Masterclass – How to make and cure your own ham
You can Dry Cure many parts (or cuts) of a pig, but the ‘Ham’ (in this case an entire pigs back leg) is traditional. Dry curing is a very old and very successful technique for preserving meat. From at least Medieval times salt was mixed with saltpetre, and other ingredients, (such as sugar, honey, pepper or juniper berries) to carry out the processes of preserving pork. In terms of this masterclass Dry Cured Hams are the hind leg of a pig which have been salted, then air-dried to ‘cure’. This is done using a curing compound, (consisting of salt and other seasoning’s) which is rubbed over the surface of the ham; the ham is then packed in salt, under a pressed weight.
The added weight and pressing helps to draw out the moisture in the meat, and also contributes to a denser texture in the ham. Once ‘salt cured’ the ham is hung to ‘dry cure’ in a cool, airy place; ageing anywhere from a few months to over a year; this deepens the flavours and preserves the ham so that it can be left in the pantry or store-room, ready to be sliced into and eaten – dry cured hams like this (and other famous dry cured hams like the York ham or Parma ham) are thinly sliced and eaten ‘raw’, (the meat has been ‘cooked’ by the curing processes). Salting and drying meat to prevent the decomposition of flesh like this has been known in Britain since the Iron-age, but the process was perfected in the Medieval period.
Salting the meat preserves it because the moisture (a requisite for most bacterial reproduction) is drawn out of the flesh by the sodium chloride – as the salt curing compounds slowly penetrate through the entire ham, drawing out the moisture, the weight of the ham is often reduced by up to 18 to 25 percent – there are benefits to this, the loss of moisture produces a more intense flavour and deepens the colour of the ham.
Unfortunately, in some cases ‘sweating’ the meat like this, in just ordinary rock salt, can turn the meat an ugly grey colour and make it tough. It was discovered in Medieval times, (or even before) that a certain type of rock salt, (salt with impurities) kept the meat softer, with a more pleasing deep pink colour. This impure form of salt, called saltpetre, was much sought after to add into the salt mix and curing compound (often called ‘the rub’).
What Is Saltpetre? Saltpetre (a naturally occurring mineral) is still used today by experienced meat curer’s who have developed their own award winning ‘rubs’ or curing compounds. In recent years the compounds in saltpetre have been made out to be harmful, this is mistaken advice, chemically added (manufactured) nitrates pumped into cheap, commercially produced hams with saline, bought in the supermarket, are the problem, not using naturally occurring saltpetre, with its low amount of nitrates, as a dry rub.
During the curing process naturally occurring bacteria convert the nitrate within saltpetre into a useful nitrite form. It is this nitrite which then reacts with the constituents of the meat, and effects the curing process, producing the familiar pink colour to the ham and a softer texture. Unfortunately saltpetre is now becoming more difficult to source in the modern world, as it is part of the ingredients which make up gunpowder and explosives. If finding it difficult try sourcing a ‘Butcher’s Curing Salt’ to buy, like Morton Salt, which has the saltpetre compounds already added in, in the correct amounts – just search online for ‘curing salt’, or ask your butcher for it when you pre-order the meat.
Time of the year: The best time to cure a ham will be in the cooler months, in Britain it is usual for the domestic cook to cure their hams in the autumn, or very early Spring, so that they can get a good cool, dry wind to circulate around their hams. Dry curing at the height of the summer months, without being able to put the ham in an airy, chilled space, would not be a good idea for the beginner to start off their first curing process. Dry and Cool are the key things a ham needs … too damp, or too hot, and there is a chance that the meat will spoil before it can be naturally preserved. However, if it is a very cold time of year, throw an old blanket or rug over the salting box and leave to cure for an extra three or four days past the recommended time. Tip: If you start the curing process in March you could eat your very own Dry Cured Ham over Christmas and the New Year, having aged it for ten months.
Recommended reading: Kieth Erlandson, “Home Smoking and Curing” published by Ebury Press is a great book from the gamekeepers perspective. While A.D. Livingstone’s, “Cold-Smoking & Salt-Curing” published by The Lyons Press is a good read for an American take on this process. Note: Salt/Dry-cured hams may also be smoked, to help preservation, colour and add flavour – smoking can happen before or after the salting process, depending on technique and preferred regional recipes. This particular article and recipe will not deal with the more complex and costly procedure of smoking, however the books mentioned above do go into the details and methods of smoking.
Dry Cured Ham Recipe
The equipment (for each ham)
- a wooden case or similar-shaped box (plastic will do but don’t use a metal one) with a few very small holes in the base for drainage. A large wooden wine crate/box or large plastic storage box is excellent.
- a 10–15kg weight ( a single concrete builder’s block or several clay bricks work fine)
- a wooden or plastic board – not metal (to lay the weight on)
- plenty of muslin cloth, this is to wrap the ham in, during the air-drying process.
- chicken wire or fly screens to protect the ham if it is being hung in an exposed area.
- 1 leg of pork (tunnel-boned out and trimmed) – ask for one weighing 11 kg
- 7 kg fine cooking salt (not sea salt) – 7 Kg salt will do an 11 kg leg
- 50g of saltpetre to thoroughly mix in with the salt rub (if possible). Otherwise a Butcher’s Curing Salt is fine and normally available.
- 1 tbsp of freshly ground black pepper – for the salt rub
- 2 tbsp black peppercorns, cracked
- 2 tbsp coriander seeds, cracked
- white wine vinegar
Buying the ham, and tunnel boning: Ask your butcher for an entire pigs back leg, with the instructions to make it ‘as long as possible’, to maximise the size of the ham, and then ask him to tunnel-bone it for you. You should put your order in to a good local butcher, with plenty of time for them to get you the perfect cut, and for them to bone it out for you – tunnel-boning is a skill, if you want to you can do it yourself, but if done incorrectly a lot of meat is wasted; a master butcher can do this for you, and a professional butcher will also be able to source you with the best meat. Leaving the bone in the ham has more complications to go wrong and spoil the meat when salting and drying; although it can look impressive, do this when you are more experienced.
After the butcher has tunnel boned and trimmed the leg of pork clean, take it home, lay it ‘flat skin’ side down, and feel for the main artery running from the ‘knuckle’ down. If you (or ask the butcher) run a thumb firmly and slowly along this artery it will remove the blood, by pushing it out, the idea is to get as much residual blood as you can out of the meat as possible. Hams are often spoiled by beginners to curing because of excess blood in the meat.
Time and patience: The whole curing process will take months before you are ready to eat it, so a little forward preparation is essential and going to a highly recommended and award winning local butcher’s is the best place to start.
The Salt Rub Mix: You can develop your own curing compound or ‘rub’ by adding in your own choice of favourite herbs and spices. If you find it difficult to get hold of saltpetre, using just cooking salt or ‘table salt’ is fine, but do not use sea salt. You can also source butcher’s ‘curing salt’, which is exactly what you need. Butcher’s curing salt already contains saltpetre and so helps keep the meat a nicer, pinker shade, than a grey-pink. Either using butcher’s curing salt or table salt with added saltpetre, with dried herbs and pepper to the initial salt rub is the best solution. Note: the salt rub is only a small part of the amount of salt needed to cover the ham (three or four handfuls, and the amount of saltpetre is only about half a handful within it) it is rubbed all over the ham before covering it in salt.
Nitrates: Adding in extra chemical nitrates to the ‘rub’ is not recommended for an authentic ham, however, nitrates naturally occurring in saltpetre have helped in preserving hams, with a good colour and taste, since the Medieval age. It is the adding in of excess chemical nitrates, (and other chemical additives) which has given modern food a bad name, always stay clear of them.
Note On Leaving In The Bone: You can make air-dried ham on the bone, but for the beginner a boned-out ham has less risk of going bad, as you can rub plenty of salt into the cavity to help cure it from the inside as well as the outside. If you have a leg which had not been tunnel-boned, then you are going to have to removed the bone, salt the inside of the cavity then stitch the cavity back up with butchers string.
Some people, after becoming more experienced, tend to leave the bone in because it looks good, and it is easy to hang up.
Note on the container: Chose the container to be big enough to contain everything, but not too big as to waste salt. Use a wooden container without wood stains or varnish which could react with the salt and be drawn into the meat. I personally use a large tough plastic one, with a tight fitting lid. You want to have small holes in the bottom of the container (I hand drill them) to allow any excess moisture out, but not the salt. So I recommend covering over the holes you drill with a fine wire mesh (I cut the mesh out from an old fine sieve). If the container is sturdy enough it can be washed and reused many times so it is worth getting a container you are happy with and preparing it with a little bit of D.I.Y.
Instructions For Salting:
First Thing: Thoroughly dry off the ham with a clean muslin cloth. The leg should now be weighed, always weigh it yourself, and never rely on what you have been told, things can change with trimming etc. make a note of the weight. The weight of the ham will determine how long it should be salted: it should be left for no less than 3 days per kilo and no more than 4 days per kilo. An 11kg ham will ideally be left for 33 to 35 days, any longer and the ham will taste too salty.
Using a handful of a ‘salt rub’ – salt, saltpetre, and freshly ground black pepper mixed together – rub this mixture all over the ham thoroughly, inside and outside (this mixture can be quite plain or a rub which you have developed yourself, with added dried herbs and spices). Then pour your normal cooks salt (table salt) in a layer about 2cm thick into the base of the large wooden wine case or large plastic container. Sprinkle in some of the cracked peppercorns and coriander seeds all over the salt and place the leg in the box with the lean, meaty side, down and the wide skinny side facing up.
Pour the rest of the salt in an even layer all over the leg until every bit of it is covered, by at least 2cm of salt. Cover with a piece of wood or plastic that just fits inside the wooden box and covers as much as possible of the leg. Place a large weight (a stone or a concrete block will do) weighing 1½–2 times the weight of the leg on top of the board. Cover the box with a lid or piece of wood and weigh it down so that nothing can get in to disturb the meat.
Leave the box in a cool, dry larder, cellar or garage (or similar) supported on a few bricks to aid drainage, and check regularly to ensure that nothing has disturbed it. Any extra moisture will come out of the holes you made in the bottom of the box. There is no need to change the salt, move it around or disturb it, even if it looks pretty damp. Basically just leave it alone for the full number of days that you have calculated …
Instructions For Air-drying:
Optional (and dependant on your equipment and space) – Smoking Your Ham: It is at this point, (but it is not necessary to making a dry cure ham) that if you have a large enough ‘smoker’, you can hang up your ham, un-wrapped, and smoke for 3 days using a variety of woods to impart a gentle smell and taste to the ham. Then follow the advice below.
Note: Damp is the enemy of a good dry-cured ham. Damp will never let the ham become preserved, and eventually it will end up spoiling the meat and making it go rotten. Finding a good place to hang your ham, a dry place that ideally has a cool-dry flowing air source, is key to this process.
When you have left the ham for the allotted time in the salt, (3 days per kilo) remove it from the box and wash it thoroughly with fresh cold water to remove all the excess salt. Pat dry with a clean cloth.
Rub the whole joint over with white wine vinegar (which will kill off any bacteria) and leave to dry. Wrap completely in a double layer of muslin cloth, tied tightly with butcher’s string. It is essential that you wrap it twice and you fully seal both ends, if flies etc. get to your meat they will lay eggs in it and the whole thing will be ruined – so take your time and do it carefully. However, by using a thin weave cloth it will still allow air to circulate around the meat.
Hang the ham in a cool, well-ventilated place for 4–6 months to ‘dry-cure’. Ventilation is essential, and the better the dry air-flow, the faster and better the cure. A draughty barn or garage would be a suitable location; you could also construct a rainproof frame for your hams and hang them in a tree. Surround the frame with chicken wire to make it bird and squirrel proof etc., but not too wind-proof. If doing the curing in the summer months then a fly screen surround is also a good idea.
Don’t be too concerned if in the first few weeks your ham leaks liquid and drips a little. The salt within the ham, taken in by the first process, will still be at work, just far more slowly now.
When It Is Ready: Test readiness by squeezing the ham between thumb and finger, it should be very firm, but not quite solid. It should still ‘give’ just a little.
After taking down your ham after many months (about 6 months is a good length of time) don’t be alarmed to find, on unwrapping it, that it is covered in mould. This doesn’t mean it has gone rotten, it is a natural mould, and the mould (white to a green colour) is easily scrubbed off with a nail brush dipped in white wine vinegar. If something has gone wrong, and it is rotten, you will know about it. Although this is rare, it will smell bad and be black in parts. Throw the whole ham away and be careful to follow all the advice on your next cure, it will probably have been too damp or hot when curing. Follow the advice and everything will be fine.
Serve: A dry-cured ham is eaten ‘raw’ – the curing processes will have ‘cooked’ it, (just like a York Ham or a Parma Ham). When serving slice the ham as finely as you can and serve it with a sweet pickle or fruit compote etc., or as you would any cured ham.
It is possible that for your first ham you will find it a little on the salty side, by having left it too long at the first stage. By your second or third ham you will have learnt by experience and be able to produce a dry cured ham to rival the best in the world.