Any way you slice it, cured meats are hot right now. What is it that makes everything from paté to artisanal salami so great? We asked a gent who knows better than anyone, Chef Nate Anda of Red Apron Butchery in Washington, D.C. This New England Culinary Institute grad has carved out a rep as a modern-day master of a distinctly old-world craft, experimenting with new and unique flavors while staying true to time-tested traditions. So, straight from meat man’s mouth, here are six surprising, sometimes shocking, facts about his life’s work.
“So many people are afraid of liver, so many! But if they just tried it, they’d know how velvety and awesome it is.”
1. You’re Probably Being Duped
For the adventurous diner, no meat product is too gnarly. But for the average eater, pig’s head terrine crosses over into “definitely-not-going-there” territory. In response, Anda has become much savvier about what he names his charcuterie products. “At Red Apron, we have this perfect cylinder of basil chicken liver mousse that’s wrapped in lardo,” he says, “but people would never eat that if they heard the words ‘chicken liver.’ So we describe it as just having tomato, basil and lardo.” He also recalls his first farmers’ markets: “I was selling a chicken liver parfait. I noticed if I put the word ‘smoked’ on the package, people went crazy for it. We sold a ton more.” So maybe you’re being lied to, but it’s really for your gastronomic benefit. After all, didn’t that whole salami-cured-in-pig’s-bladder thing taste delicious before you knew how it was made?
2. Charcuterie Is Crazy-Complicated to Make
Ever wonder why cured meats and charcuterie run on the pricier side? (Me neither; I see the word “prosciutto” and order without remorse.) It’s because they take a long time and a lot of precision to evolve into things of delicious beauty. Some of Anda’s cured selections age for months before becoming dinner-ready—a source of frustration for someone trained in instant feedback. “In culinary school, you taste what you make and immediately know if it’s good or bad,” Anda says. “I can test a batch of a terrine, but once it’s set, the flavors really transform into a full palate experience. It’s different.” So how does he know if something’s restaurant-worthy? Sampling. Lots and lots of sampling.
3. You’ve Gotta Try Heart Sausage
Anda willingly surrenders (OK, grudgingly admits) that his first attempt at a heart sausage tasted “gross” and like a “corroded quarter.” But as a nose-to-tail kind of guy, he “had to figure out what to do with all those hearts.” And he swears his final product is unlike anything diners have ever experienced. “Raw heart trumps beef tartare any day,” he says. “Just texturally, and flavor-wise, it’s so much better.” Try it and see!
4. It’s All About the Fat
The reason cured meats taste so irresistibly tasty is simple: fat. The discerning consumer may notice that different salamis and cured sausages have different fat distribution, what I like to call “pockets of goodness.” Why are some microscopic and some the size of dimes? As Anda explains, it results from the grind the chef chooses. When fat goes through a meat grinder, the setting can be coarse, fine and everything in between. Also, “you can dice the fat with a knife—that’s obviously for a more precise presentation—and then fold it into the meat after you grind it.” What, you thought that blood-thickeningly great flavor happened by magic?
5. Charcuterie Can Be Sustainable
“I don’t make a single thing that doesn’t come in on a whole carcass,” Anda says with pride. He’s big on sustainability, as most charcuterie craftsmen are. Traditionally, charcuterie and cured meats were made with the “off” parts of an animal (including, yes, organs), and that’s a practice that’s carried over into modern times. So when you chow down on that paté, you can feel good about the planet, too.
6. It’s Time to Open Your Mind
What’s the one thing Anda wished the general public knew about charcuterie? “I just want people to let their guard down a little,” he says. “So many people are afraid of liver, so many! But if they just tried it, they’d know how velvety and awesome it is.” He believes this prejudice is a result of bad childhood experiences and preconceived notions. But, as he recalls the first time that charcuterie rocked his world (in culinary school, and it was packed with nitrates, thankyouverymuch): “It’s mind-blowing how beautiful and smooth and pungent it is. It’s just delicious.”