From N., 5 December 2011, ham – a primer?

Q: This feels pedestrian after all the fancy jamon talk, but having grown up Jewish and not being exposed to ham, I’m at a loss when it comes to hams. I’m also thinking of cooking one this Christmas, since I have found a great local pork supplier (http://www.broekporkacres.com/) which has taught me that I actually do like ham, much to my surprise. I just don’t like store-bought ham.

In preparation for my order (discount if pre-ordered!), can you explain the difference between sweetheart, dry-cured, boneless old-fashioned hams and bone-in hams? The sweetheart ones are apparently smaller, but is there anything else? I’m assuming I want bone-in, to use the bone, but I thought I’d ask whether there’s anything I need to know or think about when buying a ham.

A: Thanks for your question. There is no such thing as a pedestrian discussion of ham.

I know what you mean about the store-bought ham. I’m going to avoid providing too many details here so I don’t alienate the person in question, but a certain someone I know once made a big production of hosting a Christmas Eve dinner, billed to guests as the traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes, that actually consisted of a rotini pasta salad, a bowl of green peppers in bottled Italian dressing, and a deli tray of thickly-sliced supermarket ham and cheese. The other guests were visibly angered by the fraudulent offering and no one, not even my husband, went back for seconds. The quivering pink ham, sugar-sweet and waterlogged from its brine, was supposed to be the star of the show but it mostly just bummed us all out.

In its most basic form, the ham is just the ass end of the pig, including the leg down to the shank. In common usage, “ham” refers to the cured product, and “fresh ham” to the cooked, uncured meat. Dry cured ham is rubbed in a dry brine of salt (and sometimes sugar and spices like juniper) for a couple of weeks to a couple of months, after which the cure is washed off and the hams hung to dry in a cool environment for months and sometimes over a year. Sometimes the hams are smoked. If eaten raw, they should be shaved into paper-thin shards or sheets, thin enough to see through. If cooked, they need to be soaked – both to rehydrate them somewhat and to remove some of the salt – before pan-frying in thin slices. They’re still pretty salty. Dry hams include prosciutto, Black Forest ham, American country hams, Spanish jamón or Portuguese presunto, and Chinese jinhua ham, among others.

Supermarket hams and other moist hams requiring refrigeration are wet-cured hams, soaked in a salt and sugar brine before smoking (or not). Lower quality hams are formed from smaller pieces of meat or even coarsely ground meat, rather than a single integral ham cut; in many cases, they also are injected with brine to speed up production. In the United States, hams not made from a single piece of meat must be described as such (such as sectioned and formed, or chunked and formed); I don’t know if that’s the case in Canada. Regardless, what you want is a ham made from a single cut of meat, and the best way is to get the bone-in ham. Not only is it a good sign of an intact ham, but the bone helps keep the ham moist as it cooks (although it will take longer to cook) and contributes flavor. It also makes a hell of a bean soup.

If you’re looking to prepare a traditional baked ham for the holidays, you probably don’t want a dry cured ham. As delicious as they are, dry cured hams are very salty, even if soaked in several changes of water for days before roasting. They must be served in thin slices, usually with a bland accompaniment like biscuits or grits. Wet-cured hams, even though brined in salt solution, aren’t particularly salty tasting, and are delicious when roasted with a sweet glaze.

The sweetheart ham is a cut from the shank end of the leg; it’s a boneless single cut of meat. I haven’t used it before but from what I understand, it’s usually about three pounds or so. If you trust your meat supplier, it’s probably a nice way to go if you want something easy to prepare and slice, and small enough that you won’t be eating ham for the next two weeks.

Good luck with your ham selection and let me know what you choose, and how you prepare it!

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