Curing Wild Boar

My wonderful neighbor Ron surprised me a few days ago with some cuts from a few wild boar he shot on a recent hunting trip.  I took that as my excuse to get set up for home-curing…something I’ve been researching for a VERY long time.

Curing meat through the application of salt, occasionally smoke, and subsequent hanging to dry, is the oldest form of cooking.  It’s been practiced by our ancestors for thousands of years.  And cured meats are among the most sought-after and expensive artisan food products on the planet.  Ever heard of Prosciutto di Parma or Prosciutto di San Daniele?  How about Jamon Iberico or Speck?  These are all dry cured hams from artisans in Europe, and they can run upwards of $1,000 PER HAM…or around $75 per pound.  And the techniques used to cure these meats have been passed down through families for generations.

There was a time in our own country’s history where virtually everyone on the farm cured their own hams and bacon, so they could be hung in the cellar for months at a time, without requiring refrigeration.  (When was the last time you saw a ham for sale that was hanging from the ceiling of the store, unrefrigerated, rather than in a cooler?)  Properly cured hams can last 2 years without being refrigerated.

The process of curing concentrates the flavor of the meat into an explosive, pungent burst of taste in every thinly-sliced morsel.  Virtually any meat can be cured.  (There’s even such a thing as duck and ostrich prosciutto!)  Wild meats are well-suited to curing, and in places where cured meats are eaten regularly, like Italy, wild boar meat is especially sought-after.  So it made perfect sense when Ron gifted me 2 shoulders, 2 legs, and 2 loins that I cured them all.  I selected traditional Italian recipes for the curing…and by “recipe” I really mean “method.”  Salumi (the Italian word for meat curing) is the art of taking what nature has given us, and doing as little as humanly possible to make it the best it can possibly be.  The recipes for the classic hams of Europe call for nothing more than meat and salt…and perhaps a bit of black pepper or wine.  That’s all.

The starting point for curing meat is the salting procedure.  Most recipes call for a salt addition equal to 8.5% of the weight of the meat.  Which means you have to weigh your meat.

Here you see the shoulder, which will be cured into “spalla,” already rubbed with salt and black pepper.  You can see the weight and salt requirement written on the parchment near the cut.  It’s very critical when curing meats to minimize the amount of bacteria that come in contact with the meat.  So always wash and sterilize your hands (or wear sterile rubber gloves), and work on surfaces that are immaculately clean.  The salt helps prevent bad bacteria from growing on the meat, but the less bacteria the salt has to deal with, the better.

Above, you see the back legs (or hams) of the boar, which will be turned into prosciutto.  Making the correct cuts for each type of salumi is WELL beyond the scope of this blog.  (Book recommendations will follow.)  For beginners, it’s best to leave the bone in the cuts while curing, because the more you slice into meat, the more crevices you leave for bacteria to take hold!  Once the meat is prepared, you add 8.5% of the weight of the meat in salt.  (I used Morton’s kosher salt.)  Rub the salt all over the meat, and make sure to get into all the nooks and crannies of the meat, where the bacteria may be hiding, as you see in the photo to the left.

For some meat cuts, like the shoulder for making spalla, or the loin for making lonza, you can add some toasted, cracked black pepper to the salt:

Once the meat is salted, it’s time for pressing.  For smaller cuts, like the loin, you can put them in a plastic ziploc bag with a bit of additional salt:

For the larger cuts, use a large pan, or if you don’t have one big enough, a black plastic garbage bag.  For full sized hams, you want to lay them on a bed of salt, and pack additional salt around it, so that all surfaces are in contact with the salt:

Then you place it in the fridge and weigh it down.  The amount of weight depends on the original weight of the meat.  For prosciutto, you want to use a weight equal to the meat’s weight.  So if it’s a 10 pound ham, you need to place 10 pounds of weight on top of it.  It’s best to place a small baking pan on top of the meat, and then your weight.  I used cast iron skillets and cast iron lids.  You can use bricks, big cans of tomatoes…whatever you have.  For smaller cuts like loin or shoulder, 8 pounds of weight is a good all-purpose weight.

Refrigerate the meat for 1 day per 2 pounds of weight.  Every day or so, flip the meat in the salt and rub it with salt again.  You’ll notice juices leaching out of the meat.  If there’s enough juice to gather in the pan, pour off the juice.  If there’s just a bit of juice, mix it with the salt and rub it back onto the meat when you flip it.

When the required salting time is finished, remove the meat from the salt and rinse it with cold water…then pat it dry with paper towels.  Now it’s time for a wine bath!  This optional step just involves bathing the meat in a dry white wine:

For pepper-rubbed cuts like lonza and spalla, you can now sprinkle finely-ground black pepper onto the meat, and it’s time to lay it on top of the twice that it will be hung with:

There are number of traditional ways of tying meat for hanging, but you can also improvise.  Use all-natural string, like cotton twine.  Don’t tie it too tight, just firm enough so that it can hang securely:

Once the meat is tied, it’s time to hang.  Up to this point, no “special equipment” has been necessary to cure meat.  But now, you need a temperature and humidity controlled environment that the meat can dry in.  If you have a cellar or unfinished basement pretty much ANYWHERE in the country, the conditions there are probably ideal for meat curing.  You want a temperature between 55 and 70 degrees, and a humidity level between 60 and 70 percent.  If you don’t have a cellar or unfinished basement, you have to build yourself a curing “room.”  I did it in an old refrigerator (which cost me $50 on Craigslist) plus about $150 worth of equipment to precisely control temperature and humidity.  (Check out the blog post on how to convert a fridge into a curing chamber.)  Some people cure in a mini-fridge turned to its warmest setting with a bowl of water added to contribute humidity, and have excellent results.  So if you want to try home-curing on the cheap, that’s a great place to start.  But unless you can accurately know and control your humidity and temp, don’t expect exceptional results.

The meat needs to hang until it has lost 30% of its post-salting weight.  (So make sure to weigh your meat after the salting and pressing!)  For small cuts like young wild boar, this can happen in a few months.  For a large 25 pound ham, it can take a year.  These 14 ounce lonzas at left will probably be cured in a month or two.  The 4 pound hams will probably be cured in 4-6 months.  The longer you cure meat, the drier it gets, but at some point it will become so dry that it’s nearly impossible to slice and eat.  So it’s not a Bordeaux, which you can keep for decades and it keeps getting better.

Aging (hanging) meat is an art.  I’m no expert, and neither are you.  Salumi artisans in Italy, who’ve been doing it since childhood using family techniques perfected across centuries, will stick a long thin bone into the prosciutto and remove it, and they can tell by the smell when the ham is ready to eat.  And there are a HOST of things that can go wrong during the hanging phase…if you start getting any color of mold other than white growing on your meat, you need to wash it off with salted vinegar, and say an earnest prayer that the mold isn’t growing on the inside of the meat, as well.  If you are curing in a cellar or basement, you have to be careful of pests, as well…mice and insects.  (That’s less of a problem in a retrofitted fridge.)  However, the best cured meats in the world come from damp, dingy, century-old, dirt-floored basements in Europe, and just like the French attitude toward wine, the Italians say that only Mother Nature can make salumi.  If you start with a good pig, and have the right environment, excellent salumi will result.

Note the operative words there…”good pig.”  You can’t go to the grocery store and buy a ham, and make superb prosciutto.  Commercial pork is raised with a careful diet that makes it leaner than chicken.  Such meat will NEVER produce even decent salumi.  The Italians have heirloom breeds of pig that are renowned for having a high fat content, and they feed these pigs acorns…fruit…milk…and a variety of natural foods that produce meltingly-tender, fatty meat that is perfect for curing.  So don’t bother going to the time and expense of home-curing unless you have a source for excellent meat.  Luckily, there’s probably a pig farmer within a hundred miles of you who is raising heirloom pig breeds.  Red wattle hogs are becoming the popular breed for American farmers to raise…they are much-loved in Italy.  Craigslist is an excellent place to start, as is a visit to your local Agriculture Extension office.  If you can find a source for hand-raised, heirloom-breed pork, then you’ve got the perfect starting point for making world-class salumi at home.

For an excellent primer on curing meats at home, check out Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn and Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting Smoking and Curing, by the same authors.

Subscribe to my blog in the window near the upper right corner of your screen, so you don’t miss my post on how to build a home curing room using an old fridge!  And feel free to comment below…I’d love to hear any stories you have about home curing, or about great memories eating excellent cured meats!

23 Responses to Curing Wild Boar

  1. I usually return from my hunting trips with a couple of javalinas… Do you know if they’re any good for this?

    • Fernando, javalina can be a bit gamier than wild boar, but if you’re accustomed to eating them, they’re probably great candidates for curing. Just remember that the curing process CONCENTRATES the flavor of the meat. So if it’s already on the border of being too gamey tasting for you, it’s gonna be 10 times stronger once it’s cured. There are other curing methods that can help mitigate flavor…you can use a wet brine that includes sugar and other flavoring components like molasses, that can add additional flavors that will soften the gaminess of the meat. Let me know if you end up curing any, and how it tastes! WORST case scenario, you grind up the meat and make javalina salami! When you cure salami, though, you need to add nitrites to the meat to protect yourself from botulism during the drying process. There are a number of special curing salts that already contain the proper ratio of nitrites…Morton makes 2 varieties. Make sure you get one for sausage.

  2. Also, what safety measures should someone take when doing something like this?

    • Common sense if the best safety measure. If you cut open a piece of cured meat, and it smells rotten…don’t eat it. (However, cured meats have a natural “funky” smell and taste that can be misleading.) Any presence of mold of any color other than white on the inside of the meat means it has gone bad. White mold is fine. Colored mold on the outside of the meat needs to be washed off with salty vinegar. Make sure you sterilize anything that comes in contact with the meat to help prevent accidental inoculation. And always maintain good practices when butchering your animal…get the guts out of the carcass as quickly as possible, try not to cut open the intestines, and be precise when breaking down the carcass. Messy cuts can harbor bacteria.

  3. Torture. I wish I had space to build a curing chamber! I did some guanciale in my fridge that came out great, and then it got tossed out by mistake when we lost power during the hurricane! Grrr. I am gonna try some duck prosciutto in the fridge tho…

  4. allison proctor

    I think javelinas are the same as wild boar, so most likely they’d work great.

  5. allison proctor

    oh, nvm. They are not the same. BUt I still think it work, considering any type of meat can be salted and cured.

  6. As long as they’re females, they’re edible. Males have this gland that really stinks the meat up. Usually what i do is either tamales (mixing them with pork) and the ribs i put them in the oven with wine and potatoes… Awesome!

  7. What is the ideal minimum and maximum temperature and humidity for aging of prosciutto ( it has been salt cured and is in the initial aging stage )

  8. Thank you so much for the quick response . I can see that I already like your web site . Though the target temp is 60F what is the min and max temp that can be tolerated without compromising the aging process. I am asking this because the aging will be done in my wine cellar and the temperature could get a higher up to 75 F in summer and even about 32F in winter . So know the min and max I then can take steps to keep the temp between the min and max .
    Thanks

    • Frank, you’ll have to see what results you end up with. The ideal temp range is 60F-70F. Anything over 70F and you start inviting sweating, bacteria growth, and rapid curing. (However, some meats in Spain are cured at 80F…their flavor tends to be very pungent.) The lower the temp, you start losing the curing process and you end up with refrigeration instead. So cure in the spring and summer and fall when the temp remains above 50ish, and hopefully you’ll hit your target weight before the temps plunge in winter.

  9. Ben, thanks for the blog. I tried making wild boar prosciutto almost the same way… I covered the skinless ham with salt, cayenne, crushed red pepper and paprika. It was pressed for a month and a half,(likely way too long) then rinsed and covered with lard, since it was skinless. I hung it for 2 months with lard until a local salami maker said he did the same but the lard gave it a bad flavor, I painfully removed all the lard, washed with saltwater vinegar solution, and rehung in my curing chamber 55 deg 65% humidity. The ham started about 10 lbs and has gotten very dry, so I sliced into it to taste it. I found it to have a good flavor but is way too salty. I’m thinking of soaking it in some red wine in the fridge for a few days and rehanging to remove some saltiness. What do you think? Any better way to remove overly saltiness?

    • Tim, cured meats are often incredibly salty…this is why they’re usually sliced paper thin for serving, and served with someone to balance it out, like melon. I’ve never tried soaking and rehanging…do some research to see if others have done that. I usually accept the saltiness as “the way it is” and use the meat in an application where it’s balanced…like lining the cups of muffin tins with thinly sliced prosciutto, a bit of goat cheese, and cracking an egg into it and baking it until the white is just set. The overall seasoning is perfect.

      • Thanks Ben,
        Being a fan of cured meat, i like my meat salty, but this was over the top, after being sliced and rehung in the curing chamber, salt started to crystalize on the exposed flesh. Since i have 2 of the wild boar proscuitti, I went ahead and started the clean water bath with one, i tasted the water, and it is very salty now, since it is the end of day 2 I am going to hang it up again and I’ll let you know. My theory is that the meat hasn’t had a lot of time to really age, just to dry. And I’d rather try this than have a salt lick that no one wants to eat. On a related note, I have since decided to use the equilibrium method for all my meats in the future. Infant I started a piece of pork shoulder in a simple salt, cure 2 and pepper cure, with the hope of making something more like a commercial prosciutto without the bone. I’m wondering though if the shoulder cut will yield an appreciable flavor/texture difference than the ham cut. I’ll find out in a few months.

  10. Hi Ben, I have been instructed by an 80 year old man here in Kentucky to not salt cure any hams after the last week of Jan. He said ideal temp range was between 30 and 60 degrees. He leaves skin on. I have 4 hams and 2 shoulders in cure in my outside wooden shed which has air gaps. I found your site by wanting to do 2 more hams and shoulders that each weigh app. 40 pounds each and have been skinned/skinless. You staed to do the curing in spring, summer and fall. I am confused!!!! I want to hand my hams and shoulders now and it is Feb 14th if you think it will be safe. I also have a muggy damp basement that I could use for the curing. Please give me yur advice and opionion of the winter 30 – 60 degree curing method and remember it is outside in a barn shed shaded by trees on a mountain side.

    Thanks,
    The Real McCoy

    • Thanks for your message, good sir! Your old timer is curing in his basement, probably, or a porch outside, in which case, you DEFINITELY need to cure in the winter! I cure in my chamber, which is a constant temperature and humidity year round, in which case it doesn’t matter at all when you do the cure. I don’t cure outside because Texas doesn’t have an acceptable climate for curing. You should go with your old timer’s advice unless you are curing in a climate controlled curing chamber, like I am!

  11. Hog Heaven in Cleveland

    Really enjoying this site…
    I’m experimenting with my first boar shoulder. Very excited. I’ve experienced incredible results in my 50 bottle Silhouette Wine cooler. We’ve done several lonza, duck prosciutto, spec, pancetta, etc. My only problem is that the humidity maxs out at around 53%. It seems like this causes my projects to lose 30% faster than expected. I use a dish of salted water with a sponge. Any other helpful advice ?

    My 10 year old daughter (assistant and taste tester) confessed in outdoor education that her favorite food was our homemade duck bacon!!

    • Howdy, Michael! The dish of water is the conventional solution to add humidity to modified small fridges…but they DO cure meats faster, which results in some flavor loss. Luckily, with wild boar, it’s already got so much flavor, you’re probably okay. Just don’t let it over-dry, and if you’re discovering that the outside cures fast but the inside isn’t cured yet, you may need to occasionally wrap your hams in wax paper for a few days to give the interior moisture time to migrate outwards. Just don’t do it more than a few days before letting it breathe, or mold buildup may be a problem.

  12. Ive found skining introduces more salt into the meat leaving the skin on (prosuitio) works better.. ive followed a parma ham recipe salt two weeks rinse re salt hang 5 months, then pepper lard the meat bottom only hang for another 9 or more months. Ps dont hang by a hook use rope and also use salt peter or sodium nItrate on the end of the bone shank. Stops the bone from milking. Salt peter can be found in your pharmacy may have to ask over the counter and ya want to tell him its for curing meat and not making exsposives.
    Prior to doing anything ya must exspose the ball joint press the ham so any remaing blood comes out the joint.clean up tags etc

  13. Hello Ben
    I loved reading your blog…very inspirational……Can I ask about nitrite free methods….I would love for someone to confirm to me that I can salt (using only natural salt, not a #1 or #2)and then hang whole muscle meat with no intent to cook it afterwards and still live to tell the tale!
    I already know that I can make say….Panchetta this way because of cooking Panchetta after hanging……but lets say that I air dry /hang it for longer than say 5 months with no intention of cooking…..with care and attention with no bad mould am I able to safely eat it??????????

    • Aaron, people have been curing meats without nitrites for much longer than they have WITH them. However, cases of death way back then would hardly be linked specifically to cured meat. It’s much safer to cure a whole muscle without nitrite than it is to cure a ground product like sausage, and PLENTY of home curers do hams and shoulders without any nitrite at all. There’s even a commercial sausage curing place in Chicago that doesn’t use nitrites in their SAUSAGE. However, since I feed my cured meats to people I love, and the risk of botulism in cured meats is fairly significant, I err on the side of caution and use nitrites. I don’t consume TONS of cured meat, so the smaller health risk of a bit of nitrite here and there is, to me, worth the risk of accidentally killing SEVERAL people I love by botulism, which is a painful, nasty disease often resulting in death.

  14. love the information here! I live in Australia and hunt feral pigs(wild hog) here. I was looking for ideas on how to put the meat to use and this has been a fantastic help! Thanks !