Sunday, November 14, 2010

Duck prosciutto, unwrapped

We had to unwrap and reveal, this day of reckoning anticipated, hoped for, feared.

It was two weeks since we had hung the previously salted, wrapped duck breasts out on the terrace, from a chair placed on top of the stone table. On nights that threatened rain we brought the chair inside and put it beside the open sliding door, to keep the temperature as even as possible. We live on the top floor of a brownstone and do not own a cave or cellar or garage for hanging purposes (Ruhlman says he just hangs them next to his stove ...bit hot? But he wrote the book). We improvised.

Squirrels inspected them, but I hung one of the cat's shirts over the chair to deter them. It worked. The cat himself was not interested in the ducks, perhaps because of the pepper seasoning the meat.

Every other day I felt them, squeezing gently. Till the last I felt a soft spot in the middle of each on the meat side, and worried. I suspected that I should have salted the 1lb (480gr!) breasts for longer than 24 hours.

We took the smaller one, and I unwound the light muslin. I sniffed the meat. Deeply. Suspiciously. Nothing. Just pepper. The soft spot I had been feeling had in fact been the fatty side. The meat side looked quite dry and dark, a lot like biltong. Maybe too dry.

I sliced with the sharpened Opinel knife. The meat looked beautiful, garnet red, though the underside looked much darker, and is probably drier than it should be.

We each took a slice and sniffed. Deeply.

Nothing bad. In fact, very good. I tore off the fat on mine - it was silky. Vince swallowed his whole. I chewed carefully, with my front teeth, ready for anything.

It tasted bloody marvellous. I did a little victory dance in a circle, the floor boards thumping.

We ate more, maybe a quarter of the first breast and then I called a halt. Just in case. We'd watch for signs of cramping. 

But from what I understand botulism does not entire favour muscles, like a breast or a leg. It is introduced to anaerobic spaces in sausages, canned food, occasionally honey, and, more often, innocuous-looking EV olive oil with some garlic cloves or herbs floating in it, unrefrigerated.

And cramping is not involved at all, rather a gradual paralysis, starting with dry mouth, after 18 hours or so (so similar to poisonous mushrooms whose symptoms do not appear within the first hour but after 6-8 or more). Botulism kills about 1,000 worldwide annually. Interesting that I should combine mushroom hunting and duck prosciutto making within a month of each other.

Final word on the prosciutto: delicious.

Pedro at Los Paisanos is going to find curing salts for us and then we will embark on pancetta-making. The challenge is where to hang it and keep it at an even temperature. Hm. We do know someone with a nice chilly, food-stocked basement in the woods...And in Cape Town, there is a wine cellar. It's perfect.

All we need are some duck breasts and a pig or two.

News Flash:

Addendum, 3.30pm: I just sliced some more of the first breast for a late lunch.  Problem:

Here is the email I just wrote to Michael Ruhlman, and hopefully he has some advice. Though with the volume of mail he must receive, we may be none the wiser. 'Voer,' any advice? Your duck breast seemed to have less fat and be evenly cured. Should we re-hang, after slicing off some fat? Or would that mean re-salting that side?

Dear Michael

I'm pretty certain you can't reply to all these emails, but just in case:

So we hit the center of our duck breast today, and as I was slicing through the hefty layer of fat, the meat felt very raw and smelled very ducky (but not bad). They had hung for two weeks, each half of the breast weighed 1lb.

I also found a vein running through the bottom of the breast, and the blood was still viscous. It occurred to me that our duck had a very thick layer of fat and that that had insulated the meat on the fatty side, both from salt and from air, and may have prevented proper curing?

Should we remove some fat before curing, do you think, to allow for even curing?

Thanks and best wishes


So. Depressing. Since I am uncertain about re-hanging without re-salting, I will make a ragout base out of the duck, treating it as pancetta, and cooking thoroughly. Vince is unfazed, he was prepared for failure. I was not, especially after our promising start.

Ve must hev answers, yes?! 

Update on the update 11/15/10:

jvdh, who made the duck prosciutto and blogged about it on Voer, sent me a link to Charcuterie Sundays, written by Grant van Gameren, who runs The Black Hoof in Toronto. I emailed him my sorry tale, and Grant very kindly replied. This is what he says:

My advice. Leave the 24 hour duck breast cures for the old school Italians.
I salt a 360 gram duck breast with 30 grams kosher salt to 5 grams white sugar for 12-14 days. Then hang for 3-4 weeks.
This way you can infuse any flavors you like and have a good amount of time for it to sink in.
The fats the best part!
Cure it in a ziplock and turn regularly.
Empty any added liquids that release from the breast.
I wouldn't wrap it in too many layers of cheese cloth either.
Add .9 grams of dried lavender to your mix and you will be in heaven.
Make sure you rinse well. Dry . Wrap. And hang.
Your raw middle problems could be a) not enough salt or b) humidity.
Probably humidity and your meats drying out on the exterior , therefore trapping moisture within and it will eventually rot and go rancid.

A really good book is cooking by hand by Paul Bertolli ! 
Just a favorite. 
As for the juices... Every couple days as it accumulates. 
Do you have a cold basement? Cured meats don't like that much ventilation. 
Another option could be a rubbermaid container with a few small holes put into it. Perhaps with a damp towel for humidity that gets changed often. That way you might be able to keep it outside and get a good end product!

So.There's a completely different approach. And since The Black Hoof serves over 40 different kinds of house made charcuterie, this is good advice.

Thanks, Grant!



  1. Michael says he's willing but he can't be responsible if some of it should "disappear."

  2. Maybe wait a day or two before you eat some more ?????????????

  3. Ellen, back to the drawing board.

    Hen - ons leef nog. The first taste was two days ago.

  4. That is a beautiful colour! I can almost taste it. And thank you for using sane measurement units :-)

    Our breast was quite a bit smaller, thinner fat too, which probably helped. My suspicion, based on a vague memory of physics and a very colourful animation in my mind, is that the fat serves as great insulation, so very little water escapes through it. On the other side the dry bit might form a similarly impervious shell, keeping the other moisture inside? Really, I know nothing, this is pure speculation, don't trust me, just do your own simulation. But my vote would be for higher humidity next time.

    As for this batch though? Hmmm. We'd quite happily eat biltong in a similar state? And think of medium-rare duck breast. Yum... (Am I making my point?). Maybe just consign the very duck-like bits to the ragout?

  5. Weel, it looks awesome, but then sorry to hear that it hadn't fully cured. What a transformation.

    You are on a bit of a knife-edge tear. Wasn't it mayapple seeds first?

  6. jvdh - nee, maar die middle was eintlik rou, nie soos biltong nie. But we shall Never! Surrender!

    Frank - Oh yes, the may apple seeds. Oops. Looking forward to your Man Alone in the Woods post :-)

  7. Wow, I am so impressed that you are curing meat! Really impressive!!

  8. Wearing my copy editor hat:

    not unphased.

    fazed = to disturb the composure of, disconcert, daunt

    unfazed = not fazed, undaunted

  9. excellently excellent post. the parts that were edible looked incroyable! good work for your first curing!~ there's always time to cure more fatty fat duckies. there there.

  10. I love duck prosciutto, so your attempt is remarkable. Please try the second recommendation of curing the meat with lavender, for that would also be an interesting post to read. I'm sure the second attempt will be very successful, because the first one already looks delicious.


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