Published April 1, 2013. From Cook's Country.
What did we learn when we sampled America’s own artisanal, cured pork? It’s (almost) all good.
Europe has its fabled cured hams—prosciutto in Italy, jamón ibérico in Spain—but did you know that we’ve got one, too? Country ham is a strong, salty, dry-cured product produced primarily in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri. Just seven million country hams are sold annually in the United States, but with increased interest in artisanal and local foods, the current love affair with anything pig, and the explosion of Internet mail ordering, these small-town Southern hams seem poised to hit the big time. Being ham lovers ourselves, we wanted in.
By definition, a ham is the cut of meat taken from the upper part of a pig’s back leg; for many, it’s a holiday table centerpiece, spiral-cut and lacquered with a sugary glaze. But that is a city ham, made by injecting or soaking a fresh ham in brine and sold cooked, to be simply heated and served.
While city hams can be ready for market in 24 hours, country hams cure for anywhere from three months to years. Traditionally, it was a way to preserve the meat in prerefrigeration days: Hogs were slaughtered in the fall; the hams were rubbed with salt, sugar, and spices and then left to cure during the winter, with the salt drawing out moisture. Come spring, they were cleaned and hung, and some were smoked. Finally, in the warm summer months, the hams were aged. The heat accelerated enzymatic activity, which imparted the robust, pungent flavors that one producer has described as the ham’s “country twang.” This centuries-old seasonal style of making country ham is known as an “ambient” cure. Today, virtually all commercial cured-ham makers use special aging rooms to mimic the seasons, with temperature, airflow, and humidity under carefully monitored control.
Country ham is sold whole or sliced, cooked or uncooked. We ordered ours online from individual company websites; you can also buy these hams in some Southern supermarkets and warehouse club stores. (The hams may have mold on them. It’s harmless—just wipe it off.) We chose whole uncooked hams and slow-cooked them for 4 to 5 hours, according to a test kitchen recipe. We selected country hams that were aged from three to six months because these are the most widely sold. Much as barbecue fanatics fight over Memphis versus Carolina versus Texas, country ham pros have partisan loyalties. Tasting hams from different states, they warned us, was like comparing apples with oranges. We ignored their advice and investigated hams across the geographic range. Then we held a blind taste test. Because these hams are so salty, we kept our palates fresh by serving thin slices with biscuits, water, and unsalted crackers. When we tallied the results, we learned that of the seven products, we had serious reservations about just one. The top five, all recommended, were in a virtual tie. They were porky and complex with the robust flavors that develop from aging temperatures that run 10 to 30 degrees hotter than those used for European cured hams. Next—and we say this with all due respect—it’s not apples and oranges. McIntosh and Granny Smith might be more apt. All of the hams were made by the same methods, with the same ingredients, and from the same breed of pig, a crossbred packinghouse hog called American Landrace. (We did not taste fancy heritage breeds; these makers do not raise their own pigs.) Six products that we tasted are hickory smoked; the seventh is not (we liked that ham, too).
So if every producer starts with the same product, adds the same ingredients, and undertakes the same preservation method, what accounts for differences? Time, temperature, airflow, and humidity inside the curing and aging rooms, we learned. Producers can tailor each of these factors, ham by ham, to get the exact product they want to sell. Hams aged in rooms with more airflow will be drier; hams aged for longer will have more concentrated flavor; hams aged at higher temperatures will have stronger flavors. To achieve their goals, makers inspect and smell the hams daily.
In the end, only one brand didn’t pass muster (a brand that happens to be made by the largest pork producer in the world). Yes, country ham is salty, but this brand was so salty that’s all we could taste. Our second-to-last-place finisher, recommended with reservations, was strong and gamy, characteristics that split our tasters. You can’t go wrong with any of the remaining five brands, but our top choice, made in Kentucky, had robust pork flavor and balanced salt levels and would have no trouble holding its own among the better-known European hams.