Know your ham
Everyone seems to love a jewel-like glazed ham as a centre piece for the Christmas meal.
Ham was a way to preserve the meat of pigs, (in the case of ham, it was the hind legs of the pig) to provide meat during the winter. Pigs were slaughtered in autumn, so by winter the ham was ready to eat — this also meant pigs didn’t need to be fed during winter when feed was scarce. Ham as a Kiwi Christmas meat is result of this tradition, even though we eat it in summer.
There are two ways of making ham. The first is that used by the Germans, French and Italians, a dry cure using salt. The ham is covered in salt until the water is drawn out of the meat and the salt drawn in, which kills or restricts the growth of bacteria. This is the method by which the great raw hams, like San Daniele prosciutto, are made. It is then simply air dried. These hams are eaten raw in very thin slices and go well with melon and figs.
The other method is the use of a salty brine to make the commercial Christmas hams we are familiar with. This method entails the use not only of salt but also of potassium nitrate or saltpetre, which was discovered in medieval times. This chemical gives ham its pink colour and improves its flavour, safety and storage (Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking).
In the early 20th century scientists discovered that some of the saltpetre converts into nitrite, which is the active ingredient.
Once this was known, the curing could be done with small amounts of pure nitrate. Hence as Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall so scathingly says in The River Cottage Meat Book, “Industrial curing, of hams and bacons in particular, attempts to cure the meat “instantly” by direct injection of artificially flavoured and E-number laced brine, using thousands of tiny hollow needles. It’s a doubly cynical exercise, in that it is intended not merely to save time (and therefore money) but to bolster the water content of the product so that when it is sold by weight the profit margins are significantly higher”.
As we are adults, consuming these products is our choice.
After talking about ham with Hendersons, the manufacturers of no added water and chemical-free bacon, they told me that “during our manufacturing process we aim for a relatively higher meat content (85 percent), which means that we can confidently say that there is a proportionally lower amount of curing solution (and therefore chemicals from that solution) in our hams”.
I would be interested to know how about the same ratios in other brands and whether anyone makes a chemical-free ham. It is also interesting to note that nitrate occurs naturally in fruit and vegetables, but fresh produce also contains other elements which protect against certain diseases.
However, these days most people buy a cooked ham and it is the glazing that often interests them. Glazing is applying a sweet sticky glaze to the outside of a cooked ham; it is already cooked so the glaze is cosmetic and for flavour. Sweet tangy flavours go well with ham.
To glaze a cooked ham
You first need to remove the thick brown skin. Cut around the skin at the shank end. Go to the other end of the ham and slide your fingers under the skin which will lift easily. Gently lift the skin off the ham and discard it. You will have revealed a thick layer of fat — don’t remove that. Score the fat in a criss-cross pattern almost down to the flesh so that you have small regular diamond shapes all over the fat. Push a whole clove into each of the intersections of the diamond shaped cuts.
The simplest glaze I know for a ham that is to be eaten cold is brown sugar made into a thick paste with apricot jam. Brush this all over the fat, pushing the cloves back in if they come loose. Place in a large roasting dish with a little water in the bottom.
Put the ham into a 180C oven for about 40 minutes or until the glaze is sticky and the fat beginning to brown around the edges. The heat will make the glaze slide off but keep basting. If the glaze at the bottom of the pan looks like burning add a little more water. Remove from the oven and keep basting until the glaze is too sticky to spread. Cool the ham as fast as possible, cover loosely with foil and store in the coldest part of your fridge.
Watch and learn
Ray McVinnie walks us through the process of preparing a glazed ham.