Introduction: Deer Prosciutto

About: Desk Jockey in WA

Americans are missing out on dry aged meats. For whatever reason, we can't walk into a grocery store and pick up a high quality cut of aged meats. Sure, there are pre-packaged prosciutto and salami, but it's nothing compare to what is available in most of Europe. Cultural melting pots like New York City have a better selection, but they're few and far between.

This is what got me thinking, can I make prosciutto from deer?

This Instructable is designed to show you how make Deer Prosciutto.

Processing Deer Prosciutto is basically the same as traditional Pork Prosciutto, but the fact that deer is a significantly leaner meat means it doesn't have to age nearly as long. However, this is still a year-long process, so don't go starting it if you plan on moving any time soon.

Timing is really important in long-term dry aging if you don't have a temperature and humidity controlled environment dedicated to the process. Traditionally, aging meat was done by salting or smoking it and storing it for the winter when meat was less plentiful. The process used here is incredibly similar to how it was done hundreds of years ago, before refrigeration was an option.

Achieving a 33-37 F temperature while salting the meat is pretty easy because you can store it in the refrigerator, but you probably don't want to do that for a full year. Starting the aging process in the fall and storing it in a root cellar is ideal. The cellar temperature should be around 50 F while hanging, and by the time summer rolls around the higher cellar temperatures shouldn't have a negative affect on the meat that has already undergone most of the curing process.

Step 1: Meat Selection

First of all, it's important to pick the right meat for this process. Obviously, I chose deer. I did it for a couple reasons: 1 - it's easy for me to get a whole deer leg; and 2 - I can control how the meat is processed. This second reason is more important than you might think.

If you go to a grocery store and pick up a chunk of beef or pork to dry age, there is no telling how it was already processed. Was it hung in the butcher's shop or immediately frozen?

Hanging an animal prior to processing is important to the quality of meat. It's a form of short-term dry aging, and it helps to add flavor, texture, and resistance to negative effects from freezing. Many commercial butchers don't hang meat, or they don't hang it for long enough. Depending on how old the animal was, the hanging process should take as much as two weeks at a temperature of 33-37 F. During that time, it should lose weight due to evaporation of water held in the meat. This can cut into a commercial butchers profit because it eats up valuable floor space and produces less end product.

Freezing meat prior to dry aging is a no-no, but sometimes can't be avoided. Really, it's just going to lessen the quality of meat, but it shouldn't have any health or safety issues associated with it. When meat freezes, the water trapped in the proteins crystallize and can rupture cell walls and break down protein structures. This will result in meat with a mushier texture. If freezing is required, it's best to freeze as quickly as possible with as cold of temperatures as possible. This will create the smallest possible water crystals in the meat and affect the quality less. Dry ice (but not in direct contact with the meat) is a good option for those of us without a commercial freezer.

When making Prosciutto, how you cut the meat is important. You want smooth surfaces, not a bunch of nooks and crannies created by making too many cuts into the meat. You're going to have to rub salt into each and every one of those cuts for every day for two weeks, so don't make your life more difficult than it needs to be.

I selected a whole bone-in hind leg, cut at the ankle joint and the hip joint. This leaves the smooth upper and lower leg with zero cuts into the meat. The only difficult part to get salt into would be the hip end. But there's no way around that...

Step 2: Salt

Salting meat will completely cure it if done right. You won't have to cook it, smoke it, or do anything else to make it edible.

An over-simplified explanation of why salting meat works: Most bacteria requires moisture to grow and reproduce; and, it doesn't grow well in salt solutions of 20% or more. By salting meat, we do two things: we draw the moisture out and we put salt in. This all happens via Osmosis. It takes a while for osmosis to work, and it has to get to all of the moisture in the meat, so you're going to need a lot of salt.

Stock up on salt. I used about 5 pounds of table salt and 2 lbs of #2 pink curing salt for one deer leg.

Most salt is created equal. It doesn't matter if it's kosher salt, pickling salt, or ice cream salt. If the ingredient list is: Salt. Then you're good. You don't want the salt that has additives. Believe it or not, some salt has additives. Mostly, they're there so the salt doesn't clump when it comes in contact with moisture.

You will also need #2 pink curing salt. This salt has nitrates and nitrites in it, which help with the long-term curing process. A good alternative to curing salt is to use celery salt. Celery salt also has nitrates in it that are released into the meat to help the curing process over a long period of time.

Don't mix the pink salt up with the stuff you put on your mashed potatoes, though. Too much of it is a bad thing, but don't worry; we'll be washing it all off before we hang the meat.

  • Put the meat in a container with tall sides and cover completely, top and bottom with salt. Really rub the salt into all of the imperfections of the meat. Don't neglect the area around the bone ends and the imperfect cuts on the hip end. For the first few days regular salt is best - save the pink salt for later.
  • Once the salt is generously covering the leg, loosely cover the container with foil and put it in the fridge.
  • There is an artery that runs the length of the leg. The weights in the photo are to depress that artery so all blood is removed. Leave the weights on during the entire time in the refrigerator.
  • You're going to have to re-salt it at least once a day for the first 5-7 days. There will be a lot of liquid pooling up in the bottom of the container. Discard it and add more salt.
  • After day two, start adding the pink curing salt to the mix 1/2 a pound at a time.
  • I chose to rotate the leg every couple of days, but as long as you're removing the liquid in the container, it's not necessary to rotate the leg.
  • Continue to discard the liquid and add salt daily for at least 2 weeks. It may take longer. One day you'll notice that there isn't any more liquid coming off the leg. That means it's almost done. I'd even wait another day or two, just to be safe. Your goal is to remove as much of the liquid as possible, and leaving it salted for an extra day or two isn't going to hurt anything.

Step 3: Hanging

Prosciutto is traditionally hung for a minimum of a year. Deer prosciutto only requires about 3 months, because it is a much leaner meat. ...but a year would be better.

Remember how I said in the introduction that meat aging is best started in the fall? It should be about the beginning of winter when you're ready to hang a salt-cured leg. This should correspond quite nicely to the temperature you want to hang it at - about 50 F and 65-80% humidity. By the time summer rolls around and the temperature increases, the meat should be plenty stable enough handle higher temperatures without spoiling.

Generally speaking, the longer you let it hang, the better.

After the salting process, you should have a dry, dense piece of meat. It's visibly smaller, surprisingly hard, and it should have lost a significant percentage of it's weight.

  • Wash the salt off of the leg. Pat dry. The salt has done its job, and now the meat is theoretically safe to eat. But we want full flavor, so we need to hang it for about a year.
  • Put the leg in cheesecloth for hanging. You want something that breathes easily. You want any leftover moisture in the meat to have the opportunity to evaporate, so good air flow is ideal. For mine, I used a disposable game bag.
  • Hang it in a cool dark place that won't be in the way. You don't want to have to move it too much in the next year. Ideally, 50 F and 65-80% humidity. A basement or root cellar should work pretty well.I hung mine in a root cellar inside of a plastic container I built. Rodents could be a problem there, so I wanted to make sure they couldn't get to it.

Pests could potentially be a problem. I honestly don't know if a mouse or rat would be interested in it, so I took precautions to keep them away. Bugs were not a problem. The meat is dry enough at this stage that flies don't seem interested in it. I never saw any bugs investigating it.

Mold, generally speaking, is good for the aging of the prosciutto. Ideally, a white mold will form. Most colors of mold are okay, but if black mold develops, your storage area needs to be disinfected and you need to start completely from scratch.

The mold will increase flavor in the meat. Each mold tastes different, but generally reflects its smell. If an unappetizing mold develops, you can cut it off before it completely changes the taste of the meat.

Step 4: Carve the Leg

After hanging for about a year, it's finally time to bring it inside and try it.

By now, the leg should have lost even more weight. The texture should be similar to a spare tire. This rough outer layer needs to be trimmed off. It's not appetizing, it's extremely tough, and it's covered in mold.

Before bringing it inside, I washed the mold off of the leg so it wouldn't get spores on the other food in my house (which is why that first photo looks wet).

I carved it off the bone using a boning knife, then put the meat on a fresh paper towel to carve the outer layer off with chef's knife. When I flipped the leg to carve the other side, I replaced the paper towel with a fresh one so the mold spores wouldn't get into the freshly carved meat. The aging process is done, so I wanted to minimize reintroducing mold into the meat as much as possible. Naturally, some will get in, but hopefully not as much.

I would encourage cutting the meat liberally. The outermost layer is tough, but it's also the saltiest part. Parts near the bone and on the ends have the most potential for spoilage, so closely look for discoloration and smell those parts for any offensive odors.

Carve the meat into the largest pieces possible, and if available, run them through a meat slicer in small quantities. The meat is more apt to spoil if it's sliced thin and stored in your fridge for another year.

If you don't have a meat slicer, a sharp chef's knife will work. The thinner the better - this stuff is rich.

At this point, you can freeze the meat without the negative side effects that you'd see with fresh meat. The moisture content is so low that crystallization isn't a major concern. But if you do freeze it, freeze it in big pieces. They'll keep much better.

How does it taste? Gamey. And Salty. Really good on a cracker with some cheese. Wrap it around a pickled asparagus spear. Tasty.

Finally, food poisoning sucks, so if you're at all concerned about the quality of the prosciutto, don't eat it.

Step 5: Resources

Side Dishes Challenge

Participated in the
Side Dishes Challenge