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We enjoy a number of delicious foods without knowing anything about the processes involved in their making. A typical example is raw ham: despite being one of the world’s most widespread and popular charcuterie specialities, few people would be able to explain how it is actually produced.
It must be said that the row ham method of production can vary a good deal from one country to another, also owing to the characteristics of the meat, the production plant and preservation facilities. One of the best methods is the so-called “dry curing” technique used in Europe which gives us our prime quality Italian and Iberian ham products.
It all starts with the selection of pork meat which must comply with certain characteristics in terms of origin, age and weight. Once slaughtered, the rear haunches are taken and their temperature is reduced to 0°C in order to facilitate the trimming process, which consists in carving the leg to give it its typical rounded shape and removing any excess fat and part of the pork rind.
The next step is called salting and consists in covering the rind with wet salt and the exposed meat with dry salt. The salted pork leg is then put back into a refrigerated room for one week, after which it is removed, cleaned and salted again. At this point, the leg is then put back into the refrigerated room for a fortnight.
Following this phase, the ham is transferred to another refrigerated, humidity-controlled room, where it is left to rest for at least eighty days. It is then washed in water, dried and, as tradition demands, hung in well-aired drying rooms. Throughout this process, the exposed meat has to be covered with pork fat and spices to prevent it from drying excessively. After a period lasting at least six months, the ham is then transferred to special cellars where it is cured, according to the type of ham and its final market price.
From a chemical point of view, this long painstaking process allows for what is known as protein degradation. That is to say, the proteins “break up” into tiny units called amino acids and form many of the aromatic substances giving ham its special fragrance and flavour. This also occurs thanks to the phenomenon of Strecker degradation, a chemical process which converts amino acids into aldehydes.
This series of reactions also comprises those of lipids, of which pork is particularly rich: they too undergo a degradation which has an important impact on the taste and aroma of ham because, after creating fatty acids, it converts them into yet more aldehydes.
You will now realize that “simple” ham is fruit of a sum of chemical processes that vary considerably according to the type of meat. For instance, we now know that Iberian ham is rich in branched alkanes, substances which owe their presence to the acorn diet of these pigs.
Some simple tips for enjoying ham
This is a food of multiple nuances that the chemical reactions of its natural ingredients offer in abundance. For this reason, it is necessary to follow a few simple rules if you wish to enjoy ham at its best.
First of all, it should be accompanied with unsalted bread so as not to detract from its intrinsic savoury flavour. Then there is the question of how to cut it: manually or on a machine? Barring any theatrical impact involved, there are no valid scientific grounds for preferring ham cut with a knife. More importantly, machine cutting gives us even, very fine slices which, ideally, should never exceed a thickness of two millimetres.
A final word: ham should never be served straight from the fridge but at room temperature at which point its fats will have “melted” sufficiently.