If I keep this crap up, my spouse might disown me … but I can’t help myself. He dubiously accepted my homemade coconut extract. He’s been mildly suspicious of my icky looking bread starter. Home cured duck-breast was possibly the last thing he wanted to see whenever he looked in the refrigerator for the past two weeks. I don’t think it’s quite the final straw, but I bet I’m getting close.
A few months ago, inexplicably located in the pages of my trusty Cooking Light magazine, was a recipe for making your own duck prosciutto. Reading through the steps, it seemed straightforward enough. And the preparation being what it was, I felt comfortable that I wasn’t about to poison us. Like prosciutto ham, there are two steps in the curing process - 1. salting and 2. drying. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll realize that never is there any indication of cooking. Just as with prosciutto, the duck will effectively be raw, though the salt and lack of moisture make for an extremely inhospitable environment for bacteria. And seriously, it’s the bacteria you have to worry about - not the “raw”.
I purchased a single duck breast, taking care not to remove the skin. After thorough washing and drying, it was packed in a couple cups of kosher salt in a glass 8" x 4" baking dish and allowed to cure for 24 hours. Once the 24 hours was complete, the duck was removed from the salt and carefully rinsed and dried (I honestly forgot to then sprinkle it with black pepper as the recipe indicated). It’s interesting to note at this point that now that the salt has had a chance to do its job, the duck breast was much firmer than it had been when I purchased it.
The next stage was at least somewhat problematic. The duck breast had to be wrapped in cheesecloth and hung to dry and finish curing in the refrigerator for two weeks. The cheesecloth was easy enough – it’s readily available at most grocery stores. Hanging the duck in such a way that nothing was resting against any of its surfaces, however, was a bit more difficult. After considering a variety of increasingly inane solutions, I eventually rigged up a couple of old wire hangers to suspend the duck. By bending the hangers in half, I could stand them up. I hung the duck from the little nubby thing that results from the closing twist just underneath the hook. I know it doesn’t look like much, and it certainly wouldn’t hold a lot of weight, but it worked like a champ for my small piece of salted duck. I stuck the whole apparatus into an 8" x 8" glass baking dish for added stability and to make it easier to move. (And yes, this contraption was taking up valuable refrigerator real estate over Thanksgiving.)
Yesterday was the great unveiling. I carefully unwrapped my long-waited-for prize, and like all good cured meat, it just didn’t look like much. But it was sufficiently dried and there was no off odor about it, so I was feeling pretty confident. I grabbed my sharpest knife (they really need to make a trip to the sharpener) and carefully sliced the thinnest slices I could (which were probably a bit thicker than they should be). With Sean looking on in mild wonder, I popped the first slice into my mouth. The overwhelming first flavor was salt – I’m worried that I didn’t rinse it quite so thoroughly as I thought I had after that 24-hour rest in the kosher salt bed. On further consumption, the wonderful duck-fat flavor and the aroma and flavor of the duck itself came shining through. I offered some to Sean, but he politely informed me that he wanted to be well enough to drive me to the hospital if I needed it, so he’d hold off for now. I’m thinking that if I make it another day or two he might be brave enough to try some for himself.
Immediately, I’m feeling the urge to try it again (though I’m a little loath to give up my recently reacquired fridge space), only next time trying harder to rinse the duck breast clean after that initial salting. And I want to try and crush up some flavorings to sprinkle on it during it’s two week dessication in the refrigerator (in addition to the black pepper, I’m thinking juniper berries and / or fennel might be really fantastic). And I want to branch out. I’ve already been digging around Amazon for charcuterie books. There’s naturally “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing” by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (with forward by none other than Thomas Keller). Another one that interested me was “Cold-Smoking & Salt-Curing Meat, Fish, & Game” by A.D. Livingston.
I’d be curious to know if any of you out there have any other recommendations?