Table of Contents
Charcuterie and processed meat are quite poorly defined because most of them have been deemed different by different organizations and people.
Charcuterie can be dry-cured meat such as dry-cured salami and whole muscle. Like genoa salami, prosciutto, and pancetta.
It’s also traditionally ham, rillettes, pates, and offal-based cooked meats from a French charcuterie perspective.
It involves a process but may not fit into the loose definition of ‘processed’ meat.
In Italy, some aspects of charcuterie overlap with salumi. Salumi includes the whole muscles cuts and also salami.
Defining Processed Meat,
The reason that it’s hard to find a hard and fast definition for processed meat is that there isn’t one. This term is defined a little differently by everyone. The American Institute for Cancer Research defines processed meat as “meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives.”
The World Health Organization has a slightly broader definition: “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.”
A more accurate definition of processed meat would be:
Meat that is either salt dry or wet cured, commercially made with additives such as preservatives, emulsifiers, and binders.
A more accurate definition of charcuterie meats would be:
Salt, spices, and meat are crafted by hand in a small artisan style. Either dried, smoked or cooked – this includes preserving in jars.
So, with a little thought, I’ll give you my opinion on whether or not charcuterie is processed meat and what processed meat and charcuterie are.
Way before I even decided to do a whole website on cured meat, I looked at how many cultures across the globe consume a lot of charcuterie or cured meat.
Probably the cornerstone of most charcuterie and charcuterie boards is the dry-cured meat. Dry-cured meat is generally always originally inspired by classic Italian Salumi.
Salumi is mainly the major cut of pork that gets salt-cured and dried out long enough to be preserved and intensify the flavor, it has been around for a few thousand years (Roman Empire Times)
Also, salumi includes salami, but the strict definition of dry-cured salami is in the traditional Italian way.
I wrote a page on salumi vs salami and what each of these are in detail, please find that page here.
Charcuterie and Process Meat in Detail
Firstly, there is no ‘agreed’ definition of processed meat, making it rather ambiguous. Meat that isn’t fresh anymore is vaguely what these organizations came up with. That is a massive category.
Since I’ve been looking at cured meats for a few decades I’ll give you an interpretation of what I see as processed meat.
What I think Processed Meat Is
Processed meat is the thing you generally find in western supermarkets like hot dogs and ham from the deli. These have sodium nitrates in them most of the time (just like I sometimes add a small amount of nitrates to dry-cured meat)
This below ‘salami’ package, is not charcuterie.
Salami should take months to make, this can be made in a few days with rapid acidification to preserve meat slightly.
At least it’s mainly meat.
Some sausage regulations say sausages for grilling only need to be 50% meat!
They also add a lot of other ‘preservatives’, flavor enhancers, and ingredients, which are the numbers (since it’s hard to put the full chemical names on the package).
They are also cooked and often hot-smoked as well. Sometimes, cold-smoked depends on the product in question.
This is quite different from dry-cured meat, which is generally the most basic of things like Prosciutto – which has salt, pork leg, nitrates, and nitrites (for the commercial types I have seen). Dried for 12 months minimum in Italy, thinly sliced and savored.
But there is no cooking or smoking for these classic Italian recipes. Drying preserves the meat and intensifies the flavor.
Charcuterie Dry Cured Meat
Like the Italian Classics which are dry salt-cured:
- Proscuitto – Pork Leg
- Pancetta – Pork Belly
- Coppa – Upper Neck Some Loin
- Guanciale – Jowl Jaw
- Spalla – Shoulder (bone-in or out)
- Lardo – Fat
- Lonza – Loin
Parma Ham – Pork & Salt
Parma Ham is interesting dry-cured meat It has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years and Italy. You take it quality pig leg, rub it with salt, and ensure the peak has had a good diet, including the leftover byproduct of making cheese.
And then, you dry out for a minimum of 12 months in an environment that has a humidity high enough so the meat doesn’t dry out. Natural white mold grows on it, otherwise known as penicillin, and once it’s lost 35% or more of its weight, the slicing is thin and savory.
Courtesy of: ParmaCrown.com
Here is a link to the process of Parma Ham in Detail from the above institution (no affiliation, if you were wondering, apart from buying and eating it).
There is a process to doing this type of dry-cured meat, but I don’t think this is included in the definition of above of processed meat, which has led to a bit of confusion.
Nitrates / Nitrites & Dry Cured Meat
Most of the time, when dry-cured salumi is made, they will contain a very low amount of nitrates/nitrates, but you create more in your body or eat more nitrates/nitrites in green vegetables, this quote explains it better.
From all the furore around processed meat, you may imagine it is the major source of nitrates in our diet. But in fact only around 5% of nitrates in the average European diet come from this source, while more than 80% are from vegetables. Vegetables acquire nitrates and nitrites from the soil they grow in – nitrates are part of natural mineral deposits, while nitrites are formed by soil microorganisms that break down animal matter.http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190311-what-are-nitrates-in-food-side-effects
Scientific Study of Parma Ham
An interesting study of a ‘Processed by Hand dry-cured meat, Parma Ham.
There is scientific evidence that this is easier to digest and may actually be good for you.
If you want an overview of Dry Curing, I have a comprehensive page on my process here.
If you want to try doing some dry curing in your kitchen fridge, I have an easy guide here.