There's a dose of magic in fermented and cured foods. With none of the fussing involved in most cooking, cured and fermented foods need only salt and time, maybe a few herbs, sometimes water, and voila: You completely transform a natural product into a totally new thing. It's an alchemy, a wizardry, an old knowledge brought new. Even though we can now explain why it happens, document the bacterial process, and measure the pH and water content, the transformation never ceases to amaze. The intense, complex flavor of prosciutto has nothing to do with the taste of the raw pork that bore it. And what really happened? It was covered in the world's most common mineral, and then left out for a few months. I can't get enough.
Last year forageSF cured a wild boar leg (shot by a friend in Sonoma), which we salted for three months in the fridge. Just covered in salt, threw in some herbs, and left it alone. It had a pretty amazing intense, rich flavor. Got the gaminess of the boar, but made more complex with the cure.
This time around we're doing it right. Meat first salted, then hung for four to six months. Prosciutto needs good airflow while it hangs, as well as moderate temperature and humidity. A garage, or a living room, or an office, or above your bed so you can stare dreamily up at your creation while drifting to sleep -- all good places.
I got the bones of this recipe from my own personal hero, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (of River Cottage, The Meat Cookbook, and The Fish Cookbook, among others), but it's a recipe that's been pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years.
The basic process is:
1. Salt cure for 1.5 day/per lb.
2. Wash in water and white vinegar
3. Wrap and hang for 4-6 months
- Wine box
- Boning knife
- Muslin (you can get this at a fabric store)
- Salt (about 15 lbs.)
- Herbs and peppercorns
- Butchers twine
- Rope for hanging
- Weight (1.5 times the de-boned weight of your leg)
The hardest part of the process is preparing the leg. I got a whole leg from Devils Gulch, one of the best local farms I know. It came with the shoulder attached, so separating that, then getting the femur bone removed is the first step. My first task was separating the shoulder and removing the femur bone.
There are two main ways to go about it. The shortcut option is to cut along the side, remove the bone, then sew the leg back up. This is a totally reasonable way to do it, but smacks of cheating in some way. A whole leg should stay whole. The second option is known as tunnel boning, and is pretty much what it sounds like. Tunneling into the leg, making small cuts until you can pull the bone out. It takes some knife work, but if you get a boning knife (cheap ones are about $7, and the cheap ones work fine) and take your time during the process, you can do it. The best part is that it feels like a total pro move, and is incredibly satisfying when it's done. Here's a quick video of the process:
Next step is to mix salt with bay leaf and peppercorn and salt the leg. Rub the entire surface of the leg with salt, as well as the interior of the leg where you took the bone out. Really get in there, don't leave those little bacteria anywhere to hide. Once that's done, pour a one-inch layer of salt on the bottom of the wine box, place the leg inside the box, then pour salt to cover the leg by one inch. Don't be stingy. Salt is your best friend in this process.
Balance a weight on top of the leg (I used a container of potatoes, but anything works). Liquid is going to escape, so have a sheet pan or something below to catch it.
Leave in the fridge for 1.5 days per pound. This process is going to squeeze out a lot of the moisture and weight.
Take out the leg, rinse off the salt, then rinse with white vinegar.
Wrap in muslin, two layers.
Wrap your leg in rope, then hang for 4-6 months. It should be dry but have just a bit of give when you poke it. Eat!
NOTE: This is a primer on prosciutto, if you want to make it yourself there is great info online about exact temp and humidity requirements, as well as pictures of what mold is good mold and what mold means terrible things. Definitely do your research.