The Production of Ham
Hams can be classified as fully cooked, cooked before eating, country, and picnic types. There are so many kinds of ham that their storage times and cooking times can sometimes get confusing. First, let us define what a ham is. The word ham is a term for a cut of meat that usually comes from the hind leg of animals like pigs. Hams are named according to where they were taken from the body of the animal. Ham that is taken from the front leg of a hog is labelled pork shoulder picnic while turkey ham comes from the thigh of a turkey.
Ham can be fully cooked, smoked and cured, or simply just cured. The usual color of ham is deep rose or pinkish and fresh ham which is not cured has the color of fresh pork which is beige or pale pink. Prosciutto is a ham that is dry cured has a color that ranges from pink to mahogany.
There are hams that can be eaten raw or some that needs to be cooked. Ready to eat hams are the prosciutto or jamon iberico de bellota. They can be eaten raw or straight out of the package. Ham that is fresh must be cooked by the consumer and should have the safe handling label displayed prominently.
Curing is the process of treating the meat with salt, nitrites, seasonings, phosphates, and ascorbates to preserve the color or enhance the flavour. The characteristic reddish to pink color of cured ham is caused by the addition of nitrites and nitrates. Salt and nitrites protect the meat from invasion by Clostridium botulinium which is a deadly microorganism that can cause food poisoning in humans.
Addition of solutions for curing make the meat more tender and are usually added by injection or massage. Country hams and prosciutto are made through the process of dry curing. In this method of curing, the fresh meat is rubbed with a mixture of salt and other ingredients. Dry curing will eventually produce a salty product with different degrees of saltiness that would depend on the length of time to cure the meat. Dry curing will reduce the weight of the ham by at least 18 to 25 percent and this results in a more concentrated flavour. A good example of ham that is cured in this process is the Bellota or Recebo Ham from Spain.
Dry cured hams are aged from a few weeks to a few years. Six months is the usual length of time for a dry curing process but can be shortened depending on the temperature. These dry cured hams are safe to be stored in even at room temperature because they contain very little water and bacteria can't multiply in them.
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