Ham is a beloved meat that has been enjoyed for centuries around the world. But have you ever wondered where it comes from? Is it beef, chicken, or something else entirely?
In this article, we’ll explore the origins of ham and the animal it comes from. From the different cuts of pork to the various curing and smoking methods, we’ll dive into everything you need to know about this delicious meat.
So sit back, relax, and get ready to learn all about the animal behind one of our favorite foods – ham.
Which Animal Does Ham Come From?
Ham comes from the pig, a domesticated animal that has been raised for meat for thousands of years. Specifically, ham is cut from the pig’s hind leg, which is a large and meaty part of the animal.
Pigs are a popular source of meat around the world, and different cultures have developed their own unique ways of preparing and cooking pork. In some countries, such as Spain and Italy, ham is considered a delicacy and is often served thinly sliced as part of a charcuterie board or in sandwiches.
What Is Ham?
Ham is a type of pork that has been cured by either wet or dry methods, with or without smoking. The curing process involves adding salt and other seasonings to the meat to preserve it and give it flavor. The meat is then hung to dry or smoked over wood chips or sawdust to further enhance its flavor.
There are many different types of ham, each with its own unique flavor and texture. Some popular varieties include prosciutto di Parma from Italy, Westphalian ham from Germany, and Smithfield ham from the United States.
Ham can be sold as a whole cut of meat or in slices, and it is often used in sandwiches, salads, and other dishes. It can be served hot or cold and is a versatile ingredient in many recipes.
It’s important to note that not all pork is considered ham. While all ham comes from the pig, not all pork cuts are cured in the same way. For example, bacon comes from the belly of the pig and is cured differently than ham. Additionally, pork chops and other cuts of pork are not typically cured at all and are instead cooked fresh.
The History Of Ham
The history of ham can be traced back to ancient times, when the preservation and storage of food was essential for the development of civilization. Drying, smoking, and curing were some of the earliest methods discovered by the ancients, and the advent of curing enabled cities, people, and cultures to flourish.
The preserving of pork leg as ham has a long history, with traces of production of cured ham among the Etruscan civilization known in the 6th and 5th century BC. Cato the Elder wrote about the “salting of hams” in his De agri cultura tome around 160 BC. There are claims that the Chinese were the first people to mention the production of cured ham. Larousse Gastronomique claims an origin from Gaul. It was certainly well established by the Roman period, as evidenced by an import trade from Gaul mentioned by Marcus Terentius Varro in his writings.
The word “ham” derives from the Old English word “hamm,” which specifically refers to a cut of meat from the hog’s hind legs. The Gauls produced precursors to the contemporary world’s renowned Bayonne, Black Forest, and Westphalian hams. Christopher Columbus carried eight pigs on board with him when he left Spain for an unsuccessful search for the New World, but explorer Hernando de Soto’s 13 pigs became the breeding stock for the United States’ pork industry when he landed on the coast of Florida in 1539. Within just a few years, his passel of hogs grew to 700. By the 17th century, most colonial farmers raised pigs. The long shelf-life of salt pork and bacon made both staples in early American kitchens.
The popularity of ham can also be traced to geographic location. The conditions required for curing meat need to be such that it is not so cold that the ham freezes or too warm causing it to spoil. This has resulted in distinct areas around the world renowned for their particular hams. Italian prosciutto and Spanish Serrano, as well as American country ham from Kentucky and Virginia are all located on what can be described as the world’s Ham Belt — a geographic area bound by latitude and historically producing some of the world’s most revered hams.
With technology advancements, climate control, and mechanization of many food production methods, geographic location has become less important for ham production. However, these original ham centers are still prized as being among the finest ham-producing regions today.
Different Cuts Of Pork Used For Ham
There are several different cuts of pork that can be used to make ham, each with its own unique flavor and texture. Here are some of the most common cuts used for ham:
1. Whole Ham: A whole ham is a large cut of meat that includes both the butt end and the shank end. The butt end is more fatty and rump-like, while the shank end is more leg-like and less fatty. A whole ham can be sold bone-in, spiral cut (which has some bone in), or boneless.
2. Picnic Shoulder: The picnic shoulder is another cut of pork that can be used to make ham. This cut comes from the upper part of the shoulder and includes parts of the neck, shoulder blade, and upper arm. It is a moderately tough cut with a good deal of connective tissue.
3. Fresh Ham: Fresh ham is a cut of pork that has not been cured or smoked. It is usually roasted or ground and used for sausage.
4. Hickory-Smoked Ham: Hickory-smoked ham is a popular type of ham that has been cured and smoked with hickory wood chips. This gives it a rich, smoky flavor that is perfect for sandwiches or charcuterie boards.
5. Black Forest Ham: Black Forest ham is a type of ham that originated in Germany’s Black Forest region. It is made from pork that has been cured with salt, garlic, and other spices, then smoked over fir wood chips.
No matter which cut of pork is used to make ham, it is important to note that sodium nitrate is often used as a part of its curing and processing. This additive helps to preserve the meat and gives it its distinctive pink color. However, if you prefer to avoid additives in your food, you may want to opt for fresh ham instead of cured ham.
How Ham Is Cured And Smoked
Ham can be prepared in a variety of ways, but one of the most common methods is through curing and smoking. Curing is the process of adding salt, sugar, and other seasonings to the meat to preserve it and enhance its flavor. Smoking involves exposing the meat to smoke from burning wood chips or logs to add a smoky flavor.
There are different types of ham based on the curing and smoking process used. Fresh ham is an uncured leg of pork, while cured ham is made by injecting a fresh ham with a brine of salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, water and/or flavorings. The ham is then cooked to an internal temperature of 150 F. This type of ham is commonly found in supermarkets and delis.
Cold-smoked ham is made by smoking the ham at around 60 F (15 C) for days or even weeks. Because the temperature is so low, bacteria is controlled by chemicals in the smoke and the slow drying process. A cold-smoked ham requires salt curing (typically in a brine) to keep the bacteria under control throughout the curing process.
Smoking is another form of curing. Before a ham is smoked, it is first salt-cured or brined to control the development of bacteria during smoking. It then spends many hours, days even, in a smokehouse to allow the essence of hickory or maple smoke to slowly infuse the meat. The meat doesn’t “burn up” because the smoking temperature low, below 100F, that’s why this slow process is called “cold-smoking”.
Aged ham does not necessarily require a brine or smoke but usually does involve extensive salting and seasoning. The ham is hung in special well-ventilated rooms with precise temperature and humidity controls for one to five years. During this time a hard crust of mold develops, which prevents the meat from spoiling and helps it develop distinctive and appealing flavors throughout the ham.
Hams can also be prepared using a combination of these processes. Cured and smoked hams are often finished by heating with a glaze or serving with a sauce or other treatment. Salted ham that is aged for a year or more, however, is usually simply sliced thin and eaten with complementary accompaniments such as melon, chunks of cheese or toasted bread. The type of wood used for smoking contributes an additional subtle flavor component to the ham.
Nutritional Value Of Ham
Ham is a processed meat that is often enjoyed as a deli meat or as part of holiday meals. While it is high in sodium, it also provides a variety of key nutrients that are important for overall health.
One serving of ham, which is typically around 2-3 ounces, contains approximately 14 grams of protein. Protein is an essential nutrient that is critical for the formation and repair of cells, as well as for maintaining muscle mass. In addition, diets that are high in protein have been shown to be effective for weight loss, as they help to keep you feeling full and satisfied.
Ham is also a good source of iron, which is important for the production of red blood cells and for maintaining energy levels. A 100-gram serving of cooked ham contains approximately 0.79mg of iron. In addition, ham provides vitamin B12, which is necessary for healthy nerve function and the production of DNA.
However, it’s important to note that ham is also high in sodium, with a single serving containing up to 600 milligrams. This can be problematic for individuals who are sensitive to salt or who have high blood pressure. In addition, ham is often processed with nitrates and nitrites, which have been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer.
Ham In Different Cultures And Cuisines
Ham is a widely enjoyed food item in many different cultures and cuisines. In Spain, for example, jamón is a highly prized type of ham that is often served as part of tapas or as a standalone dish. Jamón can be made from either the front or back legs of the pig, and the curing process can take anywhere from several months to several years. The resulting ham is typically very tender and flavorful, with a rich, nutty taste.
In Italy, prosciutto is a type of dry-cured ham that is often sliced thinly and served with melon or other fruits. Prosciutto can be made from either the front or back legs of the pig, and the curing process can take up to two years. The resulting ham is typically very salty and savory, with a slightly sweet flavor.
In China, ham has been a popular food item for thousands of years. The Chinese were some of the first people to cure pork, and they developed many different methods for preparing and cooking ham. Today, Chinese-style ham is often served as part of a hot pot or stir-fry dish, or it can be sliced thinly and used as a topping for noodles or rice.
In the United States, ham is a popular food item that is often served as part of holiday meals or in sandwiches. There are many different types of ham available in the US, ranging from smoked hams to honey-glazed hams to country-style hams. Each type of ham has its own unique flavor profile and texture, making it a versatile ingredient in many different dishes.