When we decided to make artisan cured meats on the homestead, it was not out of a desire to sell to a market or create a business. It was out of a necessity to save meat for long term storage. Being off grid means we don’t have abundant electricity beyond what our solar panels provide. We can pressure can meat, but what happens if we ever ran out of lids or the pressure canner breaks? Pressure canning is actually a pretty modern convenience.
So what did people do to preserve meats 200 years ago and even before that? These skills are not lost, but you have to go looking for them. Recently, there has been a resurgence in artisan meat companies, as well as many people dabbling into this as a hobby at home.
Unfortunately, as a result of the home hobbyist, there is a lot of bad information out there. Curing and aging meat with the wrong methods can be dangerous. The good news is, you will most likely see and smell the error before you put anything tainted in your mouth. But there is a chance that you may not.
We don’t do pork on the homestead. We do lots of venison. Prosciutto is generally a pork product, but can be done with other meats with little issue as long as you stay true to the same methods of the ancients when working with pork.
I recently searched the internet for people who have successfully attempted to create a venison prosciutto. I came up empty. But the reason was because I saw so much error! I’m far from an expert, but I saw so many mistakes.
Please let me explain. First, go to someone that has experience in making prosciutto. They will be familiar with the time tested methods of making preserved meats like prosciutto. You can find folks with these skills in Italian neighborhoods of most major cities. New York, St.Louis on “the hill”, etc.
Here are some of the mistakes I saw over and over again from people who attempted making their own venison prosciutto.
- Never use previously frozen meat. A real prosciutto is always a fresh kill. Never frozen.
- Never use a brine. All real prosciutto is packed in salt with time based on weight.
- Never soak your newly cured prosciutto in fresh water. You’re just leaching out the salt that you just put in it and opening up to all sorts of aging problems. This is never how real prosciutto is done. Just simply rinse off, pat dry and then hang and/or cold smoke and hang.
As of this typing, I have two venison prosciutto packed in heavy salt with celery powder for nitrates. This will cure for 30 days with draining any liquid away each day and then re-packing with salt. You’re going to need a lot of salt. Truth be told, you only need salt with no additives. You don’t have to use any fancy sea salt or kosher salt. Go to walmart and pick up a 40lb bag of Mortons pool salt for $5. It has NO ADDITIVES, NO ANTI-CAKING AGENTS, NO CHEMICALS AT ALL. It’s just pure sodium chloride salt. The celery powder I use has plenty of nitrates that will be drawn in with the salt to be converted to nitrites during the aging process.
- ALL real prosciutto is aged for a minimum of 12 months. Some argue it has to be 18 months. No cheating!
I have seen people online attempt to cut into their venison prosciutto after only 3 months. This is crazy and not near enough time for the meat to age. The aging process is a big reason why prosciutto tastes so good. If you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself.
Please understand that artisan meats like Prosciutto are begun with a process that starts in winter. Why? Because in times past, this was how you preserved meat for the upcoming year without refrigeration. You butchered or harvested your animals and game in Nov-Jan and cured and hung to age. The initial aging and drying must take place in the cold months. The humidity is usually lower in winter and that allows the hanging meat to further dry out as it hangs.
Then by time spring comes around, the meat has lost so much moisture that hanging in 70+ degree temps is no problem. It can go through summer still hanging in any room of your log cabin/home and not spoil. Today we are so far removed from these concepts that we try to attempt these artisan practices with our modern climate controlled homes and wonder why we have failures.
Also, you don’t have insect problems in winter. Insects will be attracted to fresh hanging pieces of meat and the last thing you want is fly larva on your prosciutto. By the time spring rolls around, the curing and drying process is about over and insects will have no interest in a hanging salt block in your home.
You can’t attempt this feat during the summer with a previously frozen piece of meat purchased at your local grocer or dug out of your basement freezer from your last hunting trip. You’re setting yourself up for guaranteed failure from the start.
Also, thinking you’re going to hang and age this in your fridge for 6 months or in your climate controlled basement in a home that houses a family that prefers the temp in the winter to be 75 degrees inside is not going to work either. Or at least it’s going to give you roadblocks to overcome unnecessarily.
Things to keep in mind
- Meat butchered in winter
- Salt cured in winter
- Hung and drying process started in winter
- Winter is normally lower in humidity
- By the time spring and summer are here, the majority of the drying process is done and aging is all that is left to do. Temp is not so much a factor as it was before.
It’s possible to achieve a good venison prosciutto, but you must adhere to the time tested methods of the ancients.
Your newly hanging meat should lose about 30-40% of its weight during the drying process. Some people measure this with scales and a log book and that is fine. But you should be able to tell if your hanging meat is losing weight just by picking it up. It should be shrinking over time. Your meat should never give an “off smell”. If it does, toss it. You did something incorrectly and you need to start over.
The important thing to remember when learning a skill like this is to go to someone who is already skilled and achieving success. In fact, go to as many people like that as you can. Forget the home hobbyists. Learn from the charcuterie specialists that practice the methods of the ancients.
You’re first attempt might not be perfect. But with each attempt, you will learn how to make a better product for your family.
Have fun! 🙂