Curing is the addition of salt, sodium or potassium nitrate (or saltpeter), nitrites, and sometimes sugar, seasonings, phosphates and cure accelerators, e.g., sodium ascorbate, to pork for preservation, color development and flavor enhancement.
Nitrate and nitrite contribute to the characteristic cured flavor and reddish-pink color of cured pork. Nitrite and salt inhibit the growth of Clostridium botulinum, a deadly microorganism which can occur in foods under certain situations.
Curing and flavoring solutions are added to pork by injection and by massaging and tumbling the solution into the muscle, both of which produce a more tender product.
Dry Curing Process
In dry curing, the process used to make country hams and prosciutto, fresh ham is rubbed with a dry-cure mixture of salt and other ingredients. Dry curing produces a salty product. In the trichinae treatment method up to half of the sodium chloride substituted with potassium chloride to result in lower sodium levels. Since dry curing draws out moisture, it reduces ham weight by at least 18% — usually 20 to 25%; this results in a more concentrated ham flavor.
Dry-cured hams may be aged more than a year. Six months is the traditional process but may be shortened according to aging temperature.
These uncooked hams are safe stored at room temperature because they contain so little water, bacteria can't multiply in them. Dry-cured ham is not injected with a curing solution or processed by immersion in a curing solution, but it may be smoked. These variety of hams can be marketed as items that need preparation on the part of the consumer to make them safe to eat. So, as with all meat products, it is important to read the label of hams to determine the proper preparation needed.
Wet Curing or Brine Cure
Brine curing is the most popular way of producing hams. It is a wet cure whereby fresh meat is injected with a curing solution before cooking. Brining ingredients can include ingredients such as salt, sugar, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, water and flavorings. Smoke flavoring (liquid smoke) may also be injected with brine solution. Cooking may occur during this process.
Smoking and Smoke Flavoring
After curing, some hams are smoked. Smoking is a process by which ham is hung in a smokehouse and allowed to absorb smoke from smoldering fires, which gives added flavor and color to meat and slows the development of rancidity. Not all smoked meat is smoked from smoldering fires. A popular process is to heat the ham in a smoke house and generate smoke from atomized smoke flavor.
A bone-in ham will yield two to three servings per pound; a boneless ham will yield four to five servings per pound. If you want leftovers, factor those servings in when you buy your ham.
Cooking The Easter Ham
Over the years, the nutritional value of ham has increased (less fat and more lean per serving.) Currently, a three ounce serving of extra-lean ham contains only 100 calories and is an excellent source of high quality protein. And many people these days want to serve ham as part of the traditional Easter Sunday lunch. When cooking your choice of ham for the holidays, follow the cooking instructions on the ham’s label if provided. If no instructions are provided, try one of these cooking methods.
- Roasting is a good choice for whole hams or ham portions. Place the ham in an open roasting pan and cook at 350oF. The ham will be done when the internal temperature of the meat registers 160oF on the food thermometer. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the ham, but not touching the bone in order to get an accurate reading.
- Cooking in liquid is another option for preparing ham. To use this method, cover the ham with liquid and simmer 4-5 hours in a 350oF oven. Again, the ham is ready when the internal temperature registers 160oF on the food thermometer. Hams most commonly cooked using this method are either country style hams or fresh hams (also called green hams.)
- Then there’s the happy medium between roasting and cooking in liquid. Simply place the ham in a deep pan (some cooks also use a roasting bag) and add a 2-3 cups of your choice of liquid (juices such as apple, pineapple, and orange or even a can of soda are often used).This will provide flavor to the meat and also steams the meat somewhat as it cooks. The ham will be ready to serve when your food thermometer registers 160oF in the thickest part of the meat.
- Broiling is quick and easy way to prepare ham slices. Place the ham slice 3-4 inches from the heat source and broil until lightly browned, turning occasionally. A one-inch thick ham slice that is 3-5 inches from heat will cook in 16 to 20 minutes.
Below is a recipe for an easy glaze that is great for a sweet touch added to pre-cooked ham portions, canned hams or ham slices.
- Honey Glazed Ham
- ½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
- ½ cup honey
- ½ teaspoon dry mustard
- 6 whole cloves.
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan; mix well. Bring to a boil; boil 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Baste ham with glaze during the fiinal 30 minutes of cooking time for the ham.
Storage and Leftovers
Leftover ham should be kept in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped for three to five days. Although ham may be frozen, the varieties that retain water (natural juices and water-added hams) may suffer a textural change that make it best suited for cooking, rather than serving sliced. Hams with no-water-added freeze well.