for all things cured, but it’s comprehensive enough to be a good introduction to the topic, and some of the modern twists on traditional preparations are most definitely intriguing.

I tested two of the fresh sausage recipes. The spicy Italian sausage was excellent; the seasoning was spot on. The bratwurst recipe wasn’t as successful, owing more to my own mistakes than to the recipe, but still tastier than what’s available  in this country. I also have a bresaola (air-dried spiced beef) curing in my refrigerator.

My adventure continues…



4 thoughts on “Book Review: Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn”

  1. A: 90% beef, 10% turkey.
    B: Beef fat

    Since I don't know what a pork sausage tastes like, I have no comparison reference. But the flavoring was reminiscent of other beef/veal Italian sausages I have known. And, as they say repeatedly in the book, sausage making is about flavors you like.

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  3. Thanks for the reply (didn't see it until now).

    I've made his maple cured bacon recipe (subbed lamb breast for pork belly) with awesome results. I can give you some of the necessary ingredients that I brought from america if you wish…

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