A Simple Cure
“I believe in a benevolent God not because He created the Grand Canyon or Michelangelo, but because He gave us snacks.”Paul Rudnick
There is a moment, a cusp, when afternoon finger balances with evening, the work of day is fairly done, the night not yet descended. It’s a time of slanting light and breathing, when moving from your chair, or sun-slopped stoop is just too much to contemplate. It’s a time for rosé, or chilled and cloudy pastis, or ice-water with mint, a slice of cucumber, and…something to tide you over until dinner. Nothing much, just a bite or two, something savory to balance the wine. And always to share, it’s not a moment to sit alone. A time for deep flavors and light thoughts, or light flavors and deep thoughts, or any combination thereof. The French love their apéro, and it’s a decidedly easy habit to slide into. And why not? One of my favorite flavors to plate of late is a home-made duck breast prosciutto…
I’ve always loved charcuterie, wondered what it would take to make my own, but imagined complicated formulas, smokehouses, special humidity controlled drying chambers, and well… getting it wrong and poisoning myself. Curing meat seemed (and still seems to a great extent) sort of a Russian-roulette of food processing, a little bit like alchemy. The challenge with drying meat (and curing is essentially the process of removing some of the moisture in a protein) is the potential for bacteria to take over and turn the process from curing to spoilage.
But salt curing, the oldest type of curing – there’s evidence that it was used as far back as 3000 BCE – and the type used for this technique, doesn’t prevent bacteria from growing in the meat, it just creates the right conditions that allow the right kind of bacteria to flourish. Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc species break down the sugars in the meat (yes, there are naturally occurring sugars in meat) to produce lactic acid, which makes it difficult for spoilage bacteria to thrive.
And here’s the thing: our lives (and meals) are filled with bacteria – yogurt, pickles, cheese, sauerkraut. Like it or not, our guts and bodies in general are literally filled with bacteria. In fact, we’re outnumbered – there are roughly 37 trillion cells in a human body, and about 100 trillion bacterial cells hitching a ride. That’s as if you took the entire population of the planet and multiplied it times one and a half million. All to say, a little bacteria is not necessarily a bad thing.
What those bacteria do to a duck breast, in addition to the lactic acid and spoilage-protective environment, is lower the pH from about 6.0 to 4.5, and free up a bunch of enzymes that break down basically flavorless proteins into savory peptides and amino acids. Glutamic acid, a compound largely responsible for that meaty, mouthfilling sensation increases dramatically, along with tyrosine. The high salt environment causes the normally tightly bunched protein filaments in the muscles to separate and weaken, while at the same time the dehydration makes the tissues denser and more concentrated, resulting in a closer, more tender, almost silky, texture.
Flavor compounds of astonishing depth are created, notes of citrus, melon, earth, fresh cut grass, butter. The glutamates and nucleotides elicit a response from taste receptors similar to that produced by mother’s milk, saliva production ramps up, flavors linger and evolve. It’s umami overdrive. Which would also be a great band name for a group of chef-musicians. Umami Tsunami?
And as a bonus after a lot of ominous health news of late, this cure uses simple coarse sea salt (or kosher), and none of the potentially carcinogenic nitrites which are widely used in large-scale meat processing these days. It’s amazingly straightforward, no formulas or special equipment, and the process hasn’t changed for at least a couple of centuries – you can find basically the same recipe in literature dating back to the inquisition. Not technically ‘prosciutto’, which would be the salt-cured hind leg of a pig or lamb, it’s nonetheless an amazing addition to any charcuterie platter, and honestly one of my favorites.
Duck Breast Prosciutto
1 Duck Breast (Magret de Canard) @ 300 grams/10.5 oz.
(really whatever size you can find)
1.5 cups coarse Sea Salt, @ 350 grams
Fresh cracked black pepper
Fresh Herbs (Rosemary, Thyme, Bay, whatever’s handy)
Rinse and pat dry the duck breast. Put about 1/3 of the salt in a non-reactive container (just) large enough to hold the duck. Bread pans are good, Tupperware is handy, anything will work, but the closer it is to the size of the duck the less salt you’ll have to use. Place the breast, fat side up on the layer of salt, and cover completely with the remaining salt. You want to make sure it’s buried so that you can’t see the meat, but if you don’t use all of the salt, that’s OK. If you need to use more, that’s OK too. Cover and place in the refrigerator for 24 hours. The timing, like almost everything about this technique (I hesitate to call it a ‘recipe’) is very flexible – I’ve forgotten/gotten busy and left it in for 36 hours, or 48.
After the salt cure the texture of the breast should be considerably firmer than when it went in, and several shades darker in color. The surrounding salt will be moist, as osmosis has begun the process of drawing the water out of the proteins. Discard the salt, rinse the duck breast briefly, pat thoroughly dry.
Typically at this point you wrap the breast in cheesecloth and tie it up with twine, but when you find yourself short of cheesecloth, a perfectly acceptable substitute is paper towels and a couple of rubber bands. In fact, this has pretty much become my standard practice. I also sandwich the breast with some rectangles of baker’s parchment cut to size with a few slits to facilitate air flow and ensure the wrapping doesn’t stick.
This is also the moment to add seasonings if you wish. Because of the osmotic action the meat will take on lovely subtle flavors quite readily. I use a mix of whatever fresh herbs I have to hand, (rosemary, bay, thyme) you could go with just cracked black pepper, or anything you want to experiment with – curry powder, Cajun spice rub, etc.
Now it’s simply a matter of time. Hang the bundle in a cool(ish) place, your fridge, basement, garage, anywhere it will benefit from air flow and be undisturbed. The moisture content will continue to diminish, the enzymes will continue to soften, compact, and transform the proteins, and that alchemy happens. It’s really up to personal preference at this point: after 7 days the breast will have lost about 30% of its original weight, the flesh will be darker still, firm but supple, silky and slice easily. This is how I like it.
You can hang it longer, and it will continue to lose moisture, become firmer. Experiment until you find your preference. Once dried, you can store it for several weeks in the fridge, wrapped in plastic or in an airtight container to prevent further drying, and it freezes well. Again, there’s no right or wrong. If it dries to a wooden solidity, it’s still good, just not for slicing and nibbling – you can grate it over pasta, salads, and soups for a savory kick, sort of like bottarga or parmesan.
It’s lovely addition to a charcuterie board, or just by itself, sliced thin, with a cold glass of rosé, maybe some chilled melon. And there’s an amazing sense of satisfaction that something this delicious could have been made so simply.
It’s also good in possibly the most satisfying sandwich ever assembled. Slice a fresh baguette, smear with some chèvre (or Saint Marcellin), cover with overlapping slices of duck prosciutto, a layer of greens (mâche or arugula), and smear the other bread face with fig preserves. Sweet, salty, savory, crusty. Seriously amazing.