Ham, High And Low

New curing methods, glazes and fancy pedigrees are dressing up the traditional Easter meat

April 04, 2007|By ROB KASPER

Ham is getting livelier. It is spending more time in sweet-smelling smokehouses. It is bathing in a variety of liquids and comes to the table glazed with fruit flavors.

Moreover, the heritage of the ham is gaining importance. It is not enough to know that your ham comes from a pig's hind leg. In high-ham circles, the pig's lineage is discussed, with two of the preferred breeds being Berkshire and Duroc.

Part of this push to perk up the already-cooked, familiar product sometimes called "city ham" comes from the increased presence of its foreign relatives and its country cousins.

Once confined to restaurants, some of the expensive and high-palate hams of Italy and Spain have shown up at more and more domestic cocktail hours. Their arrival, coupled with this nation's long-standing rural tradition of making highly flavored if somewhat salty country hams, has made the plain old Easter ham seem a little boring by comparison.

As Easter approached, I spoke with several big players in pork, guys who know their pigs. They discussed exciting new developments in the world of ham, such as pigs eating acorns (which makes the pork flesh tastier), and Americans starting to cure their own hams. We also talked about simple ways to make ham more exciting.

For an overview, I spoke with Bruce Aidells, who founded his own sausage-making company and has written nine cookbooks, including Bruce Aidells's Complete Book of Pork, published in 2004.

Passion filled his voice when Aidells, who lives in the San Francisco area, described his recent attempts to turn out homemade apple-smoked hams, a smaller, single-muscle piece of pork he has dubbed "Hamlettes."

He also spoke highly of the hams made from Iowa Duroc hogs and sold online (preferredmeats.com) by Vande Rose Farms, a company that has used him as a consultant.

He was less enthusiastic as he outlined the process used to make most of the hams that show up in most supermarkets. The age-old ham-making process of curing a pig leg with salt and exposing it to hardwood smoke has been speeded up, he said.

Machinery now pumps salty brine into the meat, cutting the curing process down from weeks to days. Instead of languishing for months in a smokehouse, modern hams, he said, often are "bathed in a vaporized cloud of atomized liquid smoke."

This process yields a ham that is not nearly as expensive as the almost double-digit per-pound prices of the labor-intensive hams. The quickly produced ham can be juicy, Aidells said. But, to his palate, it does not have the texture and flavor of artisanal hams. "Some people call this texture tender; I call it spongy," he said.

Still, it is the type of ham most of us grew up with, and Aidells offered tips for picking out a good one. One is to read the label, looking for the amount of water and phosphates injected into the ham. "Meat has a tremendous capacity to act like a sponge," he said. The top product, with the least amount of liquid, is simply labeled "ham." Another tip is to check the price. "There is a reason they charge 99 cents a pound," he said.

Another way to boost flavor, Aidells said, is to slather these hams with a glaze at the end of the cooking process, then serve them with a sauce made with pan drippings. Lately, he said, he has been experimenting, cooking his hams in about a quarter-inch of various liquids - fruit juices, tea, maple syrup - to increase the flavor of the pan drippings.

According to Peter Kaminsky - who chronicled his quest for savory pork in his 2005 book, Pig Perfect - the best hams in the world come from Iberian hogs that roam freely and feast on acorns in western Spain.

"These hams cost hundreds of dollars," Kaminsky said, but added they were worth the price. The flavor soars above other hams, he said, the way an August tomato soars above one bought in a store in February. (Sold in Europe, jamon iberico hams are, according to recent press reports, wending their way through the U.S. Department of Agriculture approval process and could be available in America by this summer.)

In the course of writing his book, Kaminsky became a part-time pig farmer, teaming up with Caw Caw Creek Farm in St. Matthews, S.C., to raise a few Ossabaw pigs, descendants of the Ilberian hogs. His favorite American country hams, found in his travels, were those made by Nancy Newsom in Princeton, Ky., (newsomscountryham.com) and Allen Benton in Madisonville, Tenn. (bentonshams.com).

One key to good-tasting pork, he said, is the breed of pig. He loves Ossabaws but also spoke well of the tender meat of the Berkshire - a pig that came from England, settled in the United States and has since caught on in Japan where it is known as "Kurobuta," meaning "black pig."

Another crucial factor, he said, is how the pigs live and eat. "Let them be outside in a pasture, running around, eating some grass. All those things pigs did when they were raised in 1948," he said.

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