Cooked ham is one of the most popular cured meats in Italy and in the world. The merit of its success is contained in the delicacy and unmistakable flavor that distinguish this Italian gastronomic excellence from many imitations.
Europrodotti contributes to making each slice of ham an unforgettable culinary experience by enriching the taste of the meat with natural herbs and spices of the best quality.
The importance of brine in the processing of cooked ham
“Preserved in brine”, how many times we have read this phrase on jars of olives and tins of tuna. The brine is a solution based on water and table salt, what professionals prefer to call with the technical term of sodium chloride. But it would be unfair to define this mixture as banal salted water because it represents one of the oldest methods of food preservation. It is still used today to protect perishable foods such as vegetables, fish, meat and even cheese and hard-boiled eggs.
But the brine also plays an important role in the preparation of cooked ham. Not only it protects and preserves the pork leg but it is essential for flavoring the meat and making it tender. It is not an exaggeration to say that in this stage of processing the ham acquires its distinctive features: colour, aroma, nuances of taste and flavor notes that characterize each typical local product.
Naturally brine alone is not enough to create a quality cooked ham with a unique flavour. The saline, as it is called in the jargon, must be prepared by mixing water and salt with an infusion of herbs and spices. Precisely the different blends of these ingredients and their dosage determine the intensity of the aroma, the harmony of the taste and the delicacy of the flavour.
What are the ingredients used to spice and flavor the ham brine? In the past the choice was conditioned by the available resources. Pig farmers who lived near the ports had easier access to the precious spices from the Orient. Pepper, nutmeg and cloves were prized additions to the salt-water mixture. The farmers who lived in the inland and who could not afford the expensive exotic condiments instead resorted to the aromas offered by the nature of the place: simple herbs such as rosemary, coriander and sage have allowed the birth of extraordinary cured meats. The berries of juniper, a conifer capable of growing even in arid lands and at high altitudes, have often flavored the hams of Alpine farms.
There are cases where the composition of the mixes of flavors and spices is a real mystery. An example is that of the roasted ham of Canale, in the province of Cuneo in Piedmont. The peasant families who have been producing this soft and fragrant ham for generations continue to jealously preserve the composition of herbs and spices with which they treat the meat.
The traditional recipes of the saline used to flavor the hams are a treasure that must be respected and guarded. But today the great availability of aromas and spices makes it possible to combine these treasures with new blends to follow the continuous evolution of consumer desires.
Injection, immersion and churning for a ham with a perfect taste
We talked about the brine and the fundamental role it plays in the transformation of the pork leg into a ham. But how does the salting of the thighs, the process that allows the flavors to be transmitted from the brine to the meat, take place in practice? The used methods are two:
Injection: as the name implies, the brine is injected with a syringe into the thigh. In industrial plants the injection is performed with an automatic injection machine directly into the meat. However, in artisan workshops the brine is injected manually into the saphenous vein of the thigh. Through it the saline is distributed along all the capillaries and from these into the meat. Finding and injecting the saphenous vein is a patient and delicate work but has the advantage of distributing the saline more evenly in the muscle tissues.
Immersion: as an alternative to injection the thigh is kept immersed in brine in cold-storage rooms. Salt and seasonings penetrate this way slowly but deeply into the muscle tissue. This process can take seven to ten days.
Whichever method is chosen for salting the thighs, it must be followed by churning. This phase consists of a massage that softens the meat and completes the absorption of spices and aromas. In industrial ham factories, the churning is carried out with mechanical means called churns and similar to large washing machines. This system allows the processing of a large number of pieces in a short time. On the contrary, the craftsmen still perform the massages by hand.
After resting for twenty-four hours, the thigh is now flavored and ready to be placed in the molds which will give it the classic shape we all know. This is followed by cooking for several hours at a temperature of seventy degrees.
The success of Italian cooked ham doesn’t know bounds. It is always a pleasure to taste it in a simple sandwich as in the more elaborate dishes of the great chefs. The natural blends of aromas and spices by Europrodotti contribute to this great tradition of Italian cooking.