Charcuterie inspiration is everywhere, but are the shared boards even safe? We asked the experts.
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Charcuterie Board
Credit: JMichl via Getty Images

A frequent star of any holiday gathering is the charcuterie board which has recently elevated its profile with board design and building tutorials available at the click of a mouse.

As with nearly everything this year, COVID threatens to wreak havoc on our beloved charcuterie boards, too. Is it safe to present a charcuterie board at your (smaller) gatherings this year? For an expert's insight, Allrecipes.com talked with Katie Heil who holds a hold a Certified Professional – Food Safety credential with the National Environmental Health Association. She is also senior editor with StateFoodSafety, an online food safety education company dedicated to educating the public about food safety and helping ensure the health of communities nationwide.

"During a regular year, there are a few different concerns [when it comes to charcuterie boards]," says Heil. "Some of the foods served in charcuterie require time and temperature controls for safety, particularly meats, dairy products [like cheeses], most cooked dishes, some fruits and cooked vegetables."

When selecting meats for a charcuterie board, Heil suggests choosing packaged cured meats that do not require refrigeration and are OK to leave out for extended periods of time.

"The Code of Federal Regulations in the U.S. requires that food packagers have to put instructions on them to keep the food in wholesome condition, and the instructions need to be in a prominent spot on the label," explains Heil. If the packaging does say to refrigerate, be sure to refrigerate any food on a charcuterie board after two hours if you're planning to nibble on it later. She adds that if you are going to throw out the remainder of the board at the end of the gathering, you can safely leave it out for up to four hours.

How to Safely Serve Charcuterie

When it comes time to select food from a charcuterie board and place it onto a plate, Heil says that guests "serving themselves can be a hotbed for cross-contamination." She continues that the concerns aren't just around COVID, but during flu season or even a risk of a salmonella outbreak, too. Heil also says using the same utensils to select multiple items from the board can cause cross-contamination of allergens, which may impact guests with food allergies.

When considering the feasibility of charcuterie boards this year, Heil thinks a moment and says, "If you have mostly shelf-stable foods [that don't require time and temperature controls], if everyone's healthy and everyone's washing their hands, it's probably OK. But there are a lot of potential sources of bacteria that can proliferate to dangerous levels, or you can introduce contamination that can spread very easily."

1. Use a Different Utensil for Each Food

If skipping a charcuterie board is a non-starter in your house, Heil has some thoughts about how to present one safely.

"Since retail establishments [e.g. restaurants] are held to a higher standard, it's a good idea to emulate them at home," advises Heil. "At a restaurant buffet, each food is required to have its own serving utensil, and you need to be sure that utensil isn't touching other food, and not letting the handle fall into the food."

2. Keep Seconds Safe

She also suggests asking guests to use a clean plate and utensils when making a second (or third) trip to the board, noting that restaurant buffets require the same. Realizing this may not be a feasible option in many homes, Heil alternatively suggests using single-use toothpicks to choose food from the board, or have a designated person wearing a mask serve each guest, aligning with the CDC's recommendation.

Jarcuterie: A Safe Solution

jarcuterie
Credit: Rachelle Lucas, TheTravelBite.com

When food and travel blogger Rachelle Lucas (TheTravelBite.com) was preparing for a small gathering of five for Thanksgiving 2020, she created individual charcuterie served in mason jars she dubbed jarcuterie, "to socially distance food that's normally shared." The jars fall in line with the CDC's recommendation, according to Heil.

"They've [the CDC] said at least this year if you are hosting gatherings, which again are not necessarily recommended, but if you are going to, it's best for either guests to either bring their own food - which isn't necessarily in the spirit of a charcuterie board - or divide it into single servings; jarcuterie is a cute adaptation of making that work."

Heil adds that regardless of whether opting for a traditional charcuterie board or going with single serve options like Lucas' jarcuterie, make sure you're washing your hands regularly and that all items are maintained in safe conditions during preparation.

"[Single-serve] is probably the best way to do it this year, and maybe any year -sharing and self-service is a little dangerous," says Heil. "Sometimes it's worth the risk; this year, maybe not so much."

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