Charcuterie is a French word for a store that sells cold meats, similar to a delicatessen. The word also refers to the meats that are sold in a charcuterie shop. Those meats can be cooked or cured.

So it makes sense that a charcuterie board, a plate full of cured meats (and sometimes pâté) and their accompaniments, has its roots in that French term. It often contains various cured meats from many cuisines such as French, Italian, Spanish, American, and German, plus accompaniments that complement the meats.

The fun aspect of charcuterie boards is that they're fully customizable to your specific tastes. To build a charcuterie board like a pro you'll need certain elements, but there's a lot of room for creativity and experimentation. Start with these basic elements and then put your own spin on the board.

The board

cutting board An attractive cutting board is a great starting point, but it's not the only option. (Photo: Madredus/Shutterstock)

A cutting board is the most common surface to place charcuterie and accompaniments on, but there's no rule that says you have to use a wooden cutting board. A beautiful serving plate, a piece of food-grade slate or a salt block also work as a base for the charcuterie.

The meats

chorizo Slices of spicy chorizo are a popular charcuterie board addition. (Photo: Eugenia Lucasenco/Shutterstock)

The focus of a charcuterie board will be the meats. You'll see menus with charcuterie boards that are equal parts meat and cheese, and if that's what you want, go for it. But for a true charcuterie board, the meats should be the main offering. If you're creating a board as an appetizer or as one dish on a buffet table, about two ounces of meat per person will do. If you're creating a casual meal where the charcuterie board will be the main dish, have four to six ounces of meat per person. There are hundreds of types of meat that can be used on a charcuterie board, but here are some of the more common ones. Many of these meats hail from French, Italian and Spanish cuisines, but there are local sources in the United States that make versions of cured meats like these, and they would fit perfectly on a charcuterie board.

  • Cured hams such as proscuitto or capitol, serrano, jambon de Bayonne, or jamón ibérico. Separate the slices of ham to make them easy to pick up.
  • Sausages such as chorizo, sopressata or salami. Slice the sausage into bite-sized pieces, or slice half the sausage and leave the other half (with an appropriate knife left near by) to be sliced as needed.
  • Pâté such as chicken liver or salmon. To tone down the meat-heaviness of the board, you can try a vegetarian pâté such as mushroom.

The cheese

brie cheese Brie works well as an accompaniment on a charcuterie board with spicy meats. (Photo: Andrea Link/Shutterstock)

Since the meat is the star of the charcuterie board, your cheeses should complement them. There's no rule as to how many varieties of cheese you can add. However, if the goal is focus on the meat, you probably don't want more than one cheese for every two meats on the board. A combination of hard and soft cheeses will make the board more interesting. Here are some complementary meat/cheese pairings.

  • Serrano ham with manchego cheese
  • Prosciutto with Grana Padano
  • Chorizo with brie

The accompaniments

cornichons Cornichons — small, French pickled cucumbers — add a briney, tart crunch to a charcuterie board. (Photo: Robyn Mackenzie/Shutterstock)

You'll need elements of sweet, sour and tart on your board as accompaniments and condiments. Pickles (think tart like cornichons, not bread-and-butter pickles), olives, spicy mustards, jams such as apricot, fig or cherry and honey are common additions. Slices of fruit such as sliced apples, figs and melon also work well.

The breads

baguette If you're going to have just one type of bread on a charcuterie board, you can't go wrong with a baguette. (Photo: widened/Shutterstock)

If you're going to have just one bread, you can't go wrong with slices of fresh, crusty French baguette. If you're going to add crackers, make them thin, crisp and plain — just a salty cracker. Do not use buttery crackers or any that have flavors in them that would take away from the flavors of the charcuterie.

The wild cards

caprese skewers If there's room, throw something untraditional — like caprese skewers — onto the board. (Photo: nana77777/Shutterstock)

Throw something unexpected on your charcuterie board such as:

  • Nuts
  • Salted, flat pretzels
  • Pickled vegetables, other than cornichons
  • Caprese skewers
  • Sprigs of fresh herbs as decoration

The drinks

sparkling wine Sparkling wine pairs well with a charcuterie board. (Photo: Ben Parker)

Specific pairings of charcuterie and an alcohol beverage will depend on the meats and the accompaniments you've chosen for your board. Here are a few suggestions if you want to play it safe, but there are many other wines, beers and cocktails that would work well with a charcuterie board.

  • Sparkling wine: The versatility of brut Champagne, prosecco, cava or other sparkling wine makes them great for a charcuterie board, particularly if the board is being served as an appetizer.
  • Beer: Try a sour beer with a charcuterie board. Its acidity will work well with the fats in the meats.
  • Bourbon cocktails: If you have a selection of smoky meats on your board, the sweetness of bourbon will be a nice complement. A bourbon-based Manhattan will work well, as will a classic Old Fashioned.
  • Gin cocktails: If you have a selection of cured meats heavy with herbs such as sausage with fennel, an herbaceous gin cocktail like a classic martini would pair well.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

How to build a customized charcuterie board
It's more than just cured meat.