Have you ever opened your fridge to find that your ham has turned an unappetizing shade of brown?
It’s a common occurrence, but it can be confusing and concerning. Is it still safe to eat? What caused it to change color?
In this article, we’ll explore the science behind why ham turns brown and what it means for its safety and flavor.
So, grab a cup of coffee and let’s dive in!
Why Did My Ham Turn Brown?
Ham is a popular meat that is enjoyed by many people around the world. It is often cured using salt and smoke, which gives it a distinctive pinkish-brown color. However, sometimes ham can turn brown due to a variety of reasons.
One of the main reasons why ham turns brown is due to oxidation. This is a natural chemical process that occurs when the myoglobin in the meat reacts with oxygen. Myoglobin is a protein that is responsible for the red color in meat. When the meat is first cut, it has a purplish-pink color because the myoglobin is not interacting with oxygen. However, as soon as the meat is exposed to air, the oxygen in the air attaches to the myoglobin and the meat turns to a bright pink color.
Over time, the enzymes in the muscle use up the oxygen and take it away from the myoglobin. As a result, the myoglobin oxidizes and turns brown. This reaction happens at a microscopic level just below the cut surface. Eventually, the muscle loses its ability to reduce the oxidized myoglobin and the brown becomes permanent.
Other factors that can contribute to ham turning brown include extended storage, freezing, exposure to low levels of oxygen, and exposure to salts and marinades.
What Causes Ham To Turn Brown?
Ham can turn brown due to a variety of reasons, including oxidation, extended storage, freezing, exposure to low levels of oxygen, and exposure to salts and marinades.
As mentioned earlier, oxidation is a natural chemical process that occurs when the myoglobin in the meat reacts with oxygen. When the meat is first cut, it has a purplish-pink color because the myoglobin is not interacting with oxygen. However, as soon as the meat is exposed to air, the oxygen in the air attaches to the myoglobin and the meat turns to a bright pink color. Over time, the enzymes in the muscle use up the oxygen and take it away from the myoglobin. As a result, the myoglobin oxidizes and turns brown.
Extended storage can also contribute to ham turning brown. When ham is stored for an extended period of time, it loses its ability to reduce the oxidized myoglobin. This can cause the brown color to become permanent.
Freezing can also cause ham to turn brown. When ham is frozen, ice crystals can form inside the meat. These ice crystals can damage the cell walls and cause the myoglobin to leak out. This can cause the ham to turn brown when it is thawed.
Exposure to low levels of oxygen can also contribute to ham turning brown. When ham is stored in packaging that does not allow for proper air circulation, it can be exposed to low levels of oxygen. This can cause the myoglobin to oxidize and turn brown.
Finally, exposure to salts and marinades can also cause ham to turn brown. Salts and marinades contain chemicals that can react with the myoglobin in the meat and cause it to turn brown.
The Role Of Nitrites In Ham Color
Nitrites play a crucial role in the color of cured meat, including ham. Nitrite salts are added to the curing process to extend the shelf life of processed meats and give boiled ham its pink color. When nitrite is added to fresh meat, it quickly converts to nitric oxide (NO), which binds to myoglobin and changes the fresh meat color to a bright red known as nitroslymyoglobin. This reaction is responsible for the characteristic pink color of cured meats, including ham.
When the ham is heated, chemical reactions occur, and myoglobin is changed to a compound known as nitrosylhemochrome. This produces the characteristic pink color of cured meats that is heat-stable and will continue to be pink when cooked or reheated multiple times. Nitrite also imparts a better flavor, taste, and aroma in cured meats and prevents the risk of bacterial contamination, especially from Clostridium botulinum.
However, there are concerns about the use of nitrites in cured meats due to their potential health risks. Recent research has shown that certain N-nitroso compounds can stimulate gastric cancer. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified processed meat as carcinogenic because curing by adding nitrates or nitrites or by smoking can lead to the formation of potentially cancer-causing chemicals.
Therefore, some countries have taken steps to reduce the use of nitrites in cured meats. In France, a bill was approved in 2020 aiming to gradually reduce the use of nitrite in cured meats and ordered a review of potential health risks. The French health agency ANSES has confirmed a link between the nitrates in ham and charcuterie and the development of bowel cancer.
Is Brown Ham Safe To Eat?
If you notice that your ham has turned brown, don’t panic. As mentioned earlier, the brown color is a natural result of oxidation and is not an indication of spoilage or bacteria growth. In fact, brown ham is perfectly safe to eat as long as it has been stored properly and does not have any other signs of spoilage.
However, it’s important to note that if the ham has a sour or unpleasant smell, a slimy or tacky texture, or mold on the surface, it is best to discard it immediately. These are signs of spoilage and eating spoiled meat can lead to food poisoning.
It’s also important to keep in mind that while brown ham is safe to eat, it may not be as fresh or flavorful as pinkish-brown ham. So if you’re looking for the best quality and taste, it’s recommended to consume your ham before it turns brown.
How To Prevent Ham From Turning Brown
If you want to prevent your ham from turning brown, there are a few things that you can do. Firstly, avoid overcooking the ham, as this can cause the myoglobin to oxidize and turn brown. Cook the ham at a low and slow temperature to ensure that it is cooked evenly and retains its pink color.
Secondly, store your ham properly to prevent it from being exposed to oxygen for too long. Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and store it in the fridge. Avoid storing it in the freezer for extended periods of time, as this can also cause the meat to turn brown.
Finally, avoid using marinades or salts that contain high levels of sodium, as this can cause the meat to lose its pink color and turn brown. Instead, use a simple mixture of stock, wine, or water in the pan while cooking to infuse moisture into the meat throughout the baking process.
By following these tips, you can help prevent your ham from turning brown and ensure that it retains its delicious flavor and pinkish-brown color.
Brown Ham And Flavor: Does It Affect Taste?
The brown color of ham does not necessarily affect its taste. In fact, the flavor of ham is determined by a variety of factors, such as the curing process, cooking method, and seasoning. Ham that has turned brown due to age and exposure to air is still safe to eat as long as it has a pleasant, savory smell and does not appear dry or slimy.
The curing process is a crucial factor in determining the taste of ham. Curing is the process of preserving meat through the addition of chemicals such as sugar, salt, nitrates, and/or smoke. This process not only changes the texture and flavor of the meat but also increases its resistance to bacteria and spoilage.
When it comes to flavor, all types of ham have a meaty denseness and a fleshy texture because they come from the large, round muscles of a hog’s hind leg. Additionally, all ham has a slight underlying sweetness to its taste, making it the perfect partner for numerous accent flavors such as salt, smoke, brown sugar, maple, spicy mustard, cloves, and even canned pineapple.
Cooking method also plays a significant role in determining the flavor of ham. The volatile flavoring compounds responsible for cooked meat flavor are produced thermally by the Maillard’s reaction itself or interaction with lipid oxidation products and vitamin degradation. The way in which ham is cooked can greatly affect its taste.
Other Factors That Can Affect Ham Color
Apart from oxidation, there are other factors that can affect the color of ham. One such factor is the curing method used. Ham that is cured with a wet or brine-curing method tends to have a pinkish color due to the presence of nitrites and nitrates in the brine. On the other hand, ham that is dry-cured or smoked tends to have a darker color due to the smoke and salts used in the curing process.
Additives can also affect the color of ham. Some producers may add sugar, honey or food coloring to enhance the flavor and appearance of the ham. These additives can change the color of the ham and make it appear darker or lighter than usual.
The age of the ham can also affect its color. As the ham ages, it may turn brown due to oxidation. Additionally, exposure to light and air can also cause the ham to change color over time.
Finally, the cooking method used can also affect the color of ham. Overcooking or cooking at high temperatures can cause the ham to turn brown due to caramelization of sugars in the meat.