Yesterday, after seven long months, one of the two “Salumi” prosciuttos hanging in the curebrewzer emerged! The other one will continue to “ripen” for a few more months, until I can properly plan an event that revolves around all the fantastic dishes that contain prosciutto.
If you recall, at the beginning of the process, after curing in salt, the hams were coated in a layer of lard and covered in cracked black peppercorns. Then, they were wrapped in cheesecloth and set to hang in the curebrewzer where the temperature and humidity is controlled and kept at approximately 60 degrees and 60 percent humidity.
During this time, I periodically checked the hams by visual inspection only. I did not, as some people recommend, attempt to insert a metal skewer inside the ham to check it. Despite hanging at temperatures well above refrigeration for a period of many months, these hams have very low risk of spoiling, versus something like an air-cured salami. Plus, I figured that some vague description (“the removed skewer will smell ‘cured'”? Thanks!) of how to do it and what I would be looking for wouldn’t help me very much anyway.
A ham is a whole muscle — very tightly packed protein. At curing the flesh takes on a significant amount of salt while losing a lot of its water weight. It becomes even more dense. Nasty aerobic bugs have no way to penetrate inside the ham and survive. Poking holes into a ham basically equates to opening a door for these icky bugs, and even if the risk if fairly low, it didn’t seem worth doing.
I completely unwrapped the cheesecloth. The cheesecloth, lard and pepper covering is supposed to provide a protective layer while permitting some exchange of moisture so the ham can continue to mature and lose a little extra water weight. The more moisture that is lost will concentrate the ham flavors, make it a bit chewier and saltier. The aging will impart a nutty flavor and aroma to the meat.
The cheesecloth did develop some patches of multicolored mold on the surface, but as I anticipated, the mold never got close to penetrating past the layer of lard. I treated these areas with a spritz of white vinegar and a dusting of sea salt, which killed the mold and kept it contained.
During unwrapping, I avoided contamination with any viable mold spores by removing the cheesecloth and throwing away the parchment sheet that I was using as a surface for the ham. Then, when I scraped off the lard, I replaced the second sheet of parchment that the ham rested upon, so that once the rind of the ham was exposed, any residual contamination was gone and the ham was on a clean sheet of parchment. Finally, after scraping, I took a few paper towels to remove the last smears of lard, fully exposing the rind of the ham.
Since this prosciutto was being given to a friend, but I wanted to do a “quality check”, I cut off just one small portion of the rind, which had oxidized a bit and taken on a light tan/ochre coloration, to expose a deep pink rose colored flesh, with a tint of peach that was more prominent after shaving into thin slices.
How did it taste? Fantastic. No off flavors at all, just a warm and earthy “pig” aroma, the slightest hint of iron and butter, and a clean balanced saltiness that really typifies a good salt-cured ham. It is not more salty than other good prosciutto or Serrano ham that I have tried, and the texture is also very nice, a bit more tender than your commercial domestic “prosciutto” examples which are sometimes quite chewy and hard to bite through. A thin slice could be easily pulled apart with the fingers and had a nice “melty” quality on the tongue.
In other words, I’m really proud of it, and it will be not be easy if I ever stop making this stuff and have to go back to relying on Costco or Trader Joe’s for prosciutto. Most of the domestic salt-cured ham just isn’t anywhere close to the real deal, and even imported prosciutto is not the truly high-end ham that you can only get in Italy.
We have two more whole fresh hams from a second pig, waiting to be cured in the same manner. These hams are quite a bit larger than the first set, and so I will have to modify the process a bit to accommodate the extra size. I think that I have also learned that I can be a little bit more judicious with the amount of lard and number of layers of cheesecloth to use in wrapping the hams. I think just a little less would permit slightly better moisture exchange, which may be important since the next two hams will be almost twice the size of the first two.
A very successful first trial!