No matter the occasion or the season, charcuterie boards are a great snack option for guests at your next dinner party, birthday, family get-togethers or even just nibbles with casual drinks with friends.
The boards themselves can consist of many ingredients but are mainly made up of cold or cured meats, pickles, olives and condiments, fruit and nuts, cheese and crackers and served with breads.
These boards have seen an increase in popularity over the last few years as they are quick to throw together and always look super impressive. They are the ultimate combination of sweet and savory bites which is considered to be finger food (without the usual, boring foods that are usually served at events).
This allows your guests to mingle and move around, which is especially handy if you don’t have a lot of seating options available for them.
However, because the meats cheeses and fruits laid out on the board are all highly perishable food items, there is only a limited amount of time that they can be left out at room temperature.
This is because food inherently contains microorganisms such as bacteria, mold and fungi-some of these bacteria are beneficial to the food’s characteristics.
For example, what would cheese be, especially the likes of a blue Roquefort cheese or an oozing Camembert, be without the microbes that make them what they are; those that give the cheese its distinct flavor and textural properties?
Or the probiotic power of cheeses and some of your pickled counterparts sitting on your charcuterie board?
Other bacteria, mold, fungi, and even viruses, however, are extremely harmful to consume and cause what is known as a foodborne illness in humans.
Depending on the source of contamination and the microbial load consumed, a person eating contaminated food can suffer from a variety of symptoms, ranging from a mild stomach ache to death.
What Is A Highly Perishable Foodstuff?
Highly perishable foods are foods that have been harvested or slaughtered and have undergone little to no further processing to prevent microbial spoilage and contamination.
Foods such as meat products, dairy products and fresh fruit and vegetables are at higher risk of contamination and spoilage and if temperature abused, that is, going from refrigeration, being cut or prepared at room temperature, being put back in the refrigerator and left out for a long period of time once taken out the refrigerator to serve, then there is an even higher probability of microbial contamination of the foodstuffs.
Your pickles and condiments have all been heat treated at some point for a good time-temperature combination as to minimize the microbial load down to next to nothing.
Therefore, starting out, when placed on the charcuterie board, their initial microbial load is low.
These items are also suitable for storing at room temperature before opening, in general, and so are generally safe if left out for a bit.
Now, I know you are thinking, but the meat is cured and at the very least, the milk that is used to make the cheeses go through a pasteurization process and surely the fruit and vegetables must be washed beforehand?
Well, you would be correct, but the processing methods used to make these foods ready-to-eat are not sufficient in destroying all the microbes that are in or on the food and if left at room temperature, which is in the optimal temperature range for proliferation or growth of these nasty, pathogenic microbes, for too long, their microbial load will increase exponentially with the end result of a foodborne illness.
With cheeses, it is slightly more complex, as allowing your cheeses that are going on the board to come to room temperature allows the complexity of flavors in the cheese to come through. However, this too should not be for too long as there is also room for the development of microbial growth.
Also, leaving cheese out for too long at room temperature makes the cheese “sweat” which is more moisture available for microbes to use for their growth.
Bottom line, depending on the temperature of the food on your charcuterie board when it has been left out, different types of microbes can grow and will contaminate or spoil the food. If the food is stored at ambient temperatures of between 64℉ and 109℉, then there is opportunity for microbial growth.
What Kind Of Microbes Should You Be Worried About?
Cured meats are ready-to-eat products and are cured with a combination of ingredients such as salt, smoke and nitrates to prevent and to attempt to control microbial growth. However, if the correct pH or time-temperature combinations are not reached during processing and if the meat is temperature abused, all kinds of pathogens can grow on it.
Microorganisms such as Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium that has shown to be drying and salt resistant and as a bonus, this charming pathogen can continue growing at an optimal pace even when refrigerated.
Other microbes you could be worried about are Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus spp. and various types of mold where there has been moisture permeation into the meats.
With the cheeses and the fruits and vegetables, the dangerous pathogens found are much the same as with the cured meats, with the exception of Salmonella enterica found in cheese. In fruit and vegetables, there are also viruses like Hepatitis A, Norovirus and Shigella spp. to worry about, especially if you have not washed the fruit and vegetables thoroughly.
So How Long Can You Leave A Charcuterie Board Out At A Party?
As wonderful as charcuterie boards are, we all know that they have a tendency to be left out at a party for much too long. Which, as seen above, can have disastrous effects on your party guests.
According to the Food and Drug Administration of the United States, meats should only be left out, after assembly, for a maximum of two hours. This applies to cured meats as well, such as salami, prosciutto and chorizo sausages.
The two-hour window includes a short time before your guests arrive to allow the meat flavor to develop.
For the cheeses, they have a slightly longer time frame in which they can be left out of the fridge out before causing a foodborne illness. Additionally, if you leave out high-moisture cheeses like mascarpone, for too long, the cheese will start to look a little worse for wear and your harder cheeses like Parmesan or Cheddar cheeses will start to dry out.
If you are using any dairy-based dips on your charcuterie board, then it is best not to leave them out for longer than two hours.
For the fruit and vegetables, they can tend to dry out or lose their juice, and it is best not to leave them out for longer than two hours either-both for quality and safety purposes.
Why Two To Four Hour Windows?
This is based on studies done on the average time it takes for bacteria or other microorganisms to grow and proliferate to unsafe levels. When following a temperature and time combination of room temperature and within a two-hour time window, then you will reduce the risk of foodborne illness in your guests. Anything above that may be detrimental to people’s health.
Extra Tips And Tricks To Stay Safe
- Use a timer to tell you when to pack away or throw away the food after the two-hour period.
- Alternatively, set out small portions of the foods at a time-only replenishing the board once the lot of food before has been consumed; thus decreasing the risk of microbial spoilage and proliferation in the food going on your charcuterie board.
- You can make the board ahead of time and keep it in the fridge before serving for up to 24 hours.
If you are looking for something that extra bit special for a party or event, then you really can’t beat a charcuterie board. Whilst many of the ingredients used are non-perishable, there is still a risk with leaving out food for a long period of time.
Using our handy tips and tricks, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy a charcuterie board at your next get together safely and easily! So what are you waiting for, let’s get stuck in!