The Christmas ham has come a long way

Published 11:45 pm Saturday, December 24, 2016


recall merging agriculture with Christmas a few times by writing about the farming and processing that goes into holiday foods. I know I’ve covered turkey farming, cranberry bogs, sweet potato production, and fruit orchards for pies. I’ve never directly mentioned Christmas hams. So ham it is today.

Hams are the hindquarters of hogs that are typically marketed at 250 to 270 pounds live weight and 5- to 6-months old.

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Going with a 250 pounder for easy math, about 175 pounds of carcass remains after the innards and hair are removed. The hams are the largest cuts of pork, the two together accounting for about a quarter of the carcass weight.

For thousands of years before refrigeration, curing hams with salt and/or smoke was a way of extending shelf life. It wasn’t that long ago our own rural families counted on the smokehouse to preserve ham for months. Modern ham processing is done faster and in large batches. And there are the advantages of temperature control and much better techniques to prevent ruined meat or possible harmful bacteria developing during the curing process.

Instead of using dry salt, most ham processing nowadays begins with injecting raw hams with liquid brine of salt and a small amount of sodium nitrite to keep bacteria from growing. Some recipes call for sugar and certain spices to be added in the brine. The injected hams are stored in vats of brine and turned and stirred and reinjected based on the company’s formula. This process takes several weeks.

After a drying and aging process, hams might be marketed as simply cured hams or moved to the smoking stage. The previous brining process at about 40 degrees makes it safe to smoke the meat at 90 degrees. In the days of our grandparents curing hams on the farm, it was winter weather this far south that was the biggest threat to curing hams. Sometimes low temperatures didn’t last long enough and salt just couldn’t overcome warm spells.

Surely there are folks today who can remember childhoods that included curing hams from homegrown hogs. Ask one of them and he or she can likely tell about the time the hams went rancid and grandpa declared them unfit to eat.

While only a few meat processors account for most of the cured hams we see in supermarkets, there are still a whole bunch of small and regional companies and families that market their label of sugar cured and smoked hams. They use old fashioned recipes and websites.

I wasn’t raised with a smokehouse. But two of the first things I did once declared an adult with a fulltime job and monthly bills was to buy some hogs and build a smokehouse.

My smoked sausage turned out pretty darn good if I do say so myself. My one attempt at curing and smoking whole hams didn’t fare as well. After cutting out the green spots, I wound up with chunks of pretty expensive salt meat.

Merry Christmas!