I Do Not Like Commercial Lamb. I Do Not Like It, Sam I Am.
I love the rich, gamey flavors of lamb. And I loathe the flavorless lamb we typically get in most grocery stores in this country. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating lamb in other countries you can appreciate the depth of flavor that comes with a pastured lamb raised on a diverse diet of plant life. Eating grilled lamb in Greece is a sublime experience. Eating lamb in the UK is a divine culinary game changer that will swear you off of Colorado or cryo-vac’d Aussie lamb from Costco for the rest of your life. Eating scottadito for the first time in Rome will make you wonder how you ever lived without it! It’s an elusive palette-pleaser that can only be found by buying lamb from small farmers in the good old US of A. And it’s well worth the extra few bucks when you get it at a Farmer’s market or direct from farm. Once you have it, you’ll never go back.
Lamb Prosciutto is for Purists
As most people familiar with salumi know – prosciutto is traditionally made from the hind leg of a pig. The name refers to the cut vs. the preparation so theoretically you can make prosciutto from the hind leg of any animal. It has been made for over 2000 years beginning in Parma, Italy where peasants would hang hams to cure for future consumption. Nowadays, it’s produced in various regions of Italy including Parma, San Daniele, Tuscany, Modena, Veneto and Norcia. All require a minimum of one year of aging.
But this isn’t a history lesson on traditional pig prosciutto. Now we are going to make lamb prosciutto! If you are a lamb lover this will blow your socks off. The gamey-ness and depth of flavor is stunning in the finished product. Plus, it doesn’t take nearly as long to cure as it’s porcine counterpart. Let’s get to it!
Step 1 – Procure Good Lamb
As previously mentioned, you can’t go wrong with getting a good leg of lamb from a small farmer at the market. Of course, you can make this with store-bought commercial lamb leg from wherever but if you’re about to go on this journey and spend the time and effort to make lamb prosciutto the right way then go large. Spend the money and see a better return on your investment in terms of quality and flavor. You won’t regret it.
I get most of my meat these days from Olsen Farms in Colville, Washington. Brent and his crew do a wonderful job with their animals and the quality is excellent. For my initial experiment, I bought half a leg to play with.
Step 2 – Prep Your Mise en Place
My friend Thierry Rautureau told me once that you should always prep your mise en place before doing any cooking whatsoever. So, I took his advice and measured out the cure and aromatics. Borrowing heavily from a recipe on Matt Wright’s Wrightfood blog, I prepped the following ingredients for my curing process:
These are laid out in order in clockwise order starting from the bottom left in the photo below:
Step 3 – Bone The Lamb
You can make lamb prosciutto either bone in (like Chef Derek Ronspies does @ Le Petit Cochon) or bone out for a quicker drying times. I chose the latter in this case as I wanted to taste the results of this preparation sooner than later. Bone in curing time will be approximately 3-4 months start to finish while this boneless prep took about 6 weeks to reach its desired weight loss.
When de-boning, use your knife to separate meat from bone. Make a long vertical cut from the joint up and then work your way around the bone leaving as little meat as possible on the bone. Here’s a good video that demonstrates the technique properly.
Step 4 – Cure the Lamb
Once you’ve gotten your lamb prepped and ready you’ll want to blend your cure and aromatics in a small bowl. Then, rub the lamb with the cure liberally inside and out covering all available surface area. Once you’ve rubbed the lamb, put it in a Ziploc bag large enough to hold the lamb in its entirety and seal the bag. Place the bag in the refrigerator for 15 days flipping every other day while redistributing the cure.
After this process has been completed, remove the lamb from the Ziploc. It should look similar to the photo below:
Step 5 – Rinse and Tie the Lamb Prosciutto
Our next step is to rinse off the cure and tie the lamb into a nice little package to keep all the bad stuff out (bacteria, mold, bugs, etc.). Rinse the lamb under cold water and dab off any remaining water with a paper towel.
Once you have your lamb prepped for tying, roll it into as tight of a ‘tube’ shape as you possible can to eliminate air pockets and then tie it using a continuous knot. Here’s a pretty simple video on this technique. You will likely have a few ‘odd’ pieces of lamb that just don’t seem to fit properly into the rolled shape. In order to remedy this I trimmed off one larger piece and inserted it into the center of the leg prior to rolling. It kept the shape intact and allowed the odd piece to be integrated into the leg through the balance of the curing process. You may also decide to case your prosciutto to slow the aging process and to limit air-to-surface contact with the lamb.
Once I finished tying the lamb, I rolled it in toasted fennel seeds to give it an additional flavor component. I love the anise flavor the fennel imparts on cured meats and I typically use toasted, cracked fennel seed or fennel pollen when I can find it.
Step 6 – Let the Prosciutto Cure
Now it’s time to wait… You’ll want to hang your lamb prosciutto in a space that is between 50-60 degrees and at 65-75% relative humidity. If you don’t happen to have a curing chamber handy you may be able to use a basement space, closet or garage if you have one. These are recommended ranges but you can get by give or take a few degrees or percentage points. Depending on how wildly your temp and humidity fluctuates you may experience fast drying, case hardening or worse. If you do hang in an open space you may also want to wrap it in cheesecloth to keep any bugs from enjoying it.
Prior to hanging, measure the weight of the lamb prosciutto and record it. We’re looking for a 30-35% weight loss here and you’ll want to weigh on a weekly basis to track progress. Once you hit the 30% mark it’s game on. You can choose to wait longer allowing for more weight loss and further depth of flavor but be careful not to go too far. My prosciutto took about 4 weeks to dry to the desired weight. This will vary based for you based on temperature, humidity, weight and moisture content of the meat.
Step 7 – Mangia!
It’s the big day. Your lamb prosciutto is finished, at the ideal weight and the cure is complete. Let’s eat! I love to pair the deep, gamey lamb flavors with a bit of sweetness and sharp cheese. If you have a slicer then bonus. If not, take your sharpest knife and slice it as thinly as possible. The texture and width of the slice definitely impacts the mouthfeel and flavors of the lamb prosciutto.
Also, Fig jam or membrillo work well here. Manchego is also a nice accompaniment or a nice chevre rolled in ash. Alternatively, you can use your lamb prosciutto to make some beautiful soups with or even a nice lentil dish. There are a lot of possibilities here.