Charcuterie - Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (2005)

Charcuterie, as all good foodies know, is the art of smoking and curing meats. Although still thriving commercially, it's nearly a lost art in the home kitchen. Which is a pity, since making your own sausage is not only fun, but allows you to control the ingredients and the spicing and the additives. Smoking hasn't completely vanished from the home cook's repertoire, since backyard grills allow for hot-smoking (intentionally or accidentally), but curing is pretty much absent. A few years ago, I began to dry-cure hams in my own home and office, make fresh sausage and paté and basically just experiment with charcuterie (all as part of my overarching project to try to explore medieval foodways and eat more locally and seasonally). Sources were hard to find and were often full of shortcuts or targeted toward industry. This book is the book I've been looking for for years.

Make no mistake, this is a specialist book. It is about the things you can do to meat with salt and fat. It is about drying, smoking and using ancient preservation techniques. The food that comes out is neither low-fat nor low-sodium, and in many cases it contains nitrates and nitrites. Except for a small section on sauces and condiments, almost every recipe involves a salt-curing or brining stage, and emphasizes the importance of sufficient fat in the mix. I'm OK with that. All things in moderation, as the ancient Greeks said, and it's true here. Yes, sausage has fat and salt in it, so don't eat eight pounds at a sitting and deal with it.

What makes the book really stand out is not the recipes themselves, though. The chapter introductions and the interstitial material is where the meat is, if you'll pardon the expression. That's where the basic techniques are explained and, even more important, the reasoning behind the techniques are explained. Without even looking at the recipes or setting foot in a kitchen, my sausage making has improved just from my greater understanding of the processes involved.

That said, the books only weaknesses is a little bit of redundancy in the actual recipes. Given that most sausage recipes fall into a couple of basic categories and within that vary only in the spicing, it seems like repeating the recipe several times almost word for word while varying the ingredient list a bit is unnecessary. On the other hand, if one is using it as a recipe book rather than a technique guide, one might appreciate having the instructions right there, so this is a mere quibble.

Ruhlman himself is an accomplished cook and food writer, and the book reads well. The style is engaging, the prose clear and appetizing. It is a good sign that as I read the book, I could hardly wait to get back into the kitchen and try out some of the recipes and techniques.

As I said, this book is not for everyone. It is not a general purpose cookbook, nor is it for the casual cook. However, for those who are interested in the curing of meats and the glory that is charcuterie, this is a fantastic resource.

Overall Grade: A

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