It’s true. I’ve slipped down the slippery slope of food preservation: meat. With the encouragement of Mrs. Wheelbarrow and The Yummy Mummy, I’ve thrown my hat in for a year of charcuterie. It helps that it’s my kind of challenge: you can participate, or not, as the mood strikes. And since I always have a hankering for expensive cured meat products, this first challenge—duck prosciutto—seemed right up my alley.
Which is not to say that my first attempt turned out perfectly. The duck came out a hair too salty; I think I left it to hang too long; and it’s really, really fatty. Nevertheless, I think I’m hooked. Making duck prosciutto (and presumably lots of other preserved meat products) is really as simple as dousing a duck breast in salt overnight, then letting it hang for a week. When you touch it, your hands come away smelling like high-end tapas. While duck breasts are hardly cheap (I paid $12.95/pound for fresh ones at Reading Terminal), duck prosciutto isn’t exactly something you can find in just any neighborhood deli. I like the idea of making it myself, using duck from a butcher I trust. I especially like the idea of controlling what goes in the cure mix. (No nitrates for me, thanks.)
Since everyone participating in charcutepalooza is playing along from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie, I’ll spare you the “recipe” (such as it is). I thought that, instead, you might want an explanation. I certainly did. How does this work, exactly? When people say salt acts as a preservative, exactly how does it do that?
Well. It turns out that salt curing works on a basic chemical principle. Systems seek equilibrium. The first step in most salt cures, including this one, is to submerge your meat in salt. If the font size in the diagram below represents concentration, and the dotted line represents the boundary between the meat and salt (on one level, skin; on another, cell membranes), the system might look something like this:
If the system had its druthers, all the different things in the system would distribute themselves equally, both inside and out of the meat. But, because of the boundary membranes, they can’t. Proteins, fats, and some bacteria are stuck inside, while water, salt, and other ions (potassium, calcium, etc.) have no trouble passing through. After about a day, your system might look something like this:
This is exactly what happens to a duck breast that’s been sitting in salt all night. Here’s mine, after its evening in brine:
Notice how flat it is? If you could touch it, you’d see that it’s already quite hard. It’s absorbed quite a bit of the salt from the outside, and eliminated some of its water. Although it seems counterintuitive, this is actually a kind of dehydration. The resulting combination of high salt levels and low water levels makes it difficult for dangerous bacteria to survive—making it safe for you to hang your meat for a week to develop further flavor.
Now, keep in mind that you can’t hang your duck breast just anywhere because the meat still contains other kinds of bacteria that you don’t want to encourage. Nor do you want random yeast taking hold. You want a spot between 50 and 60°F, and you need to wrap it up in something to keep it clean. I wrapped mine in muslin and hung them from the basement rafters:
So, how did yours turn out?