Curing and Drying · Duck

Duck Prosciutto!

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Yes, I write that title with an exclamation point because – yay!  Prosciutto!

But wait a moment, you say.  Isn’t prosciutto made from ham?  From pig?

Well, yes, traditionally it is.  But at the time we decided to make this, we didn’t (and still don’t) have access to a fresh ham that we can salt and cure, so we went this route. 

And making duck prosciutto is SO easy, why not give it a try, we encouraged ourselves.

Needing very little encouragement to try new food projects, we embarked on our newest adventure…

And by “we”, I mean, of course, Bill and me and our friend, John.  Get used to seeing John in posts like these.  And the book I refer to from time to time is Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie.

Anyway.  We were planning a big sausage-making day in December.  We both (Bill+me and John) planned to make and give some sausage as Christmas gifts this year, all in the spirit of giving things we’d made ourselves.  So we all thought about what kinds of sausage to make, and we also decided we needed to make duck prosciutto.  (I’m going to keep saying “we” because sure, one of us comes up with the original idea, but when it’s a good idea, we all play a part.  And in this case, John really did the majority of the work.)

We were also thinking of making duck confit, because we’ve never done that before either.  So when I headed off to the store to round up all our sausage and meaty goodness ingredients, the plan was for me to buy a whole duck.  We’d make prosciutto from the breasts and confit the rest.

Alas, confit will have to wait.  There were only three duck breasts in all of duckdom.  Three magret, which means breast, but typically refers to duck breasts from Moulard ducks that are fattened up (and yes, force-fed, but I don’t want to get into an animal rights battle here, so please, if you are so inclined, don’t start one) for foie gras.  (The book recommends Pekin duck, but this is what was available to me at the time.)  Each breast weighed about a pound.  Sliced thin, that would make a lot of prosciutto…..

But they were pricey.  So I stood there, gorgeous, heavy duck breasts in hand, and thought.  Should I spend the cash? 

After rapidly weighing the pros and cons of the cost and the product, I decided that yes, I should.

Prosciutto was calling.

Now, to make prosciutto from a duck or a pig, you are basically salt curing the meat and then air drying it for as long as it takes for the meat to become completely saturated with the salt and, as a result, to change in texture, of course, flavor.

Salt curing is one thing, but the air drying is another.  Just like in cheese making, cool temps and medium to high humidity are important. 

I couldn’t just put the breasts in the pantry to age.

So, basically, we gave the breasts to John and let him run with them.

I also asked John if he could take pictures of the process so I could post them here, and so the first portion of images that follow came from John’s house and John’s camera.

Here we go.

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First – salt.  John used two pyrex baking dishes – a loaf size and a 13 x 9 – for the curing.  One breast fit in the loaf pan, and two in the other pan. 

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You don’t want the breasts to touch each other or the sides of the pan – they need to be completely covered with salt.

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John’s advantage over us is the bulkhead in his basement.  It’s just about the right temperature for this sort of project.  Our basement is too warm.  For humidity, he used a humidifier we had from when the kids were younger and we ran it in their bedroom to keep the winter air moist. 

First, though, the duck breasts rested, in their salt cocoons, for 24 hours. 

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(FYI, the directions actually call for the pans to be covered with plastic wrap and held in the fridge, instead of set out in the drying area, but we either forgot or didn’t read that part.  Nothing bad happened as a result, though, but I felt it only fair to let you know that.)

Anyway, after that 24 hour period you can already notice changes taking place.  The meat will have begun to firm up a bit on the outside, and the color will have darkened.

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John removed the breasts from the salt, rinsed them, dried them, and then dusted them with ground white pepper.

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Then he wrapped them in cheesecloth, knotted the ends, and (later) tied string to the base of each knot.

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Then he hung them in his cave.

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The book says to hang them for about 7 days, but I think these actually took less time. 

John checked them just about daily, feeling them (oh, the jokes we could – and probably did – make here) for changes in density. 

It’s a lot like checking a piece of meat for doneness without resorting to poking it with a thermometer.  When the meat is raw, it’s…squishy.  Flabby.  Soft.

As the meat cooks, it tightens up and becomes firm, so when you’ve got, say, a well done steak (why would you do that, though?) it will be quite firm to the touch. 

Salt has the same effect.

While the duck breasts were lounging in their salt baths, they absorbed salt into the outer layers of muscle cells.  As they hang and dry, the salt is moving deeper and deeper into the meat and firming up the muscle cells as it goes.

John noticed the changes beginning after a couple days, I believe, and by day 6 (John will correct me if I’m wrong here), the breasts were quite firm and no longer squishy at all.

Done!

Time to slice!

John brought the cured duck breasts to our house one night and we were all fairly giddy with excitement. 

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First, though, I had to take a picture of them in their cheesecloth bags.

Then, time to unveil…

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If you scroll back up, you can see how different the meat looked before it was hung to dry for nearly a week.  Much softer then, but here you can tell it’s quite firm and the color is a deep, dark purple.

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Yay, John!

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Now, during the whole drying process, John was also doing a bit of research.  He found out that duck prosciutto was invented by Italian Jews because they couldn’t – of course – eat prosciutto made from a pig.  I’m very grateful.

Time to slice.

I mentioned a while back that we bought a meat slicer, which, if we’re going to continue all this curing and smoking of various meats (which we are), is going to be incredibly handy.

Especially for slicing thinly.  Yes, with a very sharp knife we can slice pretty thinly, but the meat slicer makes it all so much easier and more consistent.  The only issue is it’s a pain to clean…but Bill cleans it most of the time, so I’m not complaining.

Here is the first slice.

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The meat is a deep, purpley red…jewel-like and stunning.  The fat is silky and just about melts in your mouth – a lovely contrast to the firm, delicious breast meat.

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We were all pretty damn delighted with the result.

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We sliced up a portion of one breast, both to continue sampling and so I could get some decent cross-section pictures for you.

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Then John took his portion home and we kept ours in the fridge and worked really, really hard not to eat it all before Christmas Eve.

Alex and Julia had a taste, and neither of them was all that enamored, but that’s okay.  More for the grown-ups!

We served thin slices both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to all the various and sundry family members who came for dinner, and as I recall they were all duly impressed.

We have a tiny smidge of duck breast left in the fridge, and one night soon Bill and I will share that and the last of the pork rillette (another story) John gave us.

So, if you are so inclined, go forth and make some duck prosciutto!  It’s delicious!

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6 thoughts on “Duck Prosciutto!

  1. I was finally able to sample my first results today, and I was frankly blown away. It far exceeded my expectations for such a simple process. Thank you also, for this great article. The photos really helped me through several of the steps.

  2. Looks great…I’m set on trying this but just concerned about the temperature….any advice on what is genrally a good temp to cure this at…i live in the northeast and would be attempting this in fall

  3. Hi Anthony,

    Basically you want a place thats cool (50-60 F) and humid. Our friends basement alcove worked well. Not sure what sort of set-up you have, but unfinished basements tend to be appropriately cool and humid. You dont want it too humid, like a rainforest, but you dont want dry, either. If youre drying the prosciutto in an enclosed space (closet, dorm fridge), you can set a damp paper towel or a dish of water in there, too, to increase humidity. Good
    luck!

    Jayne

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