The first project for Charcutepalooza, also known as The Year of Meat, is duck prosciutto. I was excited to hear this as I’ve been wanting to make it since I read about it in Ruhlman’s and Polcyn’s book Charcuterie. The finished prosciutto is fantastic, and it has been a real pleasure to share this beautiful food with family and friends.
I learned about January’s duck prosciutto endeavor just in time to make this tasty cured treat by the challenge deadline, and I was lucky to be able to source two beautifully fat duck breast halves from a good friend. Actually getting the duck breasts involved a twisty drive along snow-covered Vermont back roads in freezing weather as dusk fell, and a driveway exchange which included the duck breasts, cold hard cash, and a giant can of really nice cornichon pickles.
When I got back home, I packed the breasts snugly in a dish just big enough to hold them without touching, with salt underneath and piled on top, covered the dish with cling-film, and put it in the fridge for around 30 hours.
The next evening I rinsed the salt off the breasts and patted them dry with kitchen towels. I chose to use two different and pretty basic spice mixes: one was a mixture of freshly ground white pepper and fresh thyme, and the other was a mix of black pepper, bay leaf, and allspice. I dusted each breast with its respective spice mix, and wrapped each one in a two-foot length of cheesecloth, and then tied each one with butcher’s twine. In the picture below, the unwrapped breast is the one rubbed with white pepper and thyme:
I hung the two wrapped breasts in my curing environment, a cobbled together affair involving a garden crate and a cracked window (illustrated here) and put a pan of water underneath. I soaked a thick towel in water and draped it over the crate with the end resting in the pan of water. This worked pretty well, bringing the humidity up from around 24 to around 45 within an hour or two. The temperature ranged from 45 to 55 during the six days that the breasts air cured.
When you are new to curing meats, one of the big questions tends to be: is it done yet? And with meat curing, there are a number of variables involved which don’t make answering this question as straightforward as, say, baking. With baking you have a few variables as well, and experience teaches you that a loaf of bread is done when it’s achieved the right golden brown color, for instance, or when it sounds just so when you knock on it with your knuckle.
I expect that experience will also teach me what to expect and what to look for if I closely observe the particular variables in a given charcuterie project. In the case of this duck prosciutto, the variables were temperature, humidity, and time. As I described above, the temperature where I hang meats to air cure varies from 45-55F, and averages 49F. From my research, this is on the lower side of an ideal range of 50-60F. My humidity in this location is naturally quite low, in the mid-twenties, and so I do my best to alter that upwards with my pan of water, the water-soaked towel draped over the crate, etc. I read a post by Michael Ruhlman where he described some duck prosciutto he made where the meat side of his duck got a bit dry and jerky-like. Since I know that my environment is drier than is ideal, I made a point to wrap my breasts in a longer piece of cheesecloth, hoping to slow down the drying-out of the surface, so that the moisture loss from the whole breast would be slower and more stable.
I also paid close attention to the breasts as they cured. At six days they felt nicely firm, but not too stiff –I could bend them slightly when I felt them through the cheesecloth. I had weighed the breasts just before wrapping and hanging, and they weighed in at 440g and 435g. At this point I unwrapped them, and weighed them again: they had each lost 12.5% of moisture, which was substantially less than the recommended 30%. I looked carefully: the meat side was dry and firm, and just this side of being too hard and too dry. I sliced one of the breasts in half, and the texture across the cut surface was fantastic: dense and rich looking. It also smelled wonderful, and when I tasted my first slice it was delicious! The meat part was tender and felt great on my tongue, exactly as salty as I could hope for, and the fat part, wow, it was slightly fragrant of the spice rub and perfectly unctuous; it just melted on my tongue and suffused my mouth with ducky fatty goodness. So although my overall moisture loss was less than the suggested ideal, my particular set of variables still ended up providing me with a nearly perfect prosciutto. Here’s how they looked before I started in with a sharp knife –the fat side:
..and the meat side:
My first few slices, though I tried to cut them thin, weren’t as thin and uniform as I liked, so I talked my deli manager friend Geoff to slice me some on his machine. They were maybe a shade too thin, but almost perfect, and when I got them home, I laid them out on sheets of butcher paper, and then into a ziplock.
I had another reason to be happy that I could call this project finished on Wednesday –my mom and her sweetie and I have a standing date for Wednesdays: I pick up our winter CSA veggie and fruit shares as well as jugs of yummy raw Jersey milk in the afternoon, and then we get together for cards, dinner, and our film night. This particular Wednesday mom and I had planned for a major Danish smørbrød fiesta with creamy herring, lox with my own honey-mustard-calvados sauce, my liver paté, beef tartare, and freshly baked breads, knækbrød, and cheeses, and I really wanted this duck prosciutto to join the party too. Success!
I was inspired to try this prosciutto as part of a bánh mì sandwich, and it was fantastically delicious: On a home-baked bun (King Arthur’s beautiful burger buns, in fact, made for some old-school sloppy joe’s for yesterday’s dinner) I buttered one side, mayo’d the other, then a good shmear of my liver paté, some pickled carrots, thinly sliced cucumber, a mound of the duck prosciutto, and a few drops of my Caribbean-style habanero sauce. It was perfect.
I will be making more of this Duck prosciutto, without a doubt. I’m very interested to try taking Kate Hill’s Gascon approach of using less salt as I’m drawn to being sensibly thrifty, and I look forward to building a real curing chamber one day as I’m curious to see how a longer air cure and a full 30% weight loss will impact the flavor. Excellent first charcutepalooza experience!