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Duck prosciutto: Charcutepalooza month one

Duck prosciutto

After last year's relatively easily-gotten success making guanciale, I've been fairly obsessed with the idea of dabbling deeper into charcuterie. I mean, if it's as easy as salting, hanging and waiting, what's not to love? And so, as the winter cool descended upon us, I began to fantasize about setting up a more serious curing chamber in our basement, looking at different options, developing madcap ideas about how to hack something together that would serve the purpose. 

And then, Cathy Barrow from Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Kitchen and Kim Foster of The Yummy Mummy hatched a genius plan: Charcutepalooza! A charcuterie project for each month during the year 2011, all inspired by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's book "Charcuterie." It was like a sign from the heavens, a booming voice in my ear encouraging me to embrace the art of curing meat. And it was good. 


Duck "prosciutto" was selected as the inaugural project, and with good reason. This is charcuterie 101. The process is simple: Trim your duck breasts; salt them for a day; then hang them in a cool, humid place for 8-10 days. Easy, right?

Well, yes and no. In principle, it's plenty easy. Also, it's comparably idiot-proof: Although the optimal temperature range is 50-60ºF and approximately 70% humidity, if you slip a little outside that range you're not risking immediate death from botulism in the way you might from more advanced salumi. But ultimately, it is still as much art as science to get optimal results.

My first attempt was with breasts I had butchered from a duck we had gotten from our meat CSA, Godfrey Family Farms. These were somewhat meager, more fat than flesh, and so at the end of my curing period the meat had cured quite hard, like jerky. Still tasty, but not the exquisitely silky texture that leaps to mind when I think of prosciutto.  (We also confited the legs and used the carcass for duck stock. This duck served us well.)

So, on January 4, with just enough time to make a second attempt prior to the looming January 15 deadline for the first challenge, I ran to Golden Gate Meats and procured two plump Magret duck breasts. They promptly spent the night cased in salt in the fridge. The next morning I pulled them, rinsed off the salt, patted them dry and seasoned with my ninja-secret seasoning, dry harissa. (The original recipe calls for seasoning with white pepper, which I did the first time around. And regretted it. To me, white pepper tastes like the dust from an attic that's been sealed for 100 years.) I swathed the breasts in cheesecloth and tied them up, ready to hang.

A quick weigh-in would give me some guidance as to optimal target weight for the cured breasts. Optimally, you should expect about 30% loss of weight in water, though breasts with a higher fat content may lose less. My breasts were both around 350 g, and so I was looking to get down to around 245 g by and by.

For the next 10 days, my breasts hung in the basement. A cold snap passed through the Bay Area, which had the positive effect of keeping the temperature range handily in the sub-60ºF range, but unfortunately also caused the humidity levels to plummet into the low 50s. As the deadline drew closer, I'd check my breasts, squeezing to test for firmness of flesh and weighing them to check water loss. On the tenth day, I was only down to about 290 g. The flesh still felt squishy, but I thought I might be confusing it for soft fat. So I pulled one of them, brought it upstairs and cut into it to test. 

It was definitely not ready. The outer edge of the meat was cured, a tough, dark ring, but the interior of the flesh was decidedly raw. I cut a thin slice, the meat shifting flabbily under the blade of the knife, and gave it a taste. It was like rubber — definitely not silky, and definitely not delicious. I pieced the halves together, rewrapped and retied it, and sent it back to its dungeon to finish the job. 

I believe that the dry spell was the culprit. Without yet having an adequate setup to control humidity, I think the dry air caused a carapace to form on the outer surface of the meat, sealing in moisture and preventing a proper cure. Cathy made a suggestion: Place a bowl of salt water in the chamber with a towel to wick off moisture and raise humidity. Having just landed a mini-fridge, I did exactly that, hanging the breasts over the bowl and leaving the door slightly cracked for airflow. (The fridge was unplugged, as temperatures were still on my side.)

As luck would have it, a number of other participants were having similar issues, and so the deadline was extended to the 25th. A week passed, and I weighed my breasts daily. There was definite progress, but it was clear I wasn't going to see a full 30% loss.

Duck prosciutto

On Saturday the 22nd, my breasts were down to about 275 g each — not even 25% loss, but the flesh seemed firmer and more consistent, so I took a gamble. I intended to serve it at a dinner party that night. 

As I drew my knife through one of  the breasts, I immediately noticed an improvement in texture. The flesh didn't shift and drag like it had before. I pared away a thin slice and tasted it. Silky. Buttery. The glistening fat melted on the tongue. Success. 

The prosciutto was the crowning jewel on the dinner's theme. We intended to compose a meal using, to the greatest degree possible, foods that were locally sourced, made by hand and with a special focus on foods that we, or others we knew, had preserved. This was most evidenced by our appetizers. 

Duck prosciutto, housemade preserves, local cheeses

Clockwise from right: Duck prosciutto, fig jam with fennel pollen, Pt. Reyes Blue, Cowgirl Creamery's deliciously stinky Red Hawk (winner of a Good Food Award) and apple-habanero jelly.

We also took heed of our friend Karen's clarion call: Bring back the relish tray! And so we augmented our appies with great relish(es).

Relish tray

Left: Zucchine sott'olio, from Rosetta Costantino's fabulous new cookbook, "My Calabria." I had the pleasure of tasting this at the Costantino home last fall (thanks, Rosetta!). Top: Five-spice pickled cherries from my friend Leena (thanks, Leena!). Center: Curried apple chutney, recipe courtesy of Kaela/Local Kitchen (thanks, Kaela!). I taught this at the 18 Reasons chutney class in December. Bottom: Tomato-lemon chutney, second-place winner in last year's Eat Real Fest pickle competition that I was a judge for. The submitter, Rany Prambs, graciously shared the recipe (thanks, Rany!). Right: Ajvar, from my friend Vanessa's amazing book "D.I.Y. Delicious" (thanks, Vanessa!).

I was so excited to break all these things out; most of these things had been made months previously, and I have had to restrain myself to keep from cracking into them prior to the event. It was worth the wait, however. 

The duck prosciutto made one more appearance that night. After the appies and bubbly, we ushered everyone to the dining table for the first of four more courses: Homemade tortellini in brodo, stuffed with duck prosciutto and Godfrey Farms italian sausage; the broth was made with duck stock made from the aforementioned duck stock.

Tortellini in brodo

For the salad course we took inspiration from our friends Cam and Anita, who were in attendance. The main was a Godfrey Farms pork shoulder roast stuffed with figs and prunes, a basic stuffing and roasted crucifers with cumin and sumac. DPaul baked a peach pie for dessert using peaches put up by our friends Nick and Russ, also in attendance. To accompany dessert we had a variety of housemade liqueurs on hand: Bergamocello, ratafia de coings (quince liqueur), pluot liqueur, loquat liqueur and banana-rum liqueur. (The pluot and loquat liqueurs were made by Nick and Russ, the rest by us.) 

The big takeaway from this was that the meal cost us relatively little, at least at the moment. Since so many elements of the meal had been prepared well in advance, and the proteins largely came from our rather affordable meat CSA, we were able to present a meal of great abundance while laying out funds only for fresh produce and a couple hunks of cheese. That economy also extended to time. Having ready-made, shelf-stable food put up from your own kitchen certainly pays itself back down the line. 

  • Beautiful! Appetizers look incredible. Where does one get fennel pollen? I would love to try it.

  • Your relish tray is wonderful. Having jars of home-canned goodies makes every dinner party so fun. OMG, tortellini with duck prosciutto? Are you kidding? I bow to you.

  • “As the deadline drew closer, I’d check my breasts, squeezing to test for firmness of flesh and weighing them to check water loss.”
    Just wanted to quote that out of context. Thanks again–I sampled a slice of the prosciutto Saturday and it was quite delectable.

  • Believe me, Ross, there is no way to talk about this project without letting your mind wander to the gutter. We got all the breast-themed giggles out a month ago.

  • Well, I wanted to do something other than just eat it straight up. Mind you, I also wanted to just eat it, straight up.

  • I actually harvested the fennel pollen right here in my neighborhood — it grows rampantly around here. There are a couple farms that sell it from Sonoma, and it's an export of Italy as well — but it's crazy expensive!

  • Mom

    Yeah, the one that caught my eye was “For the next 10 days, my breasts hung in the basement.” I can’t think of a time when I have ever uttered such a statement – and I am grateful for that.
    Sean, as usual, you and Paul have offered up a delightful meal with great panache. I am sure all of your guests were pleased to the core to have been there to partake. Congratulations!

  • Indeed, mom, you should be grateful that your breasts do not hang in the basement, even to this day.

  • I am loving charcutepalooza. I saw a twitpic of the relish tray … and wondered which restaurant don’t I know about? Fantastic.

  • It looks fabulous! I just signed up myself and I can’t wait to get started. All I have to do is figure out where to get nice duck breasts and pork belly around here.

  • You can order them from D'Artagnan, and they'll be offering a 25% discount to participating bloggers!

  • Impressive!

  • I feel so embarrassed: I can’t figure out how to add myself to the map! I’m in London. HELP!

  • Whew! I’m there! A treacherous journey onto the map. Now onto curing something besides computer problems… 🙂

  • I may have to join this challenge! I’ve already accomplished my first duck prosciutto, and after enjoying a few meat and cheese offerings, not unlike yours, we made duck pasta carbonara with the rest of the breast: duck eggs, fresh pecorino romano cheese, our duck prosciutto, and perfect pasta. I look forward to seeing what you do next!

  • Jesse

    Haha that map IS treacherous! Speaking of cooking journeys…does anyone know anything about the Real Women of Philadelphia cooking competition going on now? A friend told me about it and I think I might have the perfect recipe for Paula Deen…my dad’s very own smoked brisket with whipped potatoes. Anyone?