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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

All About Ham

Hamming It Up!

My wife and I were attending some fancy function or other. The guy acting as master of ceremonies onstage was a fellow broadcasting “celebrity.” Having been around the local area practically since the days of Marconi, he was what you call “beloved.” And, boy, was he ever laying it on. Not at all out of character for this fellow, but a bit inappropriate for the occasion. The event was not intended to be a “star” vehicle for his inflated ego. He had a script he was supposed to follow, but his incessant jokes and ad libs were beginning to cause some timing issues. Yet still he persisted in trying to be the center of focus, as he had been doing since dirt was invented. I leaned over to my wife and said, “Even I am not that big a ham.” To which she sweetly replied, “Oh, yes you are, honey. He's just had longer to cure.” Hmmmmm.

So maybe it's a touch cannibalistic of me to say that, next to bacon, ham is my favorite meat. Bacon was the first meat I learned to love as a child and ham was next. I like country ham and I like city ham. I like it maple glazed, honey baked, or hardwood smoked. Wet cured or dry, cut from the butt end or the shank, produced in Parma, Italy or in good ol' Smithfield, Virginia, I'll take it any way I can get it. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I've never met a ham I didn't like. Well.....almost. We'll get to that part later.

First, let's figure out what a “ham” is......other than the reference above. By the way, it may interest you to know that the word “ham” as applied to one who outrageously overacts is thought to derive from the old minstrel show days when performers used ham fat to remove their heavy black makeup. Beyond that, a ham is the preserved hind leg of a pig. The word itself is derived from an Old English term for the hollow or bend of the knee, which, in turn, came from a Germanic word for “crooked.”

People have been preserving pork legs for human consumption since at least Roman times. There is evidence that the Chinese were doing it long before that. And unless you are Jewish or Muslim, chances are your ethnic culture has its own unique way of preserving, or “curing,” ham. There are Wiltshire and York cured hams in England, Schwarzwälder Schinken or “Black Forest” hams in Germany, the prized jamón serrano from Spain, and, of course, the incomparable prosciutti produced in the Parma and San Daniele regions of Italy. Here in the United States, almost every state gets in a plug for its proprietary hams, whether it be Georgia or Kentucky, Vermont, Tennessee, or North Carolina. Then there's the largely undisputed king of hams from Virginia, specifically around the town of Smithfield, where evidence of eponymous ham production dates back to Colonial days.

Regardless of where it's produced, though, there are just a few basic procedures involved in curing ham: salting, smoking, drying, aging, and spicing. Many of these procedures overlap and most producers use varying combinations to achieve their unique cures. There's also unprocessed, uncured ham, referred to as “fresh” ham, but it's kind of hard to find in supermarkets. Although fresh ham is undeniably delicious, most people gravitate toward the traditional cured varieties.

Salting meat has been going on for millennia. It's the method the aforementioned ancient Chinese supposedly perfected. Today's salting process is fairly simple; you clean the raw meat, chill it to about forty degrees Fahrenheit, and then cover it in salt. Salt is a natural antibacterial agent that kills harmful microbes by osmosis. There's a long scientific explanation of the process with which I could bore you, but basically, the salt draws life-giving moisture out of the bacteria, causing them to dry up and die. These days, however, further molecular chemistry often plays a part in the salting process. Sometimes salted hams are “sugar-cured” with – guess what – sugar, which mellows out the sharpness of the salt. Most cured hams contain sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite is the natural enemy of Clostridium botulinum, the nasty bug that causes what is commonly called “botulism.” But nitrites also contribute to the flavor of the meat and, by their interaction with myoglobin, cause it to turn that nice pink color we usually associate with ham. Nitrites have been part of the curing process for many, many, many years, but there's been a lot of talk lately about their potential carcinogenic properties. Under most normal conditions, ingested nitrites transform into nitric acid, which is generally okay. Sometimes, however, they can form nitrosamines, which are not okay. There is conflicting science on the topic. As is usually the case, you would have to consume massive quantities of the stuff in order to be adversely affected, but the FDA comes down on the side of caution and limits the amount of residual nitrites present in cured meats. I could go on and on about the enzymatic actions and proteolysis and the effects on protein and amino acids and all that scientific stuff involved in salt curing but I would get as lost writing it as you would reading it, so suffice it to say that dry curing with salt works and has done so for a long, long time. Salt curing alone, however, does not cook a ham. Most of them are also smoked.

Bugs don't like smoke. Smoke keeps big bugs like gnats and mosquitoes away from your picnic and in the curing process it kills itty-bitty bugs like bacteria through a combination of physical and chemical actions that just make them turn up their little toes. Besides its antibacterial properties, wood smoke imparts wonderful flavors to meats. If you really want to know, the flavors are the result of lignin polymers in the wood producing a naturally occurring organic compound called guaiacol and its derivatives as a result of thermal breakdown. (I knew you'd want to know.) Hickory smoke is very common, although it is also very strong and can leave an almost astringent taste. Apple wood produces a milder smoke which imparts a nice sweet flavor to bacon and ham. Cherry wood smoke produces a fruity flavor similar to apple, but it is not as commonly used. Maple wood also produces a sweet, mild flavor. Alder, oak, pecan, and mesquite are frequently used to smoke other meats, but are not usually applied to ham.

Of course, you can't have smoke without heat. Well......there's so-called “liquid smoke,” but that's another discussion entirely. The heat produced by the smoking process subjects the ham to long, low-temperature cooking. Commercially smoked hams usually reach an internal temperature of about 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That's why most smoked, cured hams in grocery stores are labeled either “partially cooked,” “fully cooked,” or “ready to eat.” That means you can just pop a slice in your mouth and chow down. You can't do that with fresh hams, but you can with most cured hams. They don't really require any further cooking. And that's why it's so easy to dry out one of those holiday hams. Because they're already cooked, there's a fine line between warming the meat while retaining its moisture and drying it out and turning it to shoe leather. What you do with that holiday ham at Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas is pretty much just a matter of warming it to about 130 degrees. Unless it's a “fresh” ham, you could just slap it on the table cold and carve it up. You could. Just don't invite me to dinner.

Unsmoked hams are often air dried. After the meat is salted, it is sometimes pressed to extrude any remaining blood and impurities. Then it is washed and hung up to dry under strict temperature and humidity controlled conditions. And we're not talking about a couple of days. We're talking about somewhere between nine months and a year, during which time the meat thoroughly dehydrates and any moisture-starved bacteria hanging around thoroughly croaks. This is how they make prosciutto and Serrano hams. Such unsmoked hams are also considered to be raw and that's the way you eat 'em. You might warm prosciutto up a little bit, but you don't really “cook” it. And that's okay. It's perfectly safe. Any microscopic critters that might have been trying to establish a foothold a year ago have long since dried up and blown away. This drying method sort of dovetails with the aging method I mentioned as one of the basics.

Then there's spicing. Not a lot of American hams are spice cured, although seasonings like black and red pepper are commonly added. But many European hams are spiced, especially those produced in Italy. Ham products like culatello are cured with various blends of herbs and spices, sometimes including garlic, juniper, paprika, and even wine before being hung out to dry. The resulting flavors are phenomenal, even if the initial appearance is a little off-putting. See, hams hung up to dry age like this usually come away covered in a coating of mold that looks thoroughly unappetizing. But once you scrape and scrub it all off, the meat underneath is both safe to eat and really, really good.

One more form of curing that needs to be mentioned: wet curing. Most common grocery store hams are wet-cured and are generally referred to as city hams. Wet-cured hams are basically brined hams. They are soaked in a solution of salt, sugar and other flavorings for a period of anywhere from three days to two weeks. Sometimes they are smoked, sometimes not. A lot of people prefer wet-cured city hams to dry-cured country hams. They tend to be moister and have more of a porky flavor. Country hams are drier and taste more salty. One note about wet curing; some producers take short cuts and, rather than soaking their ham in brine, they mechanically inject a combination salt/sugar/smoke flavoring into the meat, resulting in a quick cure that only takes a few days. It's cheaper that way but not necessarily better. And wet curing also adds weight to the finished product, so you're paying extra for the water.

So far, we've been talking about whole hams. A whole ham can weigh in at about twenty pounds and it is just that – the whole ham from butt to shank. “Butt,” by the way, does not refer to the pig's nether region; it is the large blunt or “butt” end of the leg where it attaches to the body. Technically, I suppose, it is the pig's “butt,” but bear in mind that the pig's front shoulder joint is also called “pork butt.” The “shank” end is the narrower end that used to be attached to the pig's lower leg.

Half hams, the kind most people buy when they go shopping for the holiday or dinner table, are usually sold as either butt or shank portions. They generally weigh less than ten pounds and can easily feed twelve to fourteen people. The butt or upper end is a little meatier and fattier, and is, therefore, sometimes a bit more expensive. Because it usually contains part of the hip or “aitch” bone, it can be a little trickier to carve. The shank or lower portion is easier to carve, but the meat tends to be a little tougher.

A lot of folks go nuts over having to carve a ham. They seem to think you have to have served an internship as a surgeon or something in order to do it properly, so they go out and buy pre-sliced or spiral sliced hams. The spiral slicing technique was patented in 1952 by its inventor, Harry J. Hoenselaar, who went on to found the HoneyBaked Ham Company in 1957. Nothing wrong with buying pre-sliced ham, but you often pay dearly for the convenience. Spiral-sliced hams are also really easy to dry out, so be careful when you heat them up.

Hams are sold bone-in or boneless. By and large, bone-in hams are more flavorful, but boneless are easier to carve and serve. The biggest difference is textural. Bone-in hams have better, more natural texture than boneless. This is because when the bone is removed, the ham has to be reshaped in a vacuum tumbler. Otherwise it falls apart when you try to carve it. This process often imparts an odd, spongy texture. It's not all that bad, but there is a noticeable difference.

You can buy ham slices or ham “steaks” all neatly wrapped in plastic in your grocer's meat case. These are generally cut from the shank end of the ham and contain a small circle of bone in the center. It's a good alternative if a big ol' hunk of ham is just too much. At least it is actually recognizable as a portion of ham from some part of a pig.

Not so much with so-called “deli” ham or “canned” ham. Come on. Be honest. Have you ever seen any kind of pig with any parts that are shaped like that? And when it comes to canned ham, packaged sliced ham, and even the ham products in the deli case, “parts” is the operative word. Well.....one of the operative words. The other one is “pressed.”

Canned ham and “sandwich” ham are produced by taking ham parts and scraps – sometimes even bone scraps – and pressing them into a solid mass. Even though the parts have been smoked and cured, by the time they come together in those nifty little loaf shapes, they have had enough water added that they are very subject to spoilage. That's why they're in the refrigerated section and that's why you need to keep them refrigerated at home. In addition to water, many of them also contain enough chemicals to preserve an Egyptian mummy. The stuff they slice “fresh” in the deli is not so preservative laden. That's why it is recommended that you use “deli” ham within a few days of purchase.

Now, I'm not going to try to convince you that I never use packaged or sliced ham. I do. There's some in the refrigerator right now. And you and I both know the ham they serve up in sandwiches at delis and fast-food places does not come fresh from the hind quarter of a pig they've got hanging up in the cooler. It's processed and there's not much you can do about it. Except to try to choose the best quality, most minimally processed processed ham you can find. I'd avoid the stuff in the one pound bags that sells for less than a dollar, if I were you. Spend the money. And read the labels. Here's what's in the packaged ham in my refrigerator: ham, water, salt, turbinado sugar, celery juice powder, and lactic acid starter culture. The celery juice is added as a source of nitrate. The lactic acid starter is a preservative that acts as a flavor enhancer. I also checked on a cheap national brand found in most stores. It contains: ham, water, salt, dextrose, sodium lactate, sodium phosphate, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrite. Would you like a little extra salt with that?

And as far as canned hams go, they make great doorstops. Back in my younger, far less educated days, I used to buy these neat little canned ham patties. They were convenient and they sort of tasted like ham. Then one day, I got one that was so loaded with fat, gristle, and bone fragments that I wouldn't even feed the rest of it to my dog. If you'll pardon the pun, I was “cured” of buying that particular canned ham product. As far as regular canned ham goes, anything that comes packaged in its own aspic and is “shelf stable” for two or three years......well........enough said. In researching this article, I came across a review of a canned ham product in which the reviewer said, “Food snobs may be appalled at the very idea of canned ham, but I just enjoy the convenience, the consistent quality and the ease of preparation.” Okay, so I'm a food snob. But when I go to my grave, it won't be with innards that are already preserved, thank you.

Of course, no treatise on ham would be complete without a mention of the granddaddy of all preserved ham products, one which has had songs written about it and that is a cultural staple in Hawaii. I'm talking about Spam! There. I mentioned it.

One last word about buying ham: water. All but the highest grade of ham has water added. Those high grade hams can be easily identified by the label, which just says “ham.” Next, you're likely to see “ham in natural juices.” Okay. Water is a “natural juice,” you know, and that's what you're getting. Sometimes as much as ten percent added weight. The next grade down is labeled “ham, water added.” At least they're up front about it. What they may not be up front about is the amount of water they've added. Read the fine print. Finally, there's “ham and water product.” Run away. These products can actually contain more than fifty percent water, meaning they are made up of more water than meat. Nah.

I haven't gone into cooking methods and techniques because there are a ton of them and this article is already bordering on too long. Maybe I'll do another on cooking ham someday. But for now, I hope you're at least a little better informed about that delectable portion of porcine perfection, ham. You know, that word really should be spelled with more “m”s. “Ham-m-m-m-m.” Yeah, that's better.

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