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~Handling Hams: Choose the One that's Right for You~

PICT1833Ham is the cut of meat from a hog's hind leg, generally from the middle of the shank bone to the hipbone.  The length of the cut varies with each producer.  Unprocessed ham is referred to as fresh, uncured ham, which is like getting a "very large pork roast".  But, before being sold to the American consumer, even fresh hams go through a curing process, or, a method of preservation using a combination of salt, natural flavorings and spices, without the addition of nitrites or nitrates, and cold smoking.  In the case of what is referred to as a "commercial cure", sodium nitrite, salt and sugar are mixed with water, to form a brine or curing solution, which is then pumped into the ham.  After several days, the cured/cooked pork is washed and smoked, after which it is referred to as a cured ham.  These preservation/curing processes kills bacteria and transform the flavor and texture from that "very large pork roast" into what we refer to generically as:  ham (and also apply to bacon).

PICT1841 For novice and experienced cooks alike, selecting and cooking a ham, to say the least, can be very confusing.  Faced with choosing between a fresh ham, canned ham, city ham, country ham, etc., tends to make a shopper want to skip the ham counter completely.  If you really are totally clueless (and I don't mean this in a derogatory way), meaning: you've never purchased or cooked a ham and don't have a recipe to tell you what to buy, ask the butcher behind the meat counter.  It goes without saying, a ham needs to be in your price range, and the longer it takes to cure a ham, the more expensive it is going to be.  Also, hams come in all sizes, up to 20 pounds, which is great if your getting a big crowd for Easter, but if it's just you and your spouse, you're going to be looking at leftovers for a very, very long time, so, consider size carefully. Lastly, time restrictions play a part.  Fully-cooked hams, canned hams and some spiral cut hams require no further cooking and can be sliced or served cold, or, briefly reheated, sliced and served warm.  If your work week doesn't cooperate with your cooking schedule, consider these as good options for you.  All of this being said: if you are cooking a specific ham recipe, choose the ham that particular recipe instructs you to use and don't make any substitutions based upon any of the above information.

Canned Hams are self-explanatory.  The beginner/novice cook, more often than not will prepare one of these as his/her introduction to ham cookery.  These hams are literally "formed" from bits and pieces of meat held together with a gelatin mixture.  Simply follow the manufacturer's instructions on the can, add an uncomplicated, homemade or bottled glaze/sauce and serve a tasty, glorified version of deli-style meat.  In fact, preparing a canned ham will save you a lot of money vs. deli-meat, so, if  you buy a lot of deli-ham for your family, a canned ham is a economical option.  Warning:  It is easy to assume that if something comes in a can you don't have to refrigerate it, but this is not always the case.  Most canned hams require refrigeration so be sure to read and follow these instructions as well.  That being said, if you choose one that does not require refrigeration, it is an ideal food item to take along on your next camping trip.

968800_622297424465790_913913406_nCity Hams (also referred to as urban hams) are wet-cured hams. Almost all mass-produced hams sold in our markets and grocery stores today are of this type.  They are injected with a salt-water solution, cured, then lightly-smoked in order to return them to their original weight, or the weight they lost through dehydration during the smoking process.  If sugar is added to the curing mix, they are sometimes labeled sugar-cured ham.  The length of time a ham is cured affects the final flavor, and most hams for the American consumer have a mildly-cured.  The length of time a ham is smoked varies greatly depending on the desired result, and most hams for the American consumer are lightly-smoked.  Hams for the gourmet palate are more heavily smoked, the process lasting a month or more, using specialty woods (such as apple, hickory and maple) and exotic ingredients (such as juniper berries and sassafras bark).  Hams labeled "water-added", also injected then smoked, retain a larger portion of the injected solution, lessening the flavor, yet at the same time increasing the cost.  Wet-cured hams, with or without sugar and/or water added require cooking or baking, according to the recipe's specific instructions, prior to serving.

Country Hams (also labeled country-cured or country-syle) are dry-cured hams.  These higher-quality American hams use a time-honored method of dry salt-curing, which also applies to bacon.  These hams are arrived at by an interesting three-step process.  Initially, the surface is dry-rubbed with a mixture of various spices (salt, sugar, pepper, etc.), nitrates and nitrites.  They are then slow-smoked over fragrant hardwoods.  Lastly, they are hung and aged for 3-6 months, allowing the salt to saturate the meat.  This process may be repeated several times.  Hams that are aged longer, 6-12 months (with the skin left on to protect the flavor during the aging process), while often generically referred to as Smithfield Hams, must actually be cured within the colonial town of Smithfield, VA to legally earn this prestigious title.  Similar hams, hailing from Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and other parts of Virginia, add their own distinctive styles to the hams they produce.  These heavily-cured hams can be stored in a cool place for 1-2 months and require a scrubbing, then a soaking for at least 24 hours prior to cooking.  Like fine wine or cheese, once you acquire a taste for country ham, there is no turning back.

PICT1871All Hams are Cooked Hams  and are labeled as fully-cooked, partially-cooked or uncooked, meaning:  they have been been smoked to a different stage in the process.  

Fully-cooked hams have been heated during the smoking process to an internal temperature of at least 148 degrees, and are technically considered ready to eat, although in most cases taste a lot better if reheated before slicing and serving them hot or cold.  They can also be labeled "heat and serve" or "ready to eat".  Partially-cooked hams are heated during the smoking process to an internal temperature of at least 138 degrees (which kills the trichina parasite).  Partially-cooked hams, along with uncooked hams, must both be cooked prior to serving according to the directions from the manufacturer without exception.

Fresh Hams, City Hams and Country Hams are all sold in several forms including boneless (hip, thigh and shank bones removed), semi-boneless (hip and/or shank bones removed) and bone-in. Since bone contributes significant flavor to the meat during the cooking process, most gourmet ham producers leave at least some bone in.  They are are marketed in several sizes, the most popular being whole, along with half (shank or butt ends), shank, butt and center-cut slices or steaks ranging in thickness from 1/2" - 3/4".

Ham is extremely versatile.

It can be baked, boiled, broiled, grilled, sauteed and/or simmered. 

Ham it up!

IMG_6206"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2011)


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