Ingredient of the week, April 17: Ham
Ham is a cut of meat from the thigh of the hind leg of a pig. Nearly all hams sold today are fully cooked or cured. Ham is considered by many in America to be the ultimate holiday entree.
Domestication of pigs for food dates back to 4900 B.C. in China and by 1500 B.C., Europe had followed suit. Although Christopher Columbus had eight pigs on board when he left Spain for the new world, it is explorer Hernando de Soto whose 13 pigs became the breeding stock for America's pork industry. By the 17th century, most American farmers raised pigs. The shelf-life of salt pork and bacon made both staple in most kitchens.
George A. Hormel & Company pioneered canned hams in America in 1926. Country ham is first mentioned in print in 1944, referring to a method of curing and smoking done in the rural sections of Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vermont and other nearby states. The term now refers to a style, rather than location. The United States largely inherited its traditions relating to ham and pork from 17th-century Britain and 18th-century France, the latter especially in Louisiana. The French often used wet cure processed hams that are the foundation stock of several modern dishes, like certain gumbos and sandwiches. Until the very early twentieth century, men living in the southern Appalachians would drive their pigs to market in the flatlands below each Autumn, fattening up their stock on chestnuts and fallen mast, much like their Scottish forebearers did for centuries. Further, archaeological evidence suggests that the early settlers of Jamestown (men largely from the West Midlands) built swine pens for the pigs they brought with them and, once established, also carried on an ancient British tradition of slaughtering their pigs and producing their pork in mid-November. To this day, the result is that in many areas, a large ham, not a turkey, is the centerpiece of a family Christmas dinner.
Fresh ham is an uncured hind leg of pork. Country ham is uncooked, cured, dried, smoked-or-unsmoked, made from a single piece of meat from the hind leg of a hog or from a single piece of meat from a pork shoulder (picnic ham). Virginia's famous Smithfield ham, a country ham, must be grown and produced in or around Smithfield, Virginia, to be sold as such. Similar, lesser known hams from Tennessee and the Appalachians have a similar method of preparation, but are more likely to include honey in their cures and be hickory smoked.
Sugar is common in many dry hams in the United States; it is used to cover the saltiness. The majority of common wet-cured ham available in U.S. supermarkets is of the "city ham" or "sweet cure" variety, in which brine is injected into the meat for a very rapid curing suitable for mass market. Traditional wet curing requires immersing the ham in a brine for an extended period, often followed by light smoking.
In addition to the main categories, some processing choices can affect legal labeling. A 'smoked' ham must have been smoked by hanging over burning wood chips in a smokehouse or an atomized spray of liquid smoke such that the product appearance is equivalent; a "hickory-smoked" ham must have been smoked using only hickory. However, injecting "smoke flavor" is not legal grounds for claiming the ham was "smoked"; these are labeled "smoke flavor added". Hams can only be labelled "honey-cured" if honey was at least 50% of the sweetener used, is at least 3% of the formula, and has a discernible effect on flavor. So-called "lean" and "extra lean" hams must adhere to maximum levels of fat and cholesterol per 100 grams of product.
One of the most popular and expensive hams in the United States is Smithfield or Virginia ham. Through a special curing process, Smithfield ham ages. In that time mold may grow on the outside of the ham, while the rest of the meat continues to age. This process produces a distinctive flavor, but the mold layer must be scrubbed off the ham before being cooked or served.
Spiral sliced ham has become popular option for bone-in or boneless hams sold in the US. In the spiral cutting process, the ham is firmly affixed, on the top and bottom, to a rotating base, which is gradually lowered as a blade is applied. This creates one single continuous slice.
Are you having baked ham for Easter? How do you bake yours? Do you use a glaze? What do you do with leftovers?