Masterclass – How to make and cure your own ham
You can Dry Cure many parts (or cuts) of a pig, but the ‘Ham’ (in this case an entire pigs back leg) is traditional. Dry curing is a very old and very successful technique for preserving meat. From at least Medieval times salt was mixed with saltpetre, and other ingredients, (such as sugar, honey, pepper or juniper berries) to carry out the processes of preserving pork. In terms of this masterclass Dry Cured Hams are the hind leg of a pig which have been salted, then air-dried to ‘cure’. This is done using a curing compound, (consisting of salt and other seasoning’s) which is rubbed over the surface of the ham; the ham is then packed in salt, under a pressed weight.
The added weight and pressing helps to draw out the moisture in the meat, and also contributes to a denser texture in the ham. Once ‘salt cured’ the ham is hung to ‘dry cure’ in a cool, airy place; ageing anywhere from a few months to over a year; this deepens the flavours and preserves the ham so that it can be left in the pantry or store-room, ready to be sliced into and eaten – dry cured hams like this (and other famous dry cured hams like the York ham or Parma ham) are thinly sliced and eaten ‘raw’, (the meat has been ‘cooked’ by the curing processes). Salting and drying meat to prevent the decomposition of flesh like this has been known in Britain since the Iron-age, but the process was perfected in the Medieval period.
Salting the meat preserves it because the moisture (a requisite for most bacterial reproduction) is drawn out of the flesh by the sodium chloride – as the salt curing compounds slowly penetrate through the entire ham, drawing out the moisture, the weight of the ham is often reduced by up to 18 to 25 percent – there are benefits to this, the loss of moisture produces a more intense flavour and deepens the colour of the ham.
Unfortunately, in some cases ‘sweating’ the meat like this, in just ordinary rock salt, can turn the meat an ugly grey colour and make it tough. It was discovered in Medieval times, (or even before) that a certain type of rock salt, (salt with impurities) kept the meat softer, with a more pleasing deep pink colour. This impure form of salt, called saltpetre, was much sought after to add into the salt mix and curing compound (often called ‘the rub’).
What Is Saltpetre? Saltpetre (a naturally occurring mineral) is still used today by experienced meat curer’s who have developed their own award winning ‘rubs’ or curing compounds. In recent years the compounds in saltpetre have been made out to be harmful, this is mistaken advice, chemically added (manufactured) nitrates pumped into cheap, commercially produced hams with saline, bought in the supermarket, are the problem, not using naturally occurring saltpetre, with its low amount of nitrates, as a dry rub.
During the curing process naturally occurring bacteria convert the nitrate within saltpetre into a useful nitrite form. It is this nitrite which then reacts with the constituents of the meat, and effects the curing process, producing the familiar pink colour to the ham and a softer texture. Unfortunately saltpetre is now becoming more difficult to source in the modern world, as it is part of the ingredients which make up gunpowder and explosives. If finding it difficult try sourcing a ‘Butcher’s Curing Salt’ to buy, like Morton Salt, which has the saltpetre compounds already added in, in the correct amounts – just search online for ‘curing salt’, or ask your butcher for it when you pre-order the meat.
Time of the year: The best time to cure a ham will be in the cooler months, in Britain it is usual for the domestic cook to cure their hams in the autumn, or very early Spring, so that they can get a good cool, dry wind to circulate around their hams. Dry curing at the height of the summer months, without being able to put the ham in an airy, chilled space, would not be a good idea for the beginner to start off their first curing process. Dry and Cool are the key things a ham needs … too damp, or too hot, and there is a chance that the meat will spoil before it can be naturally preserved. However, if it is a very cold time of year, throw an old blanket or rug over the salting box and leave to cure for an extra three or four days past the recommended time. Tip: If you start the curing process in March you could eat your very own Dry Cured Ham over Christmas and the New Year, having aged it for ten months.
Recommended reading: Kieth Erlandson, “Home Smoking and Curing” published by Ebury Press is a great book from the gamekeepers perspective. While A.D. Livingstone’s, “Cold-Smoking & Salt-Curing” published by The Lyons Press is a good read for an American take on this process. Note: Salt/Dry-cured hams may also be smoked, to help preservation, colour and add flavour – smoking can happen before or after the salting process, depending on technique and preferred regional recipes. This particular article and recipe will not deal with the more complex and costly procedure of smoking, however the books mentioned above do go into the details and methods of smoking.