Culatello – The King of Prosciutto!
The most prized pork product in Italy is not prosciutto, it is culatello. Due to the extremely long and precise aging process, and the quality and cut of pork – the culatello reigns supreme over all. Imagine the best prosciutto you’ve ever had. Now imagine taking the best part of that prosciutto and having it all by itself. That, my friends, is culatello.
This lovely, delectable cured salumi is traditionally made from the fillet of the pig’s thigh. It’s cured for over a year and, once finished, looks like an over sized egg. I was inspired to make one after tasting a version that my dad made in California from a Mangalitsa hog raised nearby. The texture and taste were incredible. So, my journey began…
Sourcing Your Pork
Making culatello takes little more than time and the right conditions. It isn’t a difficult curing process but it is a long one. As with any cured meat – the end product is highly dependent on the source ingredients – namely the provenance of the pork. I only buy pork for curing from farmers I know and have met. I like to understand how they’ve been fed, treated, and raised in general. I also like to understand the breed of pig I’m working with as they are clearly not all created equal – despite Orwell’s insistence.
In this version, I’m using a Berkshire/Duroc cross sourced from Morse Family Farm in La Connner, WA. My buddy Kevin raises these beautiful piggies on open pasture feeding them grain and produce from Dave Hedlin’s farm. It’s a beautiful place and the hogs truly look happy. The saddest day of their life is made just a bit better when Kevin feeds them wine-soaked barley just prior to slaughter. So, at least they go out on a bender.
Pretty simple right? Well, the hard part here is finding the beef bladder as they are not readily available in many places. I’ve purchased them from friends on the Sausage Debauchery FB forum (there’s nothing more interesting than clandestinely trading meat parts on Facebook) and through Butcher and Packer. You may also find them via Evan Brady’s Craft Butcher’s Pantry and Overseas Casing in Seattle. You may also use hog bladders for a smaller culatello but I really find it difficult to stretch them out enough to fit larger cuts of meat (over 4-6#).
Other than that, you don’t need much besides patience and a curing chamber (or basement) with temps at 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity of 65-75%. Keep in mind that if you are curing one of these in your basement that your temps and humidity need to stay constant throughout the year – else you may end up with a brick or a puddle of ectoplasm.
Butchering the Pork
I have to admit that trimming out the culatello on a whole hind leg of pork is a bit intimidating the first few times. I’ve illustrated the process below but I am certain I could have done it better as my knife skills improve and I have more practice. The thing is, unless you are getting into the business of making culatello’s you probably aren’t going to do more than a couple of these bad boys every year.
The key to the butchering process is to take the large muscle group off the fore side of the leg as shown on the left in the image below. The smaller piece shown on the right is called the ‘fiocco’ – the little brother to the culatello. This cut also gets tied and cased in beef or hog bladder and is typically cured for a shorter time than the culatello due to its smaller size. Anywhere from 4-8 months while shooting for a 35-40% weight loss is likely to give you a nice rendition.
Tying the Culatello
Since the muscle grouping is a bit amorphous I find it’s germane to tie it together to make sure that it remains a unit throughout the curing process. Shown below is the culatello off the bone and ready to be tied.
Just use a simple butcher’s knot to tie the muscle together as shown below.
Curing the Culatello
The cure is simple – just use salt. I use salt in the amount of 3% of the green weight of the culatello and nothing else. No #1 or aromatics. You want the meat to speak for itself and to let its flavors shine through. So, much like prosciutto, there’s simply sea salt, pork and the environment at work here.
After applying the salt cure, store in large 2.5 gallon Ziploc bags. You can’t find these in the store so you’ll need to head to Amazon or a restaurant supply shop near you. I don’t apply any weight or pressure on the meat as I do with some of my other preparations but I do let the cure stay on the meat a bit longer. In this case, I generally do 1 week for the fiocco and 2 weeks for the culatello.
Once the curing process is complete, remove the culatello from the bag and rinse it off with cold water. Then pat down with paper towels to remove excess moisture. Some recipes instruct you to give the meat a quick wash with a dry white wine to inhibit bad bacterial growth but it’s really up to you.
Casing Your Culatello
Now the hard part is upon us. I’d never seen or worked with beef bladder before attempting to make this and it was, needless to say, an experience. First off – beef bladder stinks. Go figure. So, it needs to be soaked in water overnight to remove some of its ‘terroir’. The other surprising thing is that the bladder expands an exponential amount. When I first removed the bladder from the salt it was preserved in I didn’t think that there was any way it would fit this huge piece of meat in it. But, alas, nature and physics were on my side. The bladder is quite elastic so after soaking it plumped right up.
After removing and rinsing the bladder from the water it’s been soaking in, you’ll want to snip the top open with a sharp pair of kitchen scissors to give it a very thorough rinse inside. I use lukewarm water to do this and I alternately fill and empty the bladder several times until I’m satisfied and it becomes more pliable.
At this point, I cut the bladder and make a seam about three-quarters of the way down from the top to the bottom. This allows me to insert the culatello into the bladder more easily.
Now, sewing this thing up is no easy task. It can be frustrating to say the least – especially if your culatello is on the larger size. The image below represents about 45 minutes of work with a repair of a small tear due to excess pulling on the bladder to get it shut. You must use a butcher’s needle for this operation. It’s essential.
In addition, you want to be sure that you push the needle through the bladder about a half-inch from the seam. If you get too close to the edge it will tear and you’ll need to make another incision with the needle which will weaken the structure of the bladder.
Tip – if you somehow have gaps or small tears in the bladder after sewing, you can take bits of other casings (if you have them lying around) and patch things up. I use beef middles and push them under the skin so that they are flush with the bladder. You’re not trying to win a beauty contest here and the main goal is to protect the meat and to allow it to cure consistently and without bad bacteria getting inside.
Tying the Culatello
So this is a real challenge for the newbie. I watched some videos on YouTube (this guy is ridiculous and has a much bigger beef bladder than I do) to get a better understanding of how to do this as my books really have poor sketches of this process. Essentially, you are using 4 pieces of long butcher’s string to create a vertical tie structure and then building a lattice of string around it. It almost looks like a bit like Provolone cheese that has been tied to hang and age.
Tying the lattice starts by taking about a 3-4 foot piece of string and tying it together around the base of the vertical strings. Then, you simply weave it through the vertical strings going clockwise around the culatello until you reach the top. You then secure the vertical strings with the string you used to build the lattice and tie them off until they are secure. After that, make a loop with the remaining string for hanging the culatello.
The aging process for culatello will range anywhere from 8-14 months depending on the weight of the meat and the conditions in your curing chamber or area. I shoot for 35-40% weight loss in as I think it creates the best texture and firmness in the final product. However, your tastes may be different from mine so you can play with these weight loss ranges a bit and find something that suits you. Just be sure to keep it to a minimum of 30% weight loss.
The Final Product
After all this waiting it’s time to cut it open and slice off a few pieces. Unlike other salumi, there’s always more anticipation when breaking open a culatello due to the long aging process. The first time I made this I didn’t tie the meat tightly enough and ended up with a bit of a donut – a culatello with a large cave in the middle. The meat was fine for the most part but there was also a good amount of case hardening which was a bummer.
This time around, I got it right. The meat was cured beautifully after being hung for just about a year. I could perhaps do better on the tying job and possibly should have pulled this one a bit earlier as it’s nearing 44% weight loss. However, it’s nutty, oily, and melts in my mouth. Well worth the wait.
If you enjoyed this post stay tuned for more great step-by-step recipes focusing on curing meat at home. Please check my other posts on Salumi and Charcuterie at TheHungryDogBlog.com or on my own personal site as I continue the journey to learn how to make the slowest of slow food.