The University of North Carolina Press


Publisher's Note: The following excerpt is from The Country Ham Book by Jeanne Voltz and Elaine J. Harvell. Copyright ©1999, The University of North Carolina Press. Reproduction in any form is prohibited without the express permission of the University of North Carolina Press.

An Excerpt from The Country Ham Book
by Jeanne Voltz and Elaine J. Harvell

$24.95 cloth ISBN 0-8078-2519-0
$16.95 paper ISBN 0-8078-4827-1


Chapter 3 - "Ham What Am"

Standards for country ham evolved over centuries of trial and error by farmers seeking to improve the taste and shelf life of pork. Before the first ham was cured in the Western Hemisphere, Europeans and Asians were salting meat to keep it for later eating or to transform good pork flavor into a complex burst of goodness to tempt sophisticated palates.

The first hams doubtless were prepared and aged by growers of swine or by butchers who bought directly from swineherds. Historians believe that the Chinese cured excellent hams centuries before the taste and techniques were known in Western Europe. The knowledge of the miraculous transformation of pork traveled to Europe along the Silk Road, an artery of information exchange.

Larousse Gastronomique claims that the finest hams in Europe at the time of the Roman Empire were made by the Gauls, and Roman writings of the period confirm the reputation of the French. One method of curing pork in that period called for burying the meat at seaside, where the salty water lapped over it and kept it saturated with brine. The ham was unearthed in the spring. Hams soaked in seawater for brine are unknown today; a few beach dwellers may do it, but the system is iffy for commercial production.

The French still make fine hams, and a selection from all parts of the country is shown and tasted at a ham fair in Paris every year before Easter. The prosciutto of Italy is acclaimed worldwide, as are serrano hams of Spain, Westphalian or Black Forest hams from Germany, and Presunto of Portugal.

Ham as the traditional food for the Easter feast is more prevalent in the northern European nations, and Danish and Polish hams are imported to the United States. Ham is eaten in Mediterranean countries and other southern European locations, but lamb or other meats are usually the favorites for Easter in these lands.

The ham eaten in one's youth is often chosen by the adult as best. Joseph Wechsberg, an Austrian writer whose essays about food appeared in the New Yorker and other magazines in the 1940s and 1950s, wrote, "Of all good hams, Parma or Poland, York or Kentucky, Bayonne or Westphalia--Prague's hams were the finest, perfectly cured, unsalted, tasteful and tender." Without salting, the Prague hams would not meet U.S. specifications, and Wechsberg's description suggests these hams were not processed for long storage.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations require that the fresh meat be rubbed with salt and, if used, sodium nitrate and nitrite. The nitrates and nitrites aid in preserving the meat and enrich the depth of red color. Some consumers avoid nitrites because, when heated to high temperatures, the nitrite can be converted to a carcinogenic element. The salt and nitrite or nitrate are mixed and applied dry. Spices, including pepper, may be added later in the process. Ham labeled "sugar cured" has brown or white sugar added, and some are flavored with honey or molasses. The sweetener is not a preservative but improves tenderness and is used for flavor.

Only the hind legs of hogs can be called country ham. These legs will be coated with a thin layer of fat. The salt and nitrates or nitrites are rubbed into the exposed meat and rind to allow the curing mixture to seep into the flesh. In early America the men or women who rubbed the green ham were called "powderers," and large plantations often had one servant or member of the family who was most adept at this procedure and considered the resident expert for the job.

The ham must remain covered with the cure in a cool room at 36 degrees to 40 degrees for a minimum of twenty-eight days; more curing mixture is rubbed in during this time. The cure draws juices from the meat. When ham ceases to release dampness, it is ready for the equalization phase.

The hams may be washed to rid them of surface salt and placed in cloth or net bags before equalization. Hams without a bag will have a hole cut in the hock, and a wire or heavy string will be threaded through it for hanging. The ham may also be laid on a shelf or table for this step. The meat is transferred to a slightly warmer room, about 55 degrees or a bit higher. This extended period in which the ham is covered with the cure is essential for killing trichina, a rare parasite found in pork that can infect humans if not destroyed by long exposure to salt or thorough cooking. Meat from fattier hogs grown prior to the 1980s stayed in equalization three days per pound. The modern, leaner animals require only two days per pound. They are then ready for aging.

The ham is aged at least six months. An artisan ham processor might age a ham as long as eighteen months on special order, and there are tales of five-year, ten-year, and even longer aged hams that were as exciting as a rare wine to taste.

The USDA rules for processing are modified for the dozens of hams made by men and women who produce a few hams a year for specialty customers. Some ham lovers enjoy the adventure of seeking out unique specimens, driving miles over rutted roads to buy hams that have a special reputation. Hams cured, aged, and smoked in small numbers do not require USDA inspection if the manufacturer does not sell or ship any across state lines.

As curing hams is traditionally a cottage industry, processors who cure fewer than two hundred each year usually know their business. The USDA provides regulations for processing hams under "ambient conditions," weather as God gives us and storage and workrooms as they have been built for generations. The curing mix is the same as that for commercial country hams. Legal dates for curing are set by region, depending on weather conditions, for these small producers. In Virginia and North Carolina, pork legs must go into the curing room between December 1 and February 15. They cannot be taken from the aging room before August 31. The finished ham must contain the same level of salt as that required for hams in commercial plants processing hundreds of hams--10 percent brine, or 4 percent if the cure mixture is made with nitrites or nitrates.

All this fuss produces the unique flavors and textures achieved by the activity of meat enzymes, microbial metabolites, added spices, and/or smoking with special hardwoods. No other taste in the world is quite the same. Laboratories can reproduce a smoke flavor, but not the unique way it nestles up to the taste of cured meat. Country ham may have the most complex flavor of any food in the enormous spectrum of human nourishment.

Country ham is an excellent source of protein and contains about the same number of calories as trimmed beef rump roast, a few less than the same amount of hamburger cooked well, and a few more than the same weight of top round steak. The salt content of country ham is high, leading those who adore it to eat it in moderation and with unsalted or lightly salted accompaniments.

Nutrient Content of Country Ham
Serving size: 3 ounces (84 grams)

Nutrition Facts% Daily Value
Total fat, 8 grams12
Saturated fat, 3 grams15
Cholesterol, 40 milligrams13
Sodium, 1,710 milligrams71
Protein, 24 grams
Iron, 6 grams
Calories, 170
Calories from fat, 70

Country ham contains no measurable carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, vitamin A, vitamin C, or calcium.

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