An Idiot’s Guide to Ham
Few cuts of meat have such a rich history across cultures and continents as the ham. Pork lends itself to a wide diversity of applications in the world of charcuterie: bacon, sausage, pâtés, and terrines, among others. Representing the primary source of animal protein for many Europeans and Asians, pigs (like goats in the Middle East) were perfect for farming communities as they could be fed whatever scrap was left over from harvest. In many localities they were allowed to run wild for most of the year and then herded into the cleared fields. By the time it came to butchering, the pigs had gained substantial fat, especially around their mid-sections (which became the source of bacon, lard, and pork belly) but retained the muscular development they had developed in the wild. The curing process was the natural result of having leftovers from the butchery – the leg (both fore and back) was a singular, lean cut which lent itself to preservation.
Dry-cured ham involves a thick paste of seasonings and salt on the outside of the ham. The salt prevents bacterial action, while time and air circulation lower the water content of the ham, concentrating the flavor of the meat. Dry-cured hams, most often known as “country ham” in this country, are renowned for their salty pungency, like an aged cheese. Due to the intensity of its flavor and the cost of production, dry-cured ham typically is served in small portions.
A wet-cured or brined ham uses a liquid preservative, either a period of immersion in seasoned brine, or an injection of brine, seasonings, and curing agents. These hams, due to the shorter period of preservation, tend to retain more of the flavor of the seasoning, particularly sugar which is commonly used to offset the saltiness of the brine. Wet-cure is the type most people are familiar with, both in sandwiches and on the dinner table. It may also be known as “city ham”. Due to its moisture and milder flavor, as well as the substantially cheaper production process, wet-cured hams are carved in more generous quantities.
Smoking is a technique which is employed independently of the preservation process, though it tends to be more common for dry-cure hams to give the salty meat more depth of flavor. This practice is particularly common in country ham, which is smoked beforehand, in effect producing a fully cooked ham before the preservation even begins.
While many parts of America, particularly the southern United States, have a rich tradition of ham-making, it’s the European hams that often garner the most respect and admiration, especially in the dry-cure department. While American dry cure typically follows the British model, other European hams distinguish themselves by the unique qualities of their production. The European Union recognizes a number of ham varieties and provides them regional production, so when looking to try the best European ham products you should make sure that you’re buying the real thing, with a PDO or PGI label, just as you would if you were purchasing a good European cheese. That being said, some of these hams won’t be seen stateside, as their production processes are considered unsafe. Here are some of the most well-known European hams:
Among European hams, the prosciutto of Italy is probably the best known stateside due to its prevalence in Northern Italian cuisine. Parma is one of the most famous producers; prosciutto di Parma is well-aged (minimum 12 months) and uses only a small amount of salt and no other elements in its cure. Lard is spread over the outside to seal the meat off from the air. The resultant meat is known for its pungency and low saltiness and features in many sauces, salads, and antipasti.
Ham is a major player throughout Spain’s culinary world due to its past associations with Christianity. Spanish hams are meticulously regulated on the basis of the diet, breed, and area of origin, producing some of the most unique hams.
Jamón Serrano relies on natural airflow that can only be found in the mountains to dry the meat with minimal heat; these hams are very low in salt and are called ‘sweet’ despite having no other seasonings.
Jamón Ibérico comes only from black Iberian pigs. Their quality is judged on their diet – the best hams (jamón de bellota) come from free-range pigs fed on a diet of nothing but acorns when they are fattened up for slaughter. Ibérico are often aged for years to develop a potent flavor that is best appreciated in small, thin slices.
Anyone who has visited a deli is probably familiar with the Black Forest hams, which are originally from Germany but in the United States, typically refer to a particular cut and curing process. Black forest is well-seasoned, dry-cured, and cold smoked, producing a distinctive dark exterior (as opposed to the rosy color on a hot-smoked country ham). The ham is only aged for a short period, allowing it to remain moist enough to be deli-sliced rather than shaved. It is often eaten on bread or in cooked dishes.
Ham’s distinct, prominent flavor and long shelf life have given it a prominent position in many cultures’ cuisines. In Germanic cultures, ham takes center stage around the winter solstice when wet-cured hams are reaching their prime – hence the popularity of ham at Christmas. In Spain and Italy, hams were the ultimate pantry food, providing farmers a protein-rich, flavorful supplement to a heavily grain and vegetable-based diet. Spain really takes the concept and runs with it – for Christian Spaniards, eating pork was a sign of patriotism and piety, as Muslims and Jews (and by association any converts who weren’t genuine) abstained from eating it. France and other parts of Europe are no less ham-happy; France has given us a rich variety of ham sandwiches, from jambon-beurre to croque-monsieur (and madame), while the legacy of proximity to German or Italian cultural spheres has spread hams through the Balkans. In Britain, ham is the most popular sandwich meat, reflecting a long history as the cheap meat of choice for the working class.
If Europeans can be distinguished by their rich interactions with specific types of hams – dry-cures around the Mediterranean, wet-cure in Germany, Britain, and northern France – then surely America’s history with ham is most notable for its diversity. America’s love affair with the ham sandwich can be tied to French and German influences, while immigrants from Italy, Spain, Latin America, and Portugal turned to wet-cured city hams in place of prosciutto, jamón, and fresh pork. In the South, dry country and wet-cure Louisiana hams are a big deal thanks to rich connections to British and French ham culture, particularly when glazed with honey for Christmas or Eastern, but also in unusual dishes like “ham salad” (like a pâté).
If you’ve got a hankering for ham, and your religion and dietary beliefs allow it, try these recipes using both American and European-style hams: