Monday, July 27, 2009

show me how you do that trick

Last year I cured a country ham in my refrigerator and hung it from my bedroom loft. So let's start with that, that's a good meaty post to offer up for posterity. 

Country ham came first, is the thing.

Chances are most of the ham you've eaten -- canned hams and their Sixlet cousin Spam, the deli ham used in sandwiches, vacuum-sealed ham steaks, the ham of most Denver omelettes and chicken cordon bleu, holiday hams with pineapple rings and cloves, Honeybaked ham -- is city ham. This is what we usually mean when we say "ham" without further information. ("Ham" isn't a very useful word, since it refers to salt-cured pork from the leg, or in the case of "fresh ham" or "green ham," cuts from that leg before curing. "Bacon" covers the belly and jowl. That leaves the whole rest of the pig without handy words to talk about its cured state. But food language is another topic for another time -- probably never, though my grousing will be in a lot of parentheticals.)

City ham is plunged into or injected with a wet cure -- a brine, saltwater with possible seasonings -- from which it soaks up moisture, becomes more tender, and gets salty. If the brine includes curing salt, as it usually does, that's what keeps the ham pink after cooking. It will sometimes be smoked. It has to be cooked before it's eaten.

This is "city" ham because compared to other, older, forms of preserving meat with salt, it's ridiculously frail and ineffective. You're making a product that will last longer in the refrigerator but isn't really preserved as such, not with all that moisture. It's cheap, easy to cook, easy to manufacture, and soft enough that a machine can easily chop up the scraps and mold them into something marketable, but it really isn't very good.

Country ham is not that.

Preserving food is fundamental to the history and practice of cooking, and is as old as people are. Once you've slaughtered an animal in a pre-refrigeration age, you have a large amount of meat and a small window of time in which to deal with it. This isn't an apple tree, you can't come back for the rest of the pork chops later. You salt or smoke or dry or pickle or do whatever you're going to do with it. Nobody was waiting around for refrigerators to be invented, shrugging their shoulders and accepting the waste in the meantime.

In a world where steaks and pork chops come packaged in similar sizes, it's easy to forget that a cow is much bigger than a pig, and that they're very different animals to raise. Cows are big and dumb and were high-maintenance animals to raise for meat, until open range ranching was pioneered just in time to take advantage of refrigerated trains and a population boom among affluent Americans, the combination of which created a demand for transcontinental steak and a tradition of steakhouses in industrial Midwestern cities like Chicago. That left a lot of beef leftover from the rest of the cow. The children of the generation riding those rails invented the hamburger sandwich just in time to take advantage of the latest faddish food craze: tomato ketchup. That generation's grandchildren invented McDonald's. That generation's grandchildren are us.

Meanwhile and previous, everybody came up with ways to preserve meat other than cooking it. Bresaola, prosciutto, pastirma, sausage, everybody had their something. Some of it's around now, some of it only in the old country or dusty neighborhood markets. We don't have to preserve our meat anymore, so mostly we don't bother. We don't cook much anymore either. Maybe we chop something once in a while. Maybe we peel something. Maybe we simmer.

Salt, air, and a dry environment help draw moisture out of meat, which makes that meat a less hospitable environment to harmful bacteria. Retarding the growth of those bacteria allows their competitors, the beneficial Lactobacillus bacteria -- you know them from their other hits, Cheese, Kosher Pickles, Sauerkraut, Kim Chee, and Sourdough Bread -- to thrive, which raises the acidity of everything around them. This is why pickles are pickles, and not just wet vegetables. This is why sourdough is sour. The acidity makes the environment even less hospitable to harmful bacteria, and they die off. The ham hanging from my balcony for months, properly prepared, was more bacteria-resistant than the steak sitting in your fridge.

Meat isn't dangerous. It can go bad, but people too often don't understand why, and when all you know about something is that "eventually it'll turn into something bad for you," you start to see that hazard as something innate to the thing itself, residing in it and waiting to pounce. Meat doesn't hate you. Meat doesn't hold a grudge. It's not waiting for you to look the other way so it can suckerpunch you with some foodborne illness. Meat is a place where bad things can come to live if you let them. That's all. People have been preventing that from happening for a very long time. You can trust the process. You don't have to be scared of food. Just learn more. Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention.

Pork becomes country ham gradually. The salt has to penetrate, the bad bacteria have to die off, the good bacteria have to flourish and do their little dance. It takes three, six, some months. Maybe ten. Maybe a few years. It's a living thing: the taste will continue to change, though the rate of change is slower and slower after the first six to ten months.

Country ham doesn't taste like city ham. You know that if you read all that. It's made differently, it's chemically distinct, it's a different dish from some of the same ingredients. It doesn't have to be cooked, though it almost always is (prosciutto is essentially the same as country ham, but is served uncooked). It doesn't have to be smoked, but it often is.

Even most country hams these days are mass-produced, injected with saline solution and aged under climate control in order to reach a minimum standard as quickly as possible before being sliced and sold to food service wholesalers for biscuits at Hardee's, Cracker Barrel, et cetera. That ham's perfectly fine, but well-aged ham is even better.

I covered my fresh ham in salt, and I mean covered it, and kept it in the fridge for about six weeks, pouring off moisture as it collected and rubbing with salt again as necessary. Eventually, the salt that was left barely even dissolved.

Country ham, in progress

Then it was time to equalize it.

Country ham, in progress

The surface salt was rinsed away, and the ham bagged in fresh plastic bags and returned to the fridge, with the fridge at a higher temperature, in the 40s. During equalization, the level of salinity throughout the ham comes to equilibrium, as salt near the surface makes its way to the core.

After equalizing for a month, the ham was hung up to cure for another seven months (longer would have been fine, obviously):

There's a country ham hanging from my balcony

Yes, that's a fishing net and duct-tape.

This is the ham after hanging:

Seven months after being hung ...

And after simmering in Coca-Cola to soften it enough that it could be carved:

The ham after simmering in Coca-Cola

The ham

Lookit that. Lookit that ham. That is some ham, buddy.

Some carved ham

Carved pieces of ham waiting in a roasting pan while I tend to the rest.

Chopped ham

Chopped ham, for rice and soup dishes and deviled ham.

Slices of ham

Slices of ham, ranging from thin for sandwiches to thicker for "ham steaks" to have with eggs or grits, or to incorporate into jambalaya.

I started curing a new ham, with New Mexico red chile added to the cure, almost immediately after taking the old ham down. We'll see how this one turns out in December, or next year:

New ham being cured


  1. LOL, did you really have that ham hanging there for 7 months? hehe. You'd have to say Hi to it every day wouldn't you? Hey hammy, what's doin? OK I'll leave you hanging. :P


  2. Did it not need to hang in a cooler area like a cold room or something?