Don't Cheap Up On The Star
|Photo credit The New York Times|
Here comes Peter Cotttontail, hopping down the bunny trail......dragging a ham behind him. At least where the bunny trail crosses the United States. Peter's cousins in other parts of the world are likely to be toting lambs to the Easter feast. But in the US, ham is the holiday protein of choice. Ever wonder why?
Food historians say that eating ham at Easter dates back to around sixth century Germany. Pigs were abundant in Northern Europe and fall was the time for slaughtering them. With no refrigeration or other means of preservation, fresh pork was hung to cure during the long winter months, providing sustenance after other stored meats had been consumed. When spring – and Easter – rolled around, ham was what was left from the fall harvest. European settlers brought pigs with them to the New World, and the Easter ham tradition took root in the US.
Ham comes in many forms, depending on where you're eating it. In Italy, it's delectable prosciutto di Parma or prosciutto di San Daniele. In Spain, it's Jamón Ibérico or Jamón Serrano. Germany is famous for its smoky Schwarzwälder Schinken, or Black Forest ham, while England boasts of Wiltshire cured and York ham.
Here in the US, ham is broadly divided into two types; “country” ham and “city” ham. Country ham is a salt-cured delicacy found primarily in the South. The ham most people buy from the supermarket and cook for their Easter feasts is the more common “city” variety.
City hams are cured in some fashion and are generally sold ready-to-eat. Only a “fresh” ham – a plain hunk of raw pork – has to be completely cooked before you can eat it. And you probably won't find any of those at the local Piggly Wiggly or Kroger. Fresh ham is usually a specialty butcher shop item. Most regular “store-bought” cured hams are pre-cooked and just need to be warmed through. The label will say “cooked” or “fully cooked” or “ready to eat.” And you could actually just saw off a slice and slap it on a plate if you wanted, but most people opt to bake it in the oven. It's really better that way.
City hams are moister than country hams because of the way they are cured. Country ham is dry cured: it's rubbed with salt and seasonings and then hung up to dry in a smoky curing room for anywhere from five or six weeks to five or six months and sometimes longer. This results in a deep, rich flavor and a rather dry texture. Some city hams are dry cured using a mixture of salt and sugar or honey. Most, however, are wet cured: they are injected with a solution called a “brine.” Brines are made up of water and ingredients such as salt, sugar, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, and other flavorings. This method insures a moister meat. It also adds weight to the finished product.
The water content of a ham determines its grade and quality. Product labeled simply “ham” is the highest – and thus most expensive – grade. It's at least 20.5 percent protein. Some water is added, but much less than what is added to lower grades. The next level down is “ham with natural juices,” a product that is 18.5 percent protein and only seven or eight percent water. Still a good choice. Product labeled “ham, water added” is at least 17 percent protein and no more than ten percent added water. “Ham and water product” is the cheapest grade of ham and may contain twenty percent or more water by weight. So check your labels carefully.
As you can see, all ham is not created equal. And when laying out a big Easter (or other holiday) feast, you don't want to cheap up on the star. Buy the best ham you can afford. And buy enough to go around. The uses for leftover ham are practically limitless. Bone-in ham is going to be the most flavorful, although there's nothing wrong with boneless ham. Just steer clear of canned ham, please. I've heard canned ham called the “hot dog of the ham world” because it's made from leftover scraps of other hams that are then packed with gelatin, sealed in cans, and cooked by steam. And consider this: it's shelf-stable for two years. Thank you, no.
A lot of people love their spiral-sliced ham. All cut up and ready to serve with no carving involved. The problem with spiral-sliced ham is it can be tricky to cook. The potential for producing cardboard ham is much greater with the pre-sliced variety than it is with a ham you carve yourself. If you're going to be serving your ham cold, go for the spiral-sliced. But if you plan to cook it – well, warm it; it's already cooked – you're better off with an unsliced ham. Some cooks disagree, and that's fine. I'm just saying you have to be a much more careful cook when dealing with a spiral-sliced ham. Not always good for beginners.
That leads to a discussion of whole or half, butt or shank? Frankly, you're not going to see too many whole hams in a grocery store. A whole ham can weigh upwards of fifteen pounds. Unless you're hosting the Waltons, that's probably more than you'll need. Most supermarket hams are half hams, cut into either the butt half or the shank half. The butt is the upper portion of the leg and the shank is the lower portion. The butt or shank question is largely a matter of preference. The butt end is a bit leaner and usually a bit more expensive. It comes with the aitch-bone, an oddly shaped porcine pelvic bone, intact. Unless you're pretty deft with a knife, you might want to go with the shank end. It contains a higher ratio of fat (which tends to make it moister), and it has only one straight bone to deal with, making it easier to carve.
The USDA says a serving of boneless ham equals 1/4 to 1/3 pound. For bone-in, it's 1/3 to 1/2 pound. By those estimates, you'd need at least a 3.5-pound boneless or a 4.5- to 5-pound bone-in ham in order to feed fourteen people. That's pretty skimpy, if you ask me – or just about anybody else who has ever served ham to a bunch of hungry diners. A better rule of thumb would be if you're buying a boneless ham, allow a minimum of 1/2 pound per person. Up that to 3/4 pound per person if you're buying bone-in because you have to allow for the weight of the bone in your calculation. If you're serving fourteen people, you'll probably be good with a seven or eight-pound ham. If you think people will be really hungry, go with as much as a pound per person. But have those leftover ham recipes handy.
When it comes time to cook – okay, heat up – your ham, low and slow is the way to go. You just need to get the internal temperature of the ham up to 145°. You can actually pull it when the thermometer registers about 135° to 140°; carry-over heat will take it the rest of the way.
Okay, so set your oven to 250° to 300° and let it preheat while you prep the ham. There are all kinds of things you can do to fancy up ham: you can stud it with cloves, you can slather it with mustard, you can glaze it with honey, maple, brown sugar, or combinations thereof. The choice depends on your taste. My son likes his ham absolutely naked; just the natural smoky flavor. I like it that way, too, but I'm also partial to a little sweet glaze. Cloves impart a traditional flavor to ham and some folks love their ham covered in mustard. Whatever. But however you finish your ham, you should start by scoring it.
To score a ham, start from the bottom and work toward the top. Using a sharp paring or utility knife and moving clockwise, make shallow cuts through the skin and the first layers of fat. Don't go too deep. Rotate the ham after each cut so that the scores are no more than two inches across. Once you've gone around clockwise, switch your knife to the other hand and go around again, working counter clockwise. You're trying to achieve an even diamond pattern all over the surface of the ham. You do this for several reasons; one, it looks pretty. It also enables the outer layer of fat to crisp up nicely and it allows any glaze or seasoning you put on top to penetrate into the meat.
Now place the ham, fat side up, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Not everybody uses a rack, but I do. The size of the pan you’ll need depends on the size of your ham. Usually, a 9 x 3 x 13 works well. Just make sure the ham fits comfortably in the pan without touching the sides. Tent the ham loosely with heavy-duty aluminum foil and pour at least a half-cup of some sort of liquid in the bottom of the pan. Water is fine, but you can use wine or stock or something with a compatible flavor if you so desire. The point of the exercise is to keep the ham moist as it cooks.
I swear by probe thermometers. This is a temperature sensing device that has a probe on the end of a long shaft that is attached to a cable. The cable, in turn, is plugged in to a monitor mounted outside your oven door. You place the probe in the meat, set the time and/or temperature desired on the monitor, and you're done fooling with it. The device will let you know when the meat is done. No constantly opening the oven door, pulling out the rack, uncovering the ham, and puncturing the meat with a big honkin' meat thermometer. If said big honkin' meat thermometer is all you've got, okay. Monitoring the temperature is the important thing. But why not do it the easy way?
Rule of thumb says you should allow a cooking time of about twenty minutes per pound of ham. So a seven-pound ham is gonna take about 140 minutes, or just shy of two-and-a-half hours. A ten-pounder will take a little over three hours. Adjust that upward slightly if you're cooking a bone-in ham.
If you are studding the ham with cloves, do it right after you score it. If you are glazing your ham, though, don't do it right off the bat. Anything you want to pat or brush on should happen later. Wait until twenty or thirty minutes before the end of the cooking time or when the internal temperature reaches about 120°. Then pull the ham out of the oven, uncover it, slather on the glaze and return it, uncovered, to the oven. Crank the heat up to 350° or so for those last few minutes so the glaze can set. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't burn. Glaze recipes are a dime a dozen. Find one you like. Just don't use the nasty, goopy, prepackaged stuff that sometimes comes with the ham. Trust me on this.
Allow the ham to rest for at least fifteen minutes before you carve it. Don't worry, it'll stay plenty warm. In fact, that's part of the reason for resting. Resting meat after cooking serves two purposes; it allows the carry-over cooking I mentioned before to finish happening and it allows the natural juices in the meat to redistribute. Meat is made up of muscle fibers. When you cook it, those fibers tighten up and squeeze out liquid. Some of that moisture moves to the surface and evaporates. The rest remains in the meat. When the cooking process stops, that remaining moisture redistributes itself back through the meat fibers. If you pull meat straight out of the oven and cut right into it, the liquid will run out and pool on your plate, leaving you with a hunk of dry meat. By letting it rest, the moisture is re-absorbed, ensuring meat that is more tender and juicy.
If all else fails, the good folks at Kentucky Legend Ham operate a porky version of the famous Thanksgiving Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, except it's available year round. Call 1-866-343-5058 anytime between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. and ask your hammy questions. Chances are they'll have an answer.
Buona fortuna, buon mangiare e buona Pasqua!