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April 1, 2014
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Ham, which is the cut of pork that comes from the hind legs of pigs, is an indispensable part of any holiday spread. While many culinary experts consider ham that’s cooked on the bone to be the best kind, everyone has personal preferences in what makes for the best taste.

Choosing a ham for the table can be a complex matter. When it comes to a raw ham, the breed and quality of the pig used in the specific cut can have a great effect on the taste. If it’s a cooked ham, much can depend depending on the specific way it’s cured and preserved prior to cooking. At popular outlets such as Edwards Virginia Ham, specific traditional cooked ham varieties with names like Virginia ham, York ham and Wiltshire ham have great, dedicated followings. With such complexity involved, a little introductory tutorial to ham can help.

The different cuts of ham that you will encounter 

A whole ham: A whole ham is nearly the whole leg of a pig – the butt end and the shank together. It can weigh as much as 20 pounds.

The butt end: The butt end, predictably, includes just the upper part of the hog’s hind. It tends to be fattier and meatier than the shank, but has large sections of bone. The best butt cuts are labeled butt half – they have the center slice left in. Cuts that have had the center slice removed are labeled butt portion.

The shank end: Butt cuts taken from the lower part of a hog’s hind leg are called the shank. While this portion has less fat and meat, it also has less bone and tends to taste sweeter.

A center slice of ham: A center slice of ham is a 1-inch-thick slice of meat from the very middle of a whole ham – where the butt and the shank parts meet. It’s widely considered the best part of any ham.

The different types of uncooked ham that you get to choose from 

Uncooked ham comes in three varieties – fresh, cured and smoked. The curing process is used to preserve ham – so that it keeps without refrigeration. The process also helps create a stronger flavor.

Fresh hams: Fresh hams are not cured or smoked. They are fresh from the butchery and are a grayish pink. When cooked, though, they turn somewhat white. Fresh hams are roasted the way other cuts of pork are and have a similar flavor.

Dry-cured hams: Dry-cured hams are prepared with rubbings of sugar, salt, sodium nitrates, phosphates and various condiments. The mixture is rubbed into the surface and the ham is hung to dry for us long as a year. The curing mixture gets into the ham during this time, naturally dries it out and preserves it. Ham loses about a quarter of its weight to water loss when it is cured. This results in a more concentrated flavor.

Wet-cured hams: Hams aren’t always cured dry. They can be injected with richly seasoned brine with preservatives like sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate added. While wet-cured hams don’t have quite the deep flavor of dry-cured hams, they cure in under a week. For this reason, they tend to be cheaper.

Smoked hams: Hams, once dry-cured, can be hung in smoke houses with smoldering hardwood fires burning, to gain a smoky flavor. Smoked hams have different kinds of flavor, depending on the kind of wood that’s used to create the smoke. The flavors of pecan wood, maplewood, apple wood and other hardwoods are popular.

Finally, you can buy cooked hams, too

A cured ham isn’t the same thing as a cooked ham. Cured ham is still raw meat. No part of the pig is safe to eat without cooking – the only process that can kill all the harmful bacteria and parasites in the meat. Fully cocked hams are thoroughly prepared at 147° F at some point during their processing.

A partially cooked ham is one that’s been heated to no more than 137°F. These hams are intended to be cooked further at home once bought. The additional cooking renders a rich flavor to them.

Jeremy S loves to cook for his friends and family. A passionate writer, you can find his inspirational articles on a variety of blog sites.

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