Ham is getting livelier. It is spending more time in sweet-smelling smokehouses. It is bathing in a variety of liquids and comes to the table glazed with fruit flavors.
Moreover, the heritage of the ham is gaining importance. It is not enough to know that your ham comes from a pig's hind leg. In high-ham circles, the pig's lineage is discussed, with two of the preferred breeds being Berkshire and Duroc.
Part of this push to perk up the already-cooked, familiar product sometimes called "city ham" comes from the increased presence of its foreign relatives and its country cousins.
Once confined to restaurants, some of the expensive and high-palate hams of Italy and Spain have shown up at more and more domestic cocktail hours. Their arrival, coupled with this nation's long-standing rural tradition of making highly flavored if somewhat salty country hams, has made the plain old Easter ham seem a little boring by comparison.
As Easter approached, I spoke with several big players in pork, guys who know their pigs. They discussed exciting new developments in the world of ham, such as pigs eating acorns (which makes the pork flesh tastier), and Americans starting to cure their own hams. We also talked about simple ways to make ham more exciting.
For an overview, I spoke with Bruce Aidells, who founded his own sausage-making company and has written nine cookbooks, including Bruce Aidells's Complete Book of Pork, published in 2004.
Passion filled his voice when Aidells, who lives in the San Francisco area, described his recent attempts to turn out homemade apple-smoked hams, a smaller, single-muscle piece of pork he has dubbed "Hamlettes."
He also spoke highly of the hams made from Iowa Duroc hogs and sold online (preferredmeats.com) by Vande Rose Farms, a company that has used him as a consultant.
He was less enthusiastic as he outlined the process used to make most of the hams that show up in most supermarkets. The age-old ham-making process of curing a pig leg with salt and exposing it to hardwood smoke has been speeded up, he said.
Machinery now pumps salty brine into the meat, cutting the curing process down from weeks to days. Instead of languishing for months in a smokehouse, modern hams, he said, often are "bathed in a vaporized cloud of atomized liquid smoke."
This process yields a ham that is not nearly as expensive as the almost double-digit per-pound prices of the labor-intensive hams. The quickly produced ham can be juicy, Aidells said. But, to his palate, it does not have the texture and flavor of artisanal hams. "Some people call this texture tender; I call it spongy," he said.
Still, it is the type of ham most of us grew up with, and Aidells offered tips for picking out a good one. One is to read the label, looking for the amount of water and phosphates injected into the ham. "Meat has a tremendous capacity to act like a sponge," he said. The top product, with the least amount of liquid, is simply labeled "ham." Another tip is to check the price. "There is a reason they charge 99 cents a pound," he said.
Another way to boost flavor, Aidells said, is to slather these hams with a glaze at the end of the cooking process, then serve them with a sauce made with pan drippings. Lately, he said, he has been experimenting, cooking his hams in about a quarter-inch of various liquids - fruit juices, tea, maple syrup - to increase the flavor of the pan drippings.
According to Peter Kaminsky - who chronicled his quest for savory pork in his 2005 book, Pig Perfect - the best hams in the world come from Iberian hogs that roam freely and feast on acorns in western Spain.
"These hams cost hundreds of dollars," Kaminsky said, but added they were worth the price. The flavor soars above other hams, he said, the way an August tomato soars above one bought in a store in February. (Sold in Europe, jamon iberico hams are, according to recent press reports, wending their way through the U.S. Department of Agriculture approval process and could be available in America by this summer.)
In the course of writing his book, Kaminsky became a part-time pig farmer, teaming up with Caw Caw Creek Farm in St. Matthews, S.C., to raise a few Ossabaw pigs, descendants of the Ilberian hogs. His favorite American country hams, found in his travels, were those made by Nancy Newsom in Princeton, Ky., (newsomscountryham.com) and Allen Benton in Madisonville, Tenn. (bentonshams.com).
One key to good-tasting pork, he said, is the breed of pig. He loves Ossabaws but also spoke well of the tender meat of the Berkshire - a pig that came from England, settled in the United States and has since caught on in Japan where it is known as "Kurobuta," meaning "black pig."
Another crucial factor, he said, is how the pigs live and eat. "Let them be outside in a pasture, running around, eating some grass. All those things pigs did when they were raised in 1948," he said.
The aged hams of Italy and Spain are not likely to show up as Easter entrees, but they make terrific appetizers, said Tim Poremski, who sells these hams at the Baltimore meat market he manages. "You wrap a little prosciutto with melon; that's a classic," he said.
For peak enjoyment, these rose-colored, nut-flavored hams must be thinly sliced, he said. Poremski said he has been slicing prosciutto for 20 years, first at the Mastellone Deli on Harford Road and now at the Ceriello shop in the Belvedere Square market.
In addition to bringing out the flavors, cutting the meat thinly is an art, he said. "Slicing by hand is a beautiful thing. Some fellows used to be able to slice [a piece of] prosciutto 20 or 30 feet long by going back and forth with a knife," he said. Nowadays, the ham is sliced by machine, he said.
Country ham also is served in small portions. Usually, this ham has salty and smoky flavors, the results of its long curing and aging process. It is not a ham everyone takes to, but those who do, such as John Shields, are big fans.
"You take a slice of Smithfield ham and wrap it in shrimp, or you saute some scallops or crab with it Norfolk-style and that produces flavor," said Shields, a Baltimore restaurateur and author of several Chesapeake Bay cookbooks.
One Virginia ham that fared well in a 2005 Gourmet magazine tasting was the Edwards Tender Smoked Ham of Surry, Va. (sold online at virginiatraditions.com). The ham, to the tasters, was smoky but not salty.
Samuel Wallace Edwards III, the third-generation proprietor of the family business, attributed the success of his operation to good smoke and a keen nose. The hams spend time in the presence of green hickory, which has the benign effect of "creating a lot of smoke but not a lot of heat," Edwards told me. The nose comes into play, he said, when you determine if the ham has finished aging. "It has to have the right aroma, somewhat smoky - you don't want a country twang smell," he said.
Another factor in the popularity of a ham is whether or not it is already sliced. This became apparent to me when I visited Wegmans supermarket in Hunt Valley. I tasted the market's delicate air-dried hams, a 14-month-old prosciutto di Parma from Italy and a younger domestic prosciutto made in Freedom, Pa.
I sniffed the porky perfume of a slice of serrano from Spain. I also had a slice of Wegmans Signature Ham. While not as rich-tasting as these other hams, it had a honey-maple glaze, faint hickory notes, and it tasted - there is no other way to put it - like ham.
This ham is a top seller, and a Wegmans area manager, Al Jackson, told me that in addition to its flavor, its smoke and its texture, a major ingredient in the ham's success was its convenience.
It was spiral-cut. "Most customers," he said, "don't want to slice."
The world of ham can be roughly divided into three parts: cured hams, cooked hams and fresh hams.
Hind legs of pigs that have been treated with salt and allowed to age. (Front shoulder meat cured as a ham is called "picnic.") With Italian prosciutto, Spanish hams and American country hams, the salt is allowed to slowly penetrate the meat. The European hams are air-dried. American country hams are smoked.
The longer the aging, the richer the flavor. For country hams, check the type of wood used to smoke it: Hickory usually imparts a stronger flavor than fruitwoods such as apple.
How to serve:
The Italian and Spanish serrano hams are served in very thin slices. A slice of melon wrapped in prosciutto is a classic appetizer. Country ham has a deep flavor that goes well with biscuits or as an accent in seafood dishes.
Already cooked or so-called "city hams," sold in supermarkets, are the ones most Americans eat. Their curing process is much shorter than country or imported hams.
The best of these are simply labeled "ham," contain no added water and must have at least 20.5 percent of their weight from protein. In descending order, the remaining hierarchy of ham is "ham with natural juices"(18.5 percent protein), followed by ham with "water added" (17 percent protein) and "ham and water product" (less than 17 percent protein).
How to serve:
A glaze and fruit sauce fancy up this Easter staple.
As the name implies, this is the uncured and unsmoked hunk of meat from the hind leg of a pig. It is somewhat hard to find. New York writer David Rosengarten said he once had a fresh ham cooked in straw that was "among the best pork I ever tasted."
Pearl-colored, juicy flesh; delicate porky flavor
How to serve:
Cooked as an entree or in sandwiches
[ Compiled by Rob Kasper, based on interviews with experts and tips from "Bruce Aidells's Complete Book of Pork"]
Baked Glazed Ham -- Serves 15 to 20
1 fully cooked whole ham, about 16 to 20 pounds, preferably bone-in
BASIC FRUIT GLAZE:
2 to 3 cups water, chicken stock or apple cider
1 1/2 cups of your favorite marmalade, jam or preserves
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 cup dried bread crumbs or gingersnaps (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Trim away any skin from the ham and trim external fat to about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Lay ham fat-side up in a sturdy roasting pan filled with 1/4 inch of water. Place a rack low enough in the oven so that the ham does not touch the roof of the oven.
Roast ham for 2 to 3 hours, about 10 minutes per pound. At 2 hours, begin monitoring internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. When temperature reaches 130 degrees, it is time to apply glaze. (If you don't want to apply a glaze, continue cooking until temperature reaches 135 degrees to 140 degrees, transfer to carving board, tent loosely with foil if desired, and let rest 30 minutes before carving.)
Once the ham reaches an internal temperature of 130, remove it from oven. Turn up the oven to 425 degrees. Pour more water, chicken stock or apple cider into the bottom of a roasting pan to a 1/2 -inch depth. Score the surface of the ham in a crisscross diamond pattern.
Mix the marmalade, jam or preserves with the cloves and brown sugar. Spoon the glaze generously over the ham. Apply the bread crumbs, if using, over the ham, pressing them with your hands.
Bake another 5 to 10 minutes, until the surface has browned and become crusty. Remove ham, let rest and prepare sauce, if desired.
From "Bruce Aidells's Complete Book of Pork" with Lisa Weiss
Per serving (based on 20 servings, with ham sauce): 492 calories, 55 grams protein, 18 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 27 grams carbohydrate, trace fiber, 174 milligrams cholesterol, 158 milligrams sodium
Fruit-Flavored Ham Sauce -- Makes 20 servings
chicken stock, approximately 1/2 cup
1/2 cup of the same marmalade, jam or preserves used to glaze ham
2 tablespoons cider vinegar (or more)
kosher salt to taste
fresh ground black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
Once ham has been removed from the pan, scrape baked-on bits into pan juices. Pour these juices into a glass measuring cup. Remove or discard any fat on the surface and add enough chicken stock to bring volume up to 2 cups.
Strain these juices into a saucepan and stir in the marmalade and the cider vinegar. Bring to boil, taste for salt and pepper and add more vinegar to taste. Stir in the cornstarch solution and pour it into the pan.
Boil, stirring until the sauce thickens. You may strain out bits of fruit from the sauce or leave them in. Serve in a gravy boat and let guests help themselves.