After over two weeks in a salt cure for the prosciutto, and ten days of cure for the pancetta and guinciale, it’s time to hang!
The prosciutto must have the cure removed so that it can be covered in a protective layer of lard, pepper and cheesecloth, which will prevent air from penetrating into the ham and causing it to rot.
First, the excess salt is removed from the hams and they are rinsed in cool water, patted with paper towels to dry. Second, the hams are coated in lard, approximately 500g (~1 pound), paying special attention to cover areas on the ham with exposed meat (these hams have one entire side with a nice layer of fat; I used less lard on the areas already covered with fat). Next, cracked black peppercorns are used to coat the entire larded surface.
Since we’re wrapping the hams in four layers of cheesecloth, I had to think of the strategy for doing this with a ham coated in a pound of lard (i.e., to make as little mess as possible). So I coated one entire side of each ham with the lard and black peppercorns, and then I prepared the cheesecloth so that I could place it over the ham, and flipped the ham over (cheesecloth now on the bottom of the ham) to proceed with coating the remaining surfaces on the ham in lard and cracked pepper. I figured using this procedure would permit me to easily complete the process of wrapping the hams in cheesecloth without having to deal with getting cheesecloth set for wrapping on an entirely lard-coated ham. I would recommend that you strategize your method for doing this, because the hams are large and lard is messy (and we want these hams to be really nice, which means not allowing the smooth, even coat of lard and pepper to get screwed up during wrapping).
Once you’ve completely coated the ham in lard and peppercorns, it’s time to finish wrapping with the cheesecloth. Four layers is optimal, and you want the cheesecloth to be stretched slightly over the ham to make a nice, tight, wrapping. I think that a consistent thickness of the cheesecloth will help the ham age evenly, so look how you’re wrapping the cloth over the ham, to avoid bunching with too many layers in some areas, and an inadequate amount in others.
Once the ham has fully matured (4 months to up to a year), the cheesecloth, lard and pepper will form a rind that is either scraped or cut off before the ham is sliced and enjoyed. I understand that more than a flavoring, the pepper has the dual effect of also repelling insects.
Finally, once the hams are completely wrapped, they need to be tied with butcher’s twine. For some reason, I enjoy tying meat products to be dried. It takes me a while to do each one, but it makes me feel like what we’re doing is real charcuterie. However, my tying is not very fancy or pretty. I just want to create a stable netting to keep the cheesecloth rind in place and an even distribution of weight for hanging. Butcher’s twine is strong, but for such a heavy item, I suggest doubling the twine across the hams for reliable strength. I made two vertical lines of twine, intersected with three horizontal lines, and a nice strong sturdy loop tied at the top for hanging.
Once the hams were finished, I moved to the pancetta. Pancetta can be dried flat; you can wrap it in cheesecloth if you do it this way. Or, you can roll it into the traditional shape. I made one mistake here. I failed to rinse the sides before rolling and tying. Potentially, this may increase the saltiness of the pancetta, because some of the cure was left on the meat. However, I did carefully remove all of the excess cure liquid with paper towels, taking care to get the meat completely dry before rolling and tying. I think that the excess saltiness will be marginal (in light of the fact that the cure salts, seasons and preserves the whole piece through and through, and what’s left on the surface is a very small amount after completely drying and blotting with paper towels). I pray it will be okay, because I don’t want to re-tie these.
I cut six 18″ pieces of twine, which I laid out in parallel on my board, approximately 1.5″ apart. I laid one long vertical piece of twine over the six parallel lines, and then make a single tie of each line on the long piece, taking care to keep the distance of each parallel line equal. Then I rolled the pancetta tightly (observe the grains of the side to get the correct orientation; you will want your pancetta slices “against the grain”), trying to prevent any pockets of air within the roll. I placed the roll on my board with the string, brought the long end of string over the roll (parallel with the roll), and joined each horizontal piece of twine, trying to tie as tightly as possible. Finally, I tied the long end together, creating a loop at the top for hanging. I repeated the same basic process for the guinciale; this time I’m going to dry both pieces tied together.
Finally, I removed the entire contents of my “Curebrewzer”, a temperature controlled tall freezer, that was holding half a keg of St. Arnold of Soisson and about ten pounds of different hop varieties. The hops have been granted asylum in my primary beer fridge (although tightly packed). I still have to figure out what to do with the beer. I set the temperature up to 55F, and placed the tied meat to hang.
In the next 24 hours, I’ll be monitoring the temperature and humidity of the Curebrewzer to reach my target of 55-60F, and 60% humidity. Initially, the meat will lose moisture, which will increase the moisture, or humidity, of the air inside the box. You can counteract this with some crystalized cat litter placed in a pan in the bottom of the box. I noticed that this morning, the temperature was close to correct already, but the humidity was around 80%, and the paper towels in my plastic drip trays had already collected some moisture. So I placed a scoop of the kitty litter in one of the trays, and will keep checking (and adding or removing crystals) until we reach a good equilibrium.
Over time, as the meat dries, the humidity may drop, so that you might even need to add a small dish of saltwater to keep the humidity up to 60%. Either too much (encouraging growth of harmful bacteria) or too little (drying the edges of the meat, creating a seal which prevents proper drying of the entire item) humidity can ruin all of your efforts.
Finally, in the next day or so, I’m going to buy a small fan to place in the rack above the hanging meat to create a little ventilation. I’ve noticed that some people even add a little duct to their cure box to exchange air with the outside. I’m hoping I can get the conditions I’m looking for without cutting my Curebrewzer, but we’ll see.
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