Let’s just say I’m avoiding Spanish ham this Christmas

Published 10:34 am Thursday, December 19, 2019

I don’t know if it was a Christmas ham I bought last week, but they were on sale for 99 cents a pound and I got the smallest one I could find.

I ate some and froze most of it in chunks for flavoring beans and peas later on. Then I got online to see if I got a good deal at 99 cents and found out in the wide world of hams, I did okay.

As a matter of fact, you can order a 9-pound boneless Jamon Iberico de Bellota ham from Spain for $1,229.95, but that includes shipping. I’d say that’s eating high on the hog.

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This particular Spanish ham comes from free-range, acorn-fed hogs of a special breed. Each of the pork hindquarters is cured for over two years in salt and somebody’s secret spice mix.

The long, dry-curing process causes a weight loss of 40 percent from the original raw ham. Our modern American liquid cured hams actually gain weight during their short curing period.

Maybe the weight loss vs weight gain explains some of the price difference.

For thousands of years, people have been preserving pork by curing it with salt. Based on what’s traditional and popular where flavoring from sugar and/or spices is sometimes added. And many types of ham, but not that Spanish expensive one, are further cured and flavored with smoke.

There is actually a natural chemical compound within wood that is released upon burning and that is what provides the flavor.

The discussion about potentially harmful nitrites in ham and other cured meat like bacon originates from the addition of nitrites in the curing mix to prevent the growth of potentially harmful bacteria.

Most folks in the know agree no one should have a diet of only cured or processed meats. It’s that “in moderation” advice again.

The super-expensive acorn-based Spanish ham notwithstanding, ham and other forms of pork remain affordable protein sources for good reason. Prices in the grocery meat department reflect the growth rate and feed conversion efficiency of the species of farm animals we consume. Beef steaks and roasts come from feedlot cattle that are nearly two years old and weighing over a thousand pounds.

A cow can birth one calf per year and better than 10 percent of them skip any given year. Plus it takes about eight pounds of feed to convert to one pound of live body weight.

Comparatively, a sow, i.e. a momma hog, typically gives birth to 16 piglets per year. Each of them grows to a slaughter weight of about 230 pounds in a tad over five months while consuming around three pounds of feed for each pound of live weight gained. There now: that’s enough figures to quickly calculate birth rates, age and feed conversion are why pork costs less than beef.

Back in my smokehouse days, I attempted sausage and hams from my own hogs. The sausage turned out pretty good. The hams wound up salt meat.


Terry Rector writes for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District.