Salt+Meat=Love

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:


And after a week, I had duck prosciutto. It’s like magic, except it’s not. It’s osmosis and dehydration. And even though it’s not perfect, it’s still pretty delicious.

So, how did yours turn out?

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11 comments to Salt+Meat=Love

  • Do you know anything about smoking meat? A friend of mine has an old farmhouse built back in the 1800′s and it has a smokehouse on the property. We’ve been wanting to awaken it so to speak, but there isn’t a whole lot of information on the web that I’ve been able to find. Plenty on smokers, but not much on smokehouses. If you had any information to offer I could really use it!

  • meg

    Great explanation! I was curious (but too lazy to do anything else but wonder.) I can’t wait to see how ours turned out!

  • Love it and have duly re-posted your good science explanation for magic.

  • I look forward to your scientific explanations! Thank you for explaining the deliciousness that is duck proscuitto. So glad you’ve jumped on the Charcutepalooza meat-wagon. – Cathy (MrsWheelbarrow)

  • This is brilliant. Thank you for the in depth look at this process. Can you touch on the safety of this at all? I didn’t buy a hydrometer (correct term?) but did buy a thermometer for my curing spot. It seemed fine. I think my meat is perfect and delicious, and I’ve eaten it and I seem to still be alive. However, I won’t give this to my kid, for example. Is that silly? Or smart? And what if I cooked it? Would that make it safer? How hard or easy is it to kill the really bad bacterium, like botulism? I always feel good about my bacon because it’s cooked twice, but something like this gives me pause. Any advice?

  • Fantastic post! I love the diagrams and scientific explanation . . . how did you end up eating yours? We enjoyed ours for dinner last night but still have over a breast left in the fridge!

    Best,
    Sarah

  • oh man. the science of duck prosciutto! love, love, love. this seems like more or less middle school science right? if only i had learned this practical application then, i may have paid more attention :)

  • Great diagrams! Apart from the fact that I felt like Shelob or some other dreadful creature hanging cocoons in the basement for later consumption, I really enjoyed this first experiment. I’m also feeling I have to pick way more juniper berries at the cottage next summer…

  • Love your diagram! It was wonderful to watch the transformation from raw duck to duck prosciutto. Hope yours was delicious!

  • Wonderful explanation. It almost sounds…dare I say, doable? I know it can’t be THAT high tech since its been done for ages, but still I find it intimidating. Looking forward to your posts this year!

  • Love your osmosis diagram!

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