Magazine article Sunset

The Right Ham for Your Table

Magazine article Sunset

The Right Ham for Your Table

Article excerpt

Which kind should you buy? What size suits your dinner plans? This primer makes it easy to decide

Ham for easter dinner sounds simple, but shopping brings reality. Getting the ham you want means making choices. Do you want a whole ham or a portion - and how big a portion? Ham with or without bones? Ham that's naturally shaped or reformed? A cured ham - but cured how? A raw ham or a cooked one? A ham that's smoked or one that's not?

Technically, ham - the hind leg of a hog - can be plain raw pork. But to most of us, including butchers, ham is a cured leg that is pink, sweet, salty, and, usually, smoky. The curing method and the type and amount of smoke used produce very different kinds of hams. The basic cure for ham is a blend of salt, sugar, spices, nitrites, and nitrates (some of both are naturally present in pork). Proportions of these ingredients can vary considerably, and each has a specific task. Salt firms and draws moisture out of the meat. Sugar keeps the meat supple and transports spice, smoke flavor, and some moisture back into the tissue. Nitrites and nitrates preserve the meat and retain its pink color.

This mixture can be rubbed on as a dry cure, or mixed with water and used as a wet cure.

When smoking is part of the ham-making process, it can be applied several ways. The kind of wood or blend of woods affects the ham's flavor. If the smoking fire is hot, it cooks the meat and colors its surface. If the smoke is cool, it imparts a much more delicate flavor but doesn't cook the ham. Liquid smoke may also be added to the curing mixture.

Dry-curing is the old-fashioned way to make ham. The leg, well coated with the cure mixture, is hung to dry slowly - for a few months to more than a year. As the cure penetrates, the meat dehydrates, becoming firmer and denser, and the flavor grows more complex. As the meat loses liquid, the salt concentration increases until it gets high enough to prevent the growth of bacteria and parasites. The texture of dry-cure hams ranges from smooth to slightly fibrous, creamy to firm, and moist - yet not juicy - to quite dry; the meat is salty. Hams made this way include imported Black Forest (heavily smoked), country (includes Smithfield, usually cool-smoked and also available cooked), prosciutto, and Westphalian (cool-smoked). Most often, these hams are sold thinly sliced from the deli case.

Wet-cure hams are much faster to produce than dry-cure ones. The cure mixture is added to water. This brine is injected evenly and quickly throughout the leg, or the meat is immersed in the brine for a time. …

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