It’s Not About Me. Really.

The New York Times


March 19, 2013

Picking a Flavorful Easter Ham
Julia Moskin

I do not come from ham-eating people.

Bacon, of course. Pepperoni, sure.

But the occasion for a roast ham did not arrive until last Christmas, when I volunteered to make the festive meal for friends — excellent cooks and ham lovers, all.

I roped in my mother, a veteran of beef Wellington and roast goose. I assured her that there was nothing more to it than sticking the ham in a hot oven and glazing it with some happy combination of sugar, spice, fruit and liquor.

But when we wrestled it onto the counter, even the ham’s size seemed daunting. “Which side is the top?” my mother asked.

I suspect we are not the first cooks to find a whole ham bewildering. What with air-drying and hickory-smoking, wet-curing and salt-rubbing, maple-glazing and honey-baking, it takes many steps to turn pork into ham. And within the ham family, there are innumerable combinations and variations from which to choose.

What most American cooks procure for Easter dinner is a wet-cured, lightly smoked, prebaked ham, what neighborhood butchers called a city ham, when there were still neighborhood butchers.

There is nothing particularly urban about city ham, the meat expert Bruce Aidells said, but the name took hold as shorthand. “It tells you what these are not, which is country ham,” he said.

Country hams are one of the oldest American food traditions and are still produced by a few smokehouses, like Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Tennessee, and Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham in Kentucky. They undergo a long, slow, air-drying process, along the same lines as Italian prosciutto and Spanish jamón.

Country hams have become a cult item for food lovers, even as city hams have languished. Except for holidays, baked ham is now seen rarely on American tables at dinner, only occasionally at breakfast and almost never in restaurants, even as bacon has become as ubiquitous as butter.

“It’s a dying product,” said Tim Harris, who imports jamón and meat from acorn-fed pigs in Spain for his family’s food company in Williamsburg, Va., La Tienda.

This is partly because the salt and nitrates in commercial hams have become less appealing to consumers, even as the hams themselves have become less succulent. It is boring to keep pointing out that most pigs today are bred to be lean, but it remains true. The hams that come from these pigs, although plump and pink, are no exception. (The pink color comes from nitrates used in curing.) The thigh is a working muscle, not very marbled with fat, and modern hams tend to be dry, not juicy.

To combat dryness and add flavor, producers inject hams with salt brine, along with other, less innocuous, liquids. The brine provides the characteristic quick cure, sweet flavor and long shelf life of city hams. It may contain sugar, syrup or honey; sodium nitrite and nitrates; or “cure accelerators” like sodium ascorbate and preservatives like sodium erythorbate.

Sara Bigelow, who is in charge of ham at the Meat Hook, a butcher shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said that not all additives are problematic. “You have to use some nitrites or it won’t have that ham taste,” she said. “The question is how much you use, and what else you do.”

Depending on what is in the brine and how much of it is added, the Food and Drug Administration has developed intricate rules for labeling ham, some of them helpful in unearthing the ham you want for your holiday table. In commercial production, the smoke flavor of a ham can be injected in a brine; massaged in by “tumbling” the ham in a machine; or even sprayed on. Such a ham may list “hickory smoke” as one of its ingredients, but may not be labeled “hickory smoked.”

Hams labeled “ham and water products” or “ham — water added” are brined to the point that the natural pork flavor is compromised, and the texture becomes spongy. A “ham with natural juices” has less liquid added to it and more pork flavor; this is the category that most baked hams belong in.

If it all sounds unappetizing, be assured that the country’s best hams — from producers committed to real wood smoke, pure maple syrup and pasture-raised pigs — are worth seeking out. Going through a trusted butcher is one way to get your hands on them, but with e-commerce, anyone can order from top producers like Snake River Farms and Flying Pigs Farm, the upstate farm that provides ham for the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

To sort through the options, I assembled a panel at The Times to taste a range of baked hams, all nationally available. The group included my colleagues Melissa Clark and Jeff Gordinier; Robert Newton, the chef and an owner at Seersucker in Brooklyn, where ham finds its way into almost every dish; and Sara, who brought along one of her own excellent hams, smoked one day earlier over cherry and apple wood.

Baked hams have a basic flavor profile of sweet, salt and smoke, but there are some regional variations, like maple syrup cures in the Northeast and smoking over hickory wood in the South. Our quest was a ham that would “hit all the ham notes,” Robert said. I bought only hams that were on the bone (which ensures that the ham is a single joint, not a mash-up), were smoked over wood and contained minimal added liquid. Many came from second- and third-generation smokehouses like Burgers’ in Missouri, Nueske’s in Wisconsin and Harrington’s of Vermont; they cost from $2 a pound to $12.

Since most smokehouses do not raise their own pigs, animal welfare was not one of the criteria for this tasting, but more and more farmers provide information about the living conditions of their animals. (My ham from Flying Pigs arrived with a postcard of the farmers Jen Small and Michael Yezzi, sitting on the grass surrounded by their pasture-raised Tamworth hogs.)

Although we liked all of the hams, there was a surprising range of tastes and textures. The hams fell into two groups: those that Melissa termed “child-friendly” hams, with a softness and mild sweetness, and those that Jeff described as “elevated,” with emphatic smoke and a robust, meaty texture. The former is the type sold across the country at places like HoneyBaked Ham. Founded in 1962 by the inventor of spiral slicing, the company now has more than 400 franchise stores. “My parents still get one of those every Easter,” said Sara, who was raised in Los Angeles. “Even the year I carried one of my hams all the way across the country for them to taste.”

The overall favorite, from Harrington’s, was in the latter group. Its smoke was forceful, but didn’t devour the meat; it had a nice chew; and its sweetness was pronounced, a component that was lacking in the more “adult” hams. (We tasted all of them without any glaze or sauce.)

Each ham had little or no fat on the outside, a visual clue that the meat inside would tend toward dry. That was the principal disappointment of the tasting; no ham was juicy and moist after being heated through, and it was hard to imagine eating a steak sliced off any of them.

There are at least two ways to combat the dryness of modern hams. One is with money; as of this month, you can buy an exquisitely juicy ham made from imported Ibérico pork and smoked by the venerable Virginia firm S. Wallace Edwards & Sons. Available from La Tienda, a boneless ham weighing about five pounds costs $249.

Or you can combat dryness in the cooking pot, as my mother and I ultimately did. Baked hams are precooked, but most recipes call for baking them again for two to three hours. This seemed like a recipe for fatally dried-out meat.

In the absence of a family ham tradition, we followed our own tradition: we consulted Julia Child’s books. Her prescription seemed sensible: braise the ham in wine and water to finish the cooking, then roast it in a hot oven to crisp the surface. The end result was glazed with mustard and brown sugar and crusted with golden bread crumbs. Having spent two hours underwater, the meat was tender, juicy and much less salty than the hams I’ve tasted on other people’s tables.

I’m a convert.

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