Ham - Gourmet Guide

June 12, 2019 | By Dave Mattingly

Ham is the cut of meat from the upper hind leg of a pig. The word Ham is derived from the Old English word Ham, or ham, meaning hollow of the knee. It is believed that pigs were first domesticated for food in China as long ago as 5,000 BC. From Europe, the pig was brought to the US, and by the 1600s most American farmers were raising hogs. The extended shelf life of salted pork made it a staple in most American kitchens during these times.

Ham may be sold either fresh or cured. Ham may be cured in a variety of ways, such as dry curing, brine curing or injection-curing. A Ham is dry cured by adding salt directly to the surface of the meat. A Ham is brine cured, or sweet pickle cured, by immersing the ham in a sweet brine solution with added seasonings. A Ham is injection-cured by injecting it directly with brine. A combination of these methods may also be used. After the curing process, a Ham may be smoked for additional flavor. Hickory and maple woods are often used in the smoking process for Ham, and depending on the desired flavor, a Ham may be smoked from one short month all the way up to two long years. Country hams were first referenced in the 1940s as a method of smoking and curing hams done in states such as Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Today, Country Ham refers more to the method of preparation of the Ham rather the region of production. For a more unusual flavor, hams may be cooked with more exotic foods such as berries and spices.

Hams are sold as bone-in, boneless or partially-boned and may be sold whole, halved, or in smaller sizes or cut. One especially popular preparation is the Spiral Sliced Ham, where the Ham is sliced in a spiral fashion around the bone, making it easy to serve off the bone.

Types of Ham

Virginia Country Ham: In Virginia, their fine hams are selected from prized hogs. Each Ham is hand-rubbed with salt, then dry cured in a curing room until the desired amount of salt has been absorbed, typically 4 to 6 months. After curing, excess salt is washed off the Ham, which then may be flavored with black pepper nd other spices. Next, the Ham is hung in the smokehouse. Many days of cool hickory smoking are required to give Virginia Ham its rich flavor and deep red color. The Virginia Ham continues to hang undisturbed for and aging period, developing even more Virginia flavor.

Italian Prosciutto Ham: Prosciutto is simply the Italian word for Ham, but Americans think of prosciutto as a salted, air dried, uncooked Ham from Italy. Prosciutto is served sliced, extremely thinly, on an antipasto plate, on fresh baguette with a smear of butter, or wrapped around fruit or thin breadsticks called grissini. Prosciutto Crudo is a raw Ham, as it is never cooked as the curing process makes the Ham delicious to eat without the use of heat. Prosciutto di Parma is the most famous Prosciutto Ham, and has earned a Protected Designation of Origin. This Italian Ham has a rich and complex flavor that owes its succulence to generations of Italian tradition.

French Jambon Ham: France is famous for two types of Ham - Jambon de Bayonne and Jambon de Paris. Jambon is simply the French word for Ham. Jambon de Bayonne is a dry-cured ham like prosciutto which originates from the Basque region in the Pyrennes Mountains near the Spanish border. Jambon de Paris is a cooked Ham, making it juicier than the air dried Jambon de Bayonne. Jambon de Paris is slowly cooked in its own juice and wrapped in its skin, keeping in the aromas and essences while cooking. This French Ham is unsmoked, giving it a more delicate flavor than typical American Ham.

Spanish Dry Cured Ham: The two main types of Spanish Cured Ham are Jamon Serrano and Jamon Iberico. Iberico Ham is one of the most expensive hams worldwide. To be called Jamon Iberico, it can only be a leg from the famed Pata Negra - the black Iberian pig. The most exquisite version of Iberico Ham comes from a pata negra that eats a steady diet of acorns - nothing else. Serrano Ham is another Spanish Cured Ham, but it comes from the Spanish White Pig, not the pata negra. The quality of Serrano Ham varies greatly and depends on a combination of breed, rearing conditions, quality of feed, and curing techniques.

German Westphalian Ham: The German word for Ham is Schinken. Westphalian Schinken is, like Jamon Iberico, a Ham from an acorn fed pig. Westphalia is a region of Germany located in the western part of the country where it borders France. This Schinken is air dried, like Italian Prosciutto, and is cold smoked over beech wood chips. German Westphalian Ham is excellent when sliced thinly and served on crusty bread.

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