I love charcuterie, and although I’ve made a couple of things from Ruhlman’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, they are more along the lines of preserved lemons and various brines. I’m certainly comfortable with smoking meats, but the whole salt-curing thing is still quite intimidating. You say this meat is uncooked and has been hanging in your garage for a week? Sounds delicious. Really, I know cured meats are incredible, and I would love to make them at home, but the fear of messing something up and giving everyone food poisoning has kept me from attempting anything serious so far—but now there is a challenge.
Charcutepalooza will pick a new meat-tastic challenge every month, based on the techniques in Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie. On the 15th of every month (I predict mine will usually be more like the 20th), people will share what they’ve made (if you’re a twitter type, you can find all of these using hashtag #Charcutepalooza), and on the 30th of each month the challenge organizers will post a roundup. Sounds fun, right?
January Challenge: Duck Prosciutto
Just looking at the photos that go along with Ruhlman’s post on duck prosciutto got me quite excited about this contest—enough to convince my wife to go shopping for duck at the local Asian market on our anniversary (hey, she loves to cook too). Duck is not easy to come by here (if you know a good source, please tell me), but I discovered a few months ago that the Asian Mart on 34th regularly has fresh duck in their meat counter. I broke down the duck and made confit with the legs, rendered the excess fat and skin (leaving some crispy chicharrones), and saved the carcass and feet for stock. I coated the breasts in salt and a bit of crushed coriander and left them in the fridge overnight. The next day I realized I did not include a layer of salt on the bottom of the dish, so only the skin side was actually curing, so after fixing the issue I left them in the salt for another day.
Next I rinsed the breasts, patted them dry, and enlisted the best gift-wrapper and ribbon-tier I know (my lovely wife) to tie the things up for me. We looked for a good place to hang them and failing to find one, ended up hanging them from the handles of her bike in the garage for about a week.
Curing works by dehydrating the meat and increasing the salt concentration, which creates an inhospitable environment for mold and harmful bacteria while allowing the desirable bacteria lactobacillus acidophilus to grow. The lactic acid produced by this bacteria is what gives cured meats their tangy, acidic flavor. This is also the bacteria in sweet acidophilus milk and the “probiotic” stuff on the hippie aisle of your grocery store. It has been shown to reduce the risk for coronary heart disease and colon cancer and is generally good for you (less good in this case is all the salt and fat, but let’s look on the bright side). Incidentally, dehydration (not preservatives) is also the reason why McDonald’s hamburgers famously do not mold, as shown by Kenji at The Food Lab. I measured the progress of the dehydration going on in our garage by periodically weighing the breasts—they are done when they have dropped to 70% of their original weight.
The cured breasts were a little tougher than I expected, I think possibly due to the extremely dry climate here. I had assumed since the point of curing is to remove water a dry climate would be desirable, but apparently a relatively high humidity (75-90% according to A. D. Livingston’s Cold-Smoking & Salt-Curing Meat, Fish, & Game) is ideal. Mrs. Wheelbarrow cleverly solved this issue by using a cheap temperature-regulated wine fridge with a bowl of salted water inside, but I have not had much luck finding a wine fridge on Craigslist cheap enough for my taste. Still, I did not end up with “duck jerky” as Ruhlman described the edges of his own slightly over-dried prosciutto.
While Ruhlman’s drool-worthy photos showed thin slices an inch or more across, my results were more modest. Ruhlman mentions using magret, which is the breast of a duck fattened for foie gras. Specifically, his magret came from D’Artagnan, which, in case you haven’t heard, is a more well-regarded purveyor of meats than the Asian Mart on 34th. The French and the Chinese have different opinions on what makes a great duck; Cantonese roast duck is all about crispy, flavorful skin, while the French can’t get enough fat. My Chinese-style duck was just no match for the French variety in this preparation. Still, I had produced thin, tasty strips of cured duck breast that glistened with bits of duck fat that seemed to melt at a touch. They have the distinctive salty, acidic, tangy and somewhat indescribable flavor I associate with charcuterie—and it’s homemade!
I try not to eat things like this during the week, but am looking forward to serving the sliced prosciutto along with cheese, olives, and those wonderful little French pickles (cornichons) as a snack this weekend. I cut the second breast into thicker pieces, and plan to use them as lardons in a duck hash (potatoes being the cheese to duck fat’s macaroni).
Next month’s challenge involves the king of cured and smoked meats, bacon. Looking forward to it!