Cheese 101: The Unified Theory of Pairing Cured Meat and Cheese

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Pairing cured meat and cheese just takes a few rules. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

When I was first teaching people about cheese, I learned about wine pairing at the side of Josh Wesson, founder of the brilliant Best Cellars in New York City. For Wesson, there are two ways to pair flavors. The first: likes with likes (put two sour ingredients—or people—together, and their similar flavors may cancel each other out, letting other qualities come to the fore. The second approach, perhaps the more common-sense: opposites attract.

This is good pairing advice for anything, even if it does, deep down, justify any possible pairing as a good one.

Let's talk about pairing meat and cheese. If you're setting out a nice cheese plate, you may want more on there than cheese alone. Honey, fruit, and crackers are easy enough additions. But cured meat adds substance and heft to cheese like nothing else.

Pairing cured meat and cheese isn't that hard, but get the most out of your pairing, it helps to know some general principles.

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Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto di Parma.

When it comes to cheese and cured meats, I've found success is all about opposites. Unlike wine, beer, or spirits, meat is full of fat, protein, and salt (just like cheese). You need to proceed with caution lest you wind up feeling overwhelmed.

Cured meats fall into two major groups: whole muscle or encased. The former, like prosciutto, are typically dry-cured (salted, hung to dry, and sometimes smoked), while the latter, like salami, are usually fermented in a somewhat humid environment. Whole muscle meat tends to be sweeter, nuttier, and more "meaty"; encased meats often have a discernible tang as well as intense notes of black pepper, red pepper, fennel, truffle, and so on. When you're thinking about a meat's acidity and sweetness, keep this difference in mind.

Pairing With Whole Muscle Meats

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Another wizened wine pairing precept is "what grows together goes together." When in doubt, wine and food made in the same region tend to be good together. That's true with meat and cheese, too, and the notion illustrates a greater point about the two. To start with a classic:

Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto di Parma: As entwined as star-crossed lovers, these two begin their partnership at the source. Famously, the whey by-product of Parm production is fed to the hogs, whose back legs become prosciutto di Parma. One ingredient literally becomes fuel for the other.

Like all whole muscle cured meats, prosciutto di Parma is (or should be) sliced into nearly transparent sheets, neatly trimmed with a ribbon of fat. On the tongue it's diaphanous, melting away into an elegantly restrained whiff of sweet butter and hazelnut. Parmigiano Reggiano, meanwhile, is coarse and craggy. Its acidity, the tang in the mouth, is pronounced. It shares toasted and nutty flavors but has a leanness thanks to its partially skimmed milk.

Here are three lessons to learn from the pairing:

  • Texture matters. A floppy, mushy, or semisoft cheese alongside a buttery thin slice of meat lacks necessary contrast.
  • Acidity matters. In this case it's the cheese, in other cases it's the meat. But one element needs to contribute some sensation of tart, citrusy, mouthwatering brightness to cut the fat and protein of the other.
  • Complementary flavors concentrate and focus on what's shared (in a pleasant and sometimes revelatory way) if you can rely on other elements for contrast.

Another classic that works on these principles:

Speck, the lightly smoked whole muscle meat from Italy's Alto Adige, finds brilliant companionship with a cheese texturally akin to Parm, but tastes like something totally different: Piave. Here, astringency comes from the wood the meat is smoked over, while the cheese is bursting with pineapple and tropical fruit. It's the opposite of Parmigiano and prosciutto: the cheese handles the sweetness while the meat takes the savory lead.

Pairing With Encased Meats (Or, When Meat is Your Cracker)

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Small-diameter sausage links, cured slowly over time and sliced into quarter-inch-thick coins, become perfect vehicles for spreading and even dipping with the right cheeses. Many sausages boast spices, garlic, smoke, or heat that introduce a third flavor component to play around with for your pairing. One of my all-time favorites:

Paprika- and cayenne-laden Spanish-style chorizo (Olympic Provisions' Chorizo Navarre gets my vote) dipped into a round of perfectly ripened sheep milk La Serena. Mentioned in our foray into sheep cheese, La Serena is a thistle-coagulated cheese, a bit airier than custard and full of tart, vegetal, and what some would call sour notes. The cheese manages to cool the chorizo's heat, and you're left with sweet paprika, garlic, and something like asparagus. Fresh ricotta or goat cheese also work well here, as does River's Edge Up in Smoke, a leaf-wrapped ball of smoked goat cheese.

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Other "cooling" cheeses (albeit not dip-intoable) that do well alongside smoky, spicy or gamey meats (think wild boar, duck, or good old fashioned red pepper) are those that preserve the lactic notes of fresh milk but add the earthy notes of age. Try Landaff Creamery's cave-aged Landaff or Kirkham's Lancashire.

In general, mind your meat's acidity and added flavors when thinking about cheese pairings.

Cheese-Friendly Cured Meats to Try

Only a fraction of Europe's cured meats make it to the U.S., but there are many excellent domestic producers doing great things with European traditions. Some brands to seek out: