CURED & SMOKED: A PRIMER ON HAM
by Peter Burrows
As told to edible South Shore & South Coast
Why do we tend to serve ham at certain holidays like Easter? What’s the best way to cook a ham? What are the alternatives to the chemically-enhanced versions found in supermarkets? What even makes a ham a ham (besides being derived from “the hind legs of swine”, as defined by the United States Code of Federal Regulations)?
Peter Burrows, who raises hogs at Brown Boar Farm in Vermont and markets the meat here in Southeastern Massachusetts, has given a lot of thought to these topics and shares a few insights with us.
- Q: Why is ham so popular as an Easter meal?
A: The answer is part ancient religious tradition, part culinary technology: Followers of European pagan religions considered eating wild boar an appropriate activity to celebrate the return of spring, so the idea of a porcine meal in that context long preceded the arrival of missionaries from the East and their rebranding of the “heathen” holiday into the Christian Easter.
The technology factor is almost as ancient. Salt-curing the meat from domestically raised animals solved an important logistical problem. The autumnal livestock slaughter—necessary because the animal feed was slim in winter—resulted in a seasonal glut of meat that would spoil without treatment. Skill with salting—reported of the Gaul’s by ancient Roman observers—provided a tasty protein supply to mete out through the cold months. The best-cured cuts—the hams—were perfect for holiday feasting even in spring.
- Q: When did the European love of ham make its way to the Americas?
A: The earliest European explorers and immigrants brought their traditions and their farm animals with them; adaptable hogs are omnivores that can thrive in most environments. Columbus brought eight pigs with him on his voyage to Cuba in 1493. Those not eaten on the voyage were put ashore to proliferate, providing meat for hunting on return trips. Hernando de Soto brought 13 pigs to Florida in 1539; three years later, his original herd had grown to 700. Cortés introduced hogs to New Mexico in 1600, and Raleigh to Virginia in 1607.
By the end of the 1600s, the typical New England farmer owned four or five pigs, supplying salt pork, ham, and bacon for the table. As long as the terrain of the eastern seaboard of North America remained forested, hogs would thrive better than sheep and cattle, making pork a staple of colonial diets.
- Q: What might one of those colonial hams been like?
A: Much closer to the ‘country’ hams still being made in the American South, or other prized traditional hams made by dry-salting, perhaps followed by a brining, then a smoking and/or drying period.
- Q: Oh, so more like one of those famous Old-World hams?
A: Yes, but of course artisans in different countries and cultures refined hog-raising and ham-curing to suit local tastes. The most famous of dry-cured hams are the Prosciutto di Parma of Italy, Spain’s Jamón Serrano and Jamón Ibérico, Germany’s acorn-fed Westphalian Ham, and the Jinhua ham from the Zhejiang Province of Eastern China. The French tout several fine provincial hams and Ireland is noted for brined hams uniquely flavored with peat smoke. Scotland has its Scotch ham, England has its Wiltshire and York hams, and the list goes on. For us here in southeastern New England, Portuguese presunto, found at corner groceries in New Bedford and Fall River, is a great choice.
- Q: Then why is the typical American holiday ham so different?
A: The most common, center-of-the-table ham that most Americans serve at Christmas or Easter has been skinned and wet-cured and often hot-smoked. Industry insiders often call this a city ham to distinguish it from its old-school country cousin. Developed in the early twentieth century, this type of ham relies on refrigeration technology for preservation.
The brine can be basic—water, salt and sugar—or it can be a veritable buffet table of additional ingredients. The wet curing process is often accelerated through mechanical pumping using needle injection. Nitrites are often used in curing, creating the distinctive pink or red tinge to the meat that most Americans identify with ham.
Smoked hams have spent a couple days to a couple weeks in a smokehouse or its industrial equivalent after wet-curing.
- Q: What can the USDA label tell me about the ham?
A: The USDA strictly regulates ingredients used in processing and curing, and these ingredients must be disclosed on the label. If your meat product was cured using nitrites, you will see the words “sodium nitrite” clearly on the ingredients statement. Like any processed food, there is no shortage of other ingredients that can be added to ham, like water to increase weight, artificial smoke flavoring, maple flavoring, and coloring. So we do recommend that consumers look at the labels carefully.
When cured hams are labeled “ham,” it means there is no extra water. “Water added” means that hams were injected with water to keep them moist, as well as to increase the weight. “Water product” indicates the use of a yet more complex solution. “Natural flavors” does not always mean what you think it means. Does the USDA require that all hams be made with so many additives?
- Q: Does the USDA require that all hams be made with so many additives?
A: No, the USDA requires that ingredients used to make the ham must be disclosed on the label, but the choice of those ingredients is up to each manufacturer.
Brown Boar’s hams are produced in a USDA slaughterhouse and are smoked naturally with real hardwood chips; the only ingredients are salt and sugar, never nitrites. However, please note: ham cured without nitrites will not be pink. Consumers are often surprised to recognize that tasty ham flavor can be achieved without a never-ending list of chemical ingredients. What won’t the USDA label tell me?
- Q: What won’t the USDA label tell me?
A: Unfortunately the USDA label will not inform you about animal welfare, the use of unnecessary growth hormones and prophylactic antibiotics, or the pig’s diet. If these things are important to you, look for additional labels that might give you some indication that the animals were raised humanely and organically, and ask your butcher or supermarket for advice.
Fortunately, consumers who care about what they eat have many choices today, including requesting hams produced from heritage breeds, raised outdoors, naturally. Pasture- and forest-raised heritage pigs have a superior taste and texture, with natural marbling for rich and juicy roasts.
- Q: What is the best way to cook a ham?
A: Almost all city hams have either been partially or fully cooked before they are packaged. Check the label for cooking instructions, or ask the seller for recommendations.
The most traditional way to prepare a whole ham of this type is to bake it. For a ham that has only been partially cooked, allow about 20 minutes per pound in a 350-degree oven. A fully-cooked ham will require about 10 minutes per pound in order to be heated all the way through. A thermometer will register an internal temperature of 160 degrees when the ham is ready for serving.
- Q: How do I keep the ham from drying out?
A: The meat of heritage breeds has more marbling than that of lean industrially-raised hogs, so cooks don’t have to be as anxious about drying it out in the oven.
That said, we do have a couple of tips for keeping your ham moist and juicy. First, always place the ham cut-side down in a baking pan. We like to start out with a cup or two of apple cider in the pan. If the ham is going to be in the oven for more than an hour, place a foil ‘tent’ over it. Brush the ham with the pan juices every 20 minutes or so. To finish the ham and give it a deliciously caramelized coating, remove the foil tent, brush it with pan juices one more time, and then turn the oven to the broiler setting for about five (well-observed) minutes, or until nice and browned.
Brown Boar Farm
543 Lamb Hill Road
Wells, VT 05774
Peter Burrows is the owner of Brown Boar Farm, a Vermont-based, family-owned business offering restaurants and discriminating consumers humanely-raised heritage pork at affordable prices.