If a charcuterie platter isn't currently on your list of things to prepare for your next party or get-together, then it should be. And if you haven't considered it, then we're about to give you 20 reasons for why you absolutely should. Cold cuts are no longer the slightly flavorless deli meat that you find in the deli section of your grocery store and have an unnaturally long expiration date. Nowadays, deli meat is anything from sliced fresh, roasted turkey to a thin slice of dry-aged meat that has been salted and cured. If your mouth isn't watering yet then trust me, it will be soon.
Working behind a cheese counter can teach a person plenty about what the world of meat can look like. For someone who got used to Oscar Meyer, it was a life-changing experience to try a slice of serrano straight from the slicer (don't worry, you'll know what that is by the end of this article). It can be a magical experience to cut a piece of pate and lay it out with some mustard, or to stack hot coppa on a sandwich with some fig jam. The world of flavor and savory goodness is about to be burst wide open and available to you because anything is possible once you have the right cut of meat, the correct aging process, and the serving know-how. These meats can be eaten alone, alongside other condiments, on sandwiches, the choice is yours -- But I can assure you that the term "cold cuts" will never again conjure up images of last week's boring ham sandwich.
You'll notice that most of the meats on this list are also considered "charcuterie". All this means is that the meat has been cured but can also be smoked or salted. This adds a level of flavor that you won't get from a normal deli meat, which has been cooked but is served young and fresh -- no aging required. Prosciutto is one of the most common meats you'll find on any sandwich or cheese board and that's because of one reason: It's delicious. It's incredibly versatile due to its neutral salty flavor, but don't assume that it lacks in flavor because of this. Prosciutto has a depth of rich, ham-like flavor that's elevated and delicate as opposed to ham you'd find in America or France, similar to Serrano, which we'll get to soon enough.
Beef can be dried and aged as well, and thus bresaola was born. This meat takes the marriage of a salted exterior and combines it with the same aged beef flavor that you'd get from (good) beef jerky, only better. After the top round has been salted, it's aged for anywhere between one and two months and develops a deep flavor. This is great for those who love a lean meat and enjoy a beefed up flavor. It's best when sliced thin and a good bresaola will have a flawless balance of salt and savory. It's also much more tender than any other dry-aged beef would be, but might be a bit tricky to find unless you go to a specialty shop.
This aged meat from Italy comes from the muscle on a pig that is found between the neck and the ribs. That makes it a tender cut with just enough marbling throughout, making for a cold cut that will likely just melt in your mouth (not literally... there should be some chewing involved). This meat is excellent on its own but can also be used in sandwiches and on platters. It can be found as a regular capicola or as a spicy capicola, which just means that hot paprika has been added as a rub to the exterior of the meat. Similar to sopressata, this is a great cold cut for those who are picky but want something different, as the flavor isn't overwhelming.
17 Jamón Serrano
There are two types of Jamón that we'll go into and the first is the one you're most likely to find in the US. Serrano is a popular ham from Spain and it's easily accessible compared to its brother ham. You'll be surprised to know that Serrano is usually aged for at least a year if not longer, which deepens and enhances its depth of flavor. A good Serrano from Spain will be pricey yet affordable, and it's worth it since this is a rich meat. It's commonly seen on platters -- often with cheese found commonly in Spain, such as aged manchego -- but can also be used in grilled cheese, cold cut sandwiches, or eaten on its own.
It looks like bologna, but it's actually ten times better. Once you get a taste of this stuff, you'll never go back to Oscar Meyer again. Mortadella is easily found at any deli counter and while it does taste similar to bologna, it's much more refined, flavorful, and has a higher fat content. This meat isn't cured like the rest but rather is steamed in order to lock in that freshness of the pork meat. The texture is smooth and mousse-like, yet the meat itself is firm enough to slice and this is due to the emulsification process between the lean pork meat and neck fat. You'll often find garlic and pistachio pieces running through a slice of mortadella, adding to its depth of flavor and giving a bit of texture. It's underrated yet seriously delicious.
Chorizo is a meat that many people might know as a raw sausage from Spain, but it can also be found in a cured form as well. This lends itself well to both sweet and spicy chorizo sausages and they're just as versatile when cured as they are when cooked from its raw form. Some might even argue that cured chorizo has much more flavor due to the aging process, but it's all personal preference. It gets its deep color from the addition of paprika, which can be spicy (pimenton) or sweet. You'll also find garlic in this meat as well as salt to help bring out all those flavors. Dried chorizo can be eaten as is or cooked to allow some of the oils to render off or to be used in a dish.
14 Jamon Iberico
Iberico isn't something that you're likely to find in the US and if you do, you should try it at least once. It's the higher-end version of Serrano, but can only be harvested from Iberian pigs, which are found mainly in Portugal. What makes this cured ham so special are the pigs it's harvested from: They eat a special diet of acorns, herbs, roots, and grass. This makes for a pure flavor, but still not the purest -- Jamón Ibérico de Bellota will shatter the bank due to the free-range pigs who eat only acorns. This results in an unimaginable flavor that's second to no cold cut on this list. This is the type of cured meat that you'd eat by yourself, as is how it's served in Spain, fresh off the bone. It's so special, in fact, that butchers are taught how to carve correctly with holders that are designed to hold the leg and knives that are nearly surgical in sharpness.
Soppressata is a fun meat because it has spices running through it, such as peppercorns, that are clearly visible to the eye and add dimension to the meat itself. It's a subtle flavor, somewhat milder than salami, and is usually aged for three months before it's ready to be sliced. Traditionally, this cold cut is made from cured pork and that's likely what you'll find in your local supermarket. It's not bad pre-packaged, but it's even better when purchased from a specialty shop that will slice it paper-thin (and maybe even give you a sample). This meat does have a bit of fat on it but that adds to its flavor, and you'll find many variations of spices and herbs, but garlic is a common additive.
Now, here's a meat that will pack a punch... In flavor, that is! 'Nduja is one of those meats that should be on your "to try" list if you can find it. This fermented sausage is made from several cuts of pork that come together with a bit of heat from added chili peppers. The resulting flavor is spicy and strong and might not be liked by everyone, but is loved by many. It's also spreadable, so it can be eaten easily on sandwiches or crackers and makes for a very travel-friendly meal. In Italy, it's used widely on nearly everything, including pizza -- What a great alternative to boring 'ol pepperoni.
While you might not enjoy eating pancetta because it is very fatty due to being pork belly, it adds tons of flavor to anything it's paired with. Since pancetta is salted and cured, it can be used in place of any recipe where you'd use bacon and will double the flavor. Pancetta also provides relief to those who don't enjoy the smoky flavor of bacon, since it's not smoked and the flavor is much purer than that of cooked bacon. The rendered fat that's melted during cooking can also be used to cook veggies, adding a lighter, less overwhelming flavor than using another type of animal fat. Use it as a crispy topper to salads or cube it up and throw it in some pasta.
We're jumping countries for a bit and heading over to France now for some saucisson. While this cold cut sounds super fancy, it's actually quite simple and comparable to salami. This dry-cured meat only has two things added to it -- salt and black pepper -- in order to maintain as much of its natural pork flavor as possible. What you'll end up with is a strong pork-like flavor with hints of heat from the pepper and a zippy undertone from the garlic, creating a brilliantly-balanced slice of charcuterie. In different towns and cities in France, you'll find various ways of preparing this meat, which can include anything from the previously mentioned ingredients to warm spices and nuts.
One of my personal favorites is speck, which is code for a "smoked prosciutto". This cold cut goes much further than that, though; several spices are added, such as black pepper, juniper, bay leaves, and garlic, in order to provide your taste buds with even more delicious flavor. It's like prosciutto that has been pumped up to be the bodybuilder of all cured hams and is really incomparable to anything else. Speck can be used just as prosciutto can but is a delectable treat on its own. My personal suggestion? Try this alone first, then pair it with the best tripel creme brie you can get your hands on.
8 Summer Sausage
It might not sound like much, but summer sausage is a must for sausage fans -- mainly those who enjoy their kielbasa. This dark-colored meat looks a bit unusual due to the addition of beef along with the traditional sausage choice of ground pork. It's mixed with garlic and mustard and then must be cured as well as fermented, creating a strong, yet balanced flavor. It's great when used on sandwiches or eaten on its own as a snack as its a hearty and meaty cold cut. A great and affordable brand for finding classic summer sausage in the US is Vermont Smoke and Cure.
7 Hot Coppa
Not to be confused with regular capicola, hot coppa is a pork cut from the shoulder of the pig. This meat is salt-cured and packs some spicy heat, which is great on its own or with mild cheeses. Coppa is one of those meats that you can grab from the fridge as a snack, take on picnics, stack on platters, or use in a sandwich. It contains garlic as well as chili pepper which is used as a rub on the exterior of the meat. Depending on your tolerance for spice, it won't knock you out with heat, but it will let you know it's there.
Pâté is somewhat of an old-world food that many people think is either out of their price range or gross. It's definitely not everyone's cup of tea but should be noted as a great option if you're looking to change things up a bit. Three Little Pigs makes excellent pâté and their Pork & Duck Pâté with Orange Peel is one of my absolute favorites. Your taste buds will be met with a slightly gamey flavor of the duck that's perfectly balanced with the meatiness of the pork and a slight sweetness and tang from the orange peel. Pistachios are also used in this pâté which provides a bit of crunchy texture and salty bite. It's a well-balanced choice for those who are new to this type of meat with a little something for every palette.
Specifically, Jambon de Paris. This ham comes from France and provides a completely different and unique experience for those who have only had ham from the US. Whereas ham in America is very salty, can be dry, and is very strong in flavor, Jambon de Paris is the opposite. This ham is much leaner and only uses minimal amounts of salt during the cooking process to allow its natural flavor to come through. The cooking process is quite interesting as well since this ham is left to cook in its own juices while wrapped in its own skin. Upon first arrival, this jambon is encased in a thin layer of fat which should be cut away before slicing in order to give way to a mild, slightly salty, beautiful ham flavor.
4 Terrines And Mousse
It's relatively easy to find mousse in your supermarket as you'll often find small loaves in the international cheese and meat section. You've likely seen a truffled mousse pâté, which doesn't mean that it's a chocolate mousse with chunks of chocolate truffle in it. This means that it's a pork and chicken liver mousse with tiny pieces of black truffle throughout. The thought of eating liver doesn't appeal to everyone, but hear me out -- this mousse does not taste like iron in any way, and rather than the typical "fried liver flavor" everyone normally thinks of, you'll get a rich, delicate texture with a hint of earthiness from those truffles. You'll also notice just a hint of sweetness on the end as well as a savory aftertaste, leaving no unpleasantness whatsoever. A terrine is a great way for newcomers to get a taste for mousse pâté since they're made with other meats and normally layered with fruit or vegetable mousses to provide a uniquely-balanced flavor in one bite.
3 Salami And Its Variations
Salami is a tricky term because things such as soppressata and saucisson are also considered to be a "salami". Essentially, a salami is any type of cured pork that has been aged and can often have spices and herbs added to it. If you're looking to try new salami, stay away from your grocery store deli shelf and hit up a specialty store instead. There, you might find things such as Molinari or Milano, which both have their own unique blend of spices and flavor profiles. Each salami is different and you might find that you prefer one with huge chunks of peppercorns, while someone else might prefer a salami that's been aged with orange peel (both are delicious).
Similar to pancetta, guanciale is also a cured meat from Italy that is mainly used in pasta dishes as opposed to being eaten in its natural form. It's a very fatty cut of meat and arguably even more so than pancetta, making it an excellent option for cooking. This cut of pork comes from the jowl of the pig and is traditionally used in dishes such as carbonara. It adds a light saltiness and unparalleled richness to any dish it's added to, putting it pretty high on our list of acceptable bacon replacements. This one might be tough to find so your best bet is definitely a specialty shop.
1 Slab Bacon
Speaking of bacon, we're not talking about that fatty stuff you find in the deli section. If you want a real BLT, you're better off knowing where your bacon comes from and how to get a real slice of it rather than the process stuff you find in a vacuum pack. Bacon comes from the backslab of a pig, hence the name "slab bacon". This is bacon that's cut extra thick and can then be cubed for use in dishes or left in thick slices and either fried in a pan, baked in the oven, or deep-fried for an even more sinful delight. Thicker bacon takes any dish to a whole new level and adds flavor like you would not believe.