Friend of the store and loyal customer, Sean Vineyard (@chezsean85), was gracious enough to detail how he makes duck prosciutto at home with very little equipment. Read on and get inspired!
HOME-CURED DUCK PROSCIUTTOWords and photos by Sean Vineyard
Coppa. Bresaola. Lomo. Panchetta. Prosciutto. American’s love cured meats, and with good reason; we’ve been curing meats for centuries. What once was done out of necessity as a means of preservation is now done out of a passion for rich, concentrated, meaty deliciousness. Why did we stop curing meats? Mostly because of refrigeration, but ultimately it’s the same reason we no longer have cassette players in our cars. Something better came along.
Many people now associate charcuterie with low production artisans, tucked away in the back of a small store-front, legs of prosciutto hanging from the window, skillfully stuffing natural casings with pork, fat, wine, fennel, pepper, and garlic to make finocchiona salami. So, what if I told you that you could make cured meats at home? Most people don’t believe me. What if I told you that you could do it in less than three weeks, start-to-finish? Usually people look at me as though I’ve proven string theory when I tell them that.
The least complicated of all of the variety of charcuterie is definitely whole muscle cured meats. That is to say, essentially everything less salami and cured sausages. Of the whole muscle cured meats, duck prosciutto is the easiest way to gain entry into the vastly addicting world of home curing and that is largely because it is quick. You can see results in a couple of weeks and adjust recipes to your liking instead of 6-18 months if you were to cure a whole hog leg to make traditional prosciutto. Okay enough talking, let’s get started – trust me – those who know me know I love to talk and will gladly do so if not intervened.
What You Will Need2-3 duck breasts¼ cup juniper berries2 TBSP peppercorns (mixed black, green, red, and white if you can)2 TBSP fennel seed2-3 whole star anise4 bay leaves4 cups of sea saltLight vinegar (not distilled) or white wine for rinsingCheese clothButchers twine
How to Select Your DuckJust as with any dish you make, selecting the right ingredients is one of the most essential parts. No matter how good of a Chef or cook you are, you can’t turn bad products into something that tastes good. My recommendation is create a relationship with your grocer. Know your butcher. And if you can, know your farmer.
When selecting which type of duck breast to use I thought it best to ask The Organic Butcher, Don Roden, what his thoughts are on the subject. Don says that there are three widely available breeds of duck available. Those being Peking, Moulard, and Muscovy. If anyone has ever eaten at a decent Chinese restaurant, you’re probably quite familiar with Peking duck. Peking duck has a lower fat to flesh ratio making it the least ideal for curing. Remember, fat is good! And truthfully, if you don’t like fat, we can’t be friends. Moulard is the Rolls Royce of duck breasts. Rich, fatty, deep in color and flavor. But just like with a Rolls Royce, they are expensive. They are well worth the price but certainly not the best option to try out your hand in curing. That leaves the Muscovy. Don says the Muscovy has the best fat to flesh ratio, portion sizes, and flavor, and they are very affordable.
Once you have decided the type of duck to buy, you need to select your meat. Freshness is imperative in curing meats because any ‘funk’ will be exacerbated by the curing process and while stinky cheeses always have a place in my fridge, stinky meats are not good eats! There are three senses that are important to remember when selecting your meat. Sight, feel, and smell. First, you want to make sure that the duck is not greying along the flesh or yellowing along the fat or skin. Second, you want to make sure that the duck is wet but not slimy. Last, and probably the most important, make sure that the duck smells relatively neutral. Yes, any good butcher will let you smell their products! As strange as it may seem, do it. It should smell like raw meat, not like a trash can. If it’s not pleasurable to your nose, it won’t be pleasurable to your stomach.
Preparing Your CureThe cure is a very important part of the process. This is what draws out the moisture in the meat. The moisture, being a veritable bacteria playground, is not something that we want a lot of. In fact, the curing and aging process should reduce the overall weight of your meat by about 25-30%. The curing process is also what imparts a lot of the flavor to the meats based on what spices you put in the cure. While I have my favorite spices, I recommend that first-timers use just salt. By doing that you are going to really taste the meat itself and then you can figure out which spices you want to add based on your preferences and not just listening to what I say works. Create your own cure! That’s part of the fun.
My basic ratio for my cures are 1 part spices to 3 or 4 parts salt (depending on how thick the meat is and how much of the flavor of the spices you want in the meat). The key thing to remember when making your cure, regardless of what spices you use, is to use whole spices and toast them! Toasting them brings out the oils of the spices and brings an added layer of complexity to the flavor. To toast your spices, places your whole spices in a pan on medium heat. You will want to nearly constantly stir the spices for 5-6 minutes until they begin turning golden brown on the outside and become very fragrant. Put them into a spice grinder (or you can grind them by hand) and blend them all together. Then mix the spices into the cure. Let the cure cool down. You do not want to bring any heat to the raw meat. I will often times put the cure mixture into the fridge for an hour or so to let it cool.
Curing and AgingTo begin the curing process, place about half of the cure in the bottom of a baking dish. I generally prefer glass. You want to make sure there is at least one inch of cure on the bottom of the dish. Place your duck breast on the mixture. You will see some recipes tell you to score the skin and fat. Truthfully, I never do. It makes the duck too salty and makes it more challenging to slice afterwards. Not to mention it doesn’t look as uniform when you slice it. It’s all about the presentation! You will also see recipes that tell you to place it skin-side down. I have never seen any difference in taste or texture with doing it skin or flesh side down so you do whatever your heart desires.
You want to make sure that your duck breasts are spaced about an inch apart to ensure that the cure gets in contact with every bit of the duck. Pour your remaining mixture over the meat (again, you should have at least an inch of mixture on top of your duck). Cover the whole thing and put it in the fridge for between 2 and 3 days depending on the size of your duck breasts. I will usually stick with 48 hours unless they are particularly large.
After the two days, take the duck out of the fridge and remove it from the cure. The duck breasts should be firm but not hard, a little smaller in size, and slightly darker in color since much of the moisture has been removed. You’ll want to remove any excess cure by pouring a little vinegar over it. I usually use a white wine or apple cider vinegar. You can also use white wine if you have some lying around and for some strange reason you don’t want to drink it.
Now it’s time to wrap it, tie it, and hang it. You wrap the duck in cheese cloth to prevent direct air contact when it is drying/aging. Direct air contact will dry out the outside of the flesh too quickly and it may prevent the inside of the duck from properly drying. Take your cheese cloth and lay it on a flat surface. Place the duck at one edge in the center. Roll it (like you would a sandwich) and about half way through fold in the ends and then continue rolling it. Use the butchers twine to tie the duck. It is easiest to YouTube videos on “how to tie a roast” to show you how to properly tie the duck.
It’s hard to explain how to properly tie without a video. Make sure to leave a loop of twine at the top to hang it. For the drying process you can get an S-hook or a suction cup hook from the hardware store and place it in your fridge. Unless you want to go all out and build an in home curing fridge like I did. Hang the duck and place a Tupperware container underneath it filled with salt water. It should be about the same as ocean water. This will create a micro humid climate since refrigerators are notoriously dry and that is not what we want. Make sure that the duck breasts are not touching each other or anything else. If they touch, the contact points could create warm, high humidity areas that could grow bad mold. You want to keep the duck hanging for two weeks. After that you’re ready to eat it!
Slicing and ServingYou have a couple of options for slicing and endless options for serving. You want to cut the duck prosciutto paper thing. If you are have a meat slicer at your house, you are already far more prepared than most. If you don’t have a meat slicer, a very sharp slicing knife will work just fine. I find it easiest to lay the duck fat side down if slicing by hand. The key is to go slow and take as few strokes as possible when slicing.
For serving, I love the duck prosciutto just like it is. No accompaniment, no accoutrement, just duck. But you can pair it with figs and bread or crisp it up and put it in a salad. Whatever peaks your interest, do it.