The majority of Americans know prosciutto as gourmet (thus pricey) Italian ham, but in actuality, prosciutto encompasses much more than its porcine manifestation; the word prosciutto itself comes from the verb prosciugare, which simply means to dry thoroughly. Now don’t get me wrong—I am a staunch supporter of traditional prosciutto, and generally anything edible that originates from that fine sty denizen the pig, but why not branch out? I have yet to encounter a cured meat that I didn’t like—from the satiny surface with so much promise of flavor, to the dense yet melting texture of flesh and fat, to the rustic, almost feral taste of the pure animal protein, enhanced only by salt, air, and time.
Unless it is prosciutto cotto, or the cooked variety, the Italian ham is crudo, or raw, but the process of salting and air drying draws moisture out of the cells, and without moisture, harmful microbes can’t live. These are the same microbes that are killed by bringing meat to a certain temperature when cooking it, so while technically raw, cured products are perfectly safe. That being said, care does have to be taken in the curing procedure to ensure that the desired processes are taking place. For this reason, most of us choose the grocery store over home-curing, and when it comes to an entire pig’s leg, I am right there with them lining up at the deli counter. To cure and hang such a sizeable cut of meat can take months and sometimes years, not to mention the fact that an entire pork thigh may be hard to come by. Smaller cuts of meat, however, are the ideal place to start for the home-curing curious.
By considering a pig’s leg, and why it results in such a luscious, flavorful product when cured, I extrapolated these qualities to alternate cuts of meat in order to find the ideal candidate for experimentation. I wanted something with inherent flavor and a fair amount of fat, that wasn’t too cumbersome or hard to find; enter the duck breast. Far from the lean, pallid flesh of a chicken breast, duck tastes closer to red meat than to its coop-dwelling kin. The protein structure of duck is denser than that of chicken due to muscle use, and thanks to its aquatic nature, a layer of heat-insulating subcutaneous fat forms a flavor-packed cap on each breast. Duck prosciutto is not unheard of—D’Artagnan and Hudson Valley Foie Gras both offer it—but at about two dollars per ounce, it’s a luxury. So to put it simply, prosciutto is tasty, duck is tasty, therefore duck prosciutto is worth a try, and here I came to the task at hand.
My first order of business was to select the kind of duck breast I wanted to use. Most recipes I came across utilized smaller Muscovy breasts, which weigh in at about eight ounces each. My thinking—in usual hedonistic fashion—was the bigger the better, so I went with Magret duck breasts, which are almost twice the size and have a seductive, buttery crown of fat. They come from Moulard ducks, which are a cross between the Muscovy and Pekin varieties and commonly raised for foie gras, and thus have very rich flesh as a result of their grain-heavy diet. While I certainly wanted this fat to be a part of my finished product, to ensure that the cure penetrated the meat, I scored the cap in a crosshatch pattern.
Next came the cure itself; I decided on a mixture of one part sugar to two parts salt, as an all-salt cure can result in overwhelming salinity. I knew the curing period was the only window of time that I had to infuse the duck with flavor, so I added my flavoring agents of choice to the salt-sugar mixture. Doing this means that as moisture is drawn out of the cells, the salt that then enters takes these flavors along with it. Given the robust flavor of the bird, I knew it could stand up to some substantial additions. I wanted something classic that would add an aromatic, woodsiness to the duck, so I gathered juniper berries, fennel seed, white and black peppercorns, bay leaves, and coriander seeds. I added them all to a small skillet, and toasted them over low heat, stirring occasionally, until they began to give off their heady aromas. This took about 5 minutes, but I went by smell rather than time—and I looked for the juniper to start getting shiny as it released its oils. The contents of the pan then went into a spice grinder where a quick whir gave it the consistency of a coarse powder.
I used a scale to weigh out 400 grams of kosher salt, and 200 grams of regular granulated sugar, which I then whisked my spice blend into. I lined the bottom of my vessel with a layer of cure (I used these rectangular Lexan containers which seemed perfectly sized for the breasts, but any such receptacle will do) then came the breast, and more cure. I made sure to pour the cure all around the breast, as I wanted every surface of the meat to be completely submerged in this salty goodness.
I wrapped the whole thing tightly with plastic, and into the fridge it went for osmosis to work its magic. During the next few days, the breast basked in its cure. For my first test I utilized the industry-accepted cure time of 24 hours, but it turned out that the heftier size of my Magret breasts was significant enough to require a longer period; after further experimentation, the four-day cure seemed to be the winner.
After the prescribed time, the duck emerged from its savory cocoon: now a firm, slightly withered, deep crimson-colored version of its former self.
I rinsed it thoroughly with water, dried it well, and then sprinkled it with about a half teaspoon of black pepper. A cloak of cheesecloth, a sash of twine—and like a little chrysalis, it was ready to hang and be transformed.
For two weeks my dangling victual taunted me from the corner of the walk-in; I indulged in a squeeze here and a pinch there to monitor the progress, but like all good things, I knew it was worth the wait.
Finally the day came. I first weighed it to ensure proper moisture loss had occurred (30% loss is standard, but mine only lost about 18% of its original mass).
Then with bated breath, I unwrapped it. Thankfully, nothing had gone awry beneath the shroud. I sliced through the creamy layer of fat like chilled butter, and into the now-firm, burgundy flesh beneath. Tasting the final product was everything I anticipated; it was rich and slightly gamey, with the unmistakable essence of duck playing a starring role, and the lingering, toasted aroma of spices shining through.
As with any cured meat, this duck prosciutto is as versatile as it is delicious, and—if it lasts past the first day—can be stored in the fridge tightly wrapped in plastic for a week or so. My favorite way to enjoy it is with figs and arugula, but any combination of fruit, cheese, bread, and greens is sure to be delectable. It may not have been as easy as sidling up to my local deli counter, but the satisfaction was well worth it. Who knew that with a few raw ingredients, some experimentation, and a little patience, my own charcuterie was within reach? Now if I can just get my hands on that pig’s leg…