For the past 20 days or so, we’ve been working on a little edible experiment that will culminate on Thanksgiving day. This year, we’re bringing a classic home-cured, smoked, boiled, and roasted ham to our family gathering, to supplement the turkey of course. We’ve done some research (with most of our information coming from that unique champion of the smallholding, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) and we’re curing a 7 pound hunk of fresh ham that came with the half pig we got from our neighbors. We wanted to share a little of the process with you before the big day.
We’ve been asked a couple times about the word “ham”, so just to clarify: ham is simply the thigh of a pig. The name does not necessarily imply a process. While it is almost always seen cured in some way, especially here in America, it can also be cooked without curing, where it is usually referred to as a “fresh ham”. There are two main kinds of cures: dry cures and wet cures. For dry curing, the ham is heavily salted with a dry curing mixture, yielding hams like Prosciutto or the famous Spanish Jamón. Wet curing is the process of immersing the ham in a salt solution with flavorings. America largely inherited it’s wet-cured ham tradition from 17th and 18th century practice in Britain and France. However, I can only assume that the neon-pink, chemical-laden monstrosities labeled “ham” in American supermarkets these days bear little resemblance to the traditional wet-cured hams for which they are named. That was part of the inspiration for undertaking this project: a desire to taste a little of the past.
We decided to go with a classic Wiltshire cure that uses beer, molasses, juniper, and pepper for flavoring in addition to copious amounts of salt. We did chose to include a curing salt that contained sodium nitrite, which is supposed to preserve color, prevent botulism, and preserve flavor. The necessity of this seems to be getting a lot of discussion recently, and I won’t go into it here. I chose to follow the wisdom of Whittingstall, Michael Ruhlman, Harold McGee, and Armandino Batali. The finished cure was incredibly potent smelling–it actually smelled of salt, and I know that’s not really possible–and it looked like black death.
We actually had difficulty getting all of the salt called for into solution. Whittingstall’s Wiltshire brine calls for 3 pounds of salt for 3 quarts of beer. I tell ya, we boiled and boiled that brine, and even added a little more beer than called for. In the end, however, I just settled for the layer of salt settling at the bottom, figuring the solution was supersaturated, and slightly fearing the outcome! You can kind of see the thin layer of salt that formed on the surface of the brine as it cooled.
The change in color that the cure bestowed on the pork was incredible. It went in looking like a normal reddish pink cut of pork, and came out looking like cooked beef! The molasses clearly played a large role in staining the exterior, and the salt had firmed the ham significantly.
After the brine, the ham is hung for about a day to dry out the exterior as much as possible before the smoking step. As I understand it, this helps the smoke to adhere to the ham. I tied the ham in kitchen twine and hung it on the back porch of our houseboat. I gather that, while the weather is reasonably cold (and the bugs are gone), you can hang a cured ham like this for weeks or even months. That was, after all, the original point of curing: to preserve your meat for later consumption.
Next step: smoking the ham.
Get the recipe and read about the finished ham: Thanksgiving Ham.