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6.4.3 Virginia Ham


This article is from the Food Preserving FAQ, by Eric Decker ericnospam@getcomputing.com with numerous contributions by others.

6.4.3 Virginia Ham

From dgill from the bbq mailing list at
bbq@AZStarNet. com:
The process of curing pork is essentially one of creating conditions favor-
able to good microbes and unfavorable to bad ones long enough for the meat
to absorb enough salt so that it won't rot before it is can be used. Before
refrigeration the primary objective was preservation but now curing is used
as a means to flavor meats. In addition to salt, sugars are used to enhance
the action of salt, improve flavor and keep the meat more moist and soft
during aging. Nitrates and nitrites are often included as anti-bacterial
agents, particularly effective against the botulism organism, but they tend
to make aged meat hard and dry.

Other seasonings such as black pepper, paprika, and red pepper are used as
flavorings and may have some preservative effects but I suspect that their
use is more psychological than functional.

Methods of naturally curing pork vary greatly in different areas because
of climate and other variables. Since curing conditions are unpredictable,
the methods I will describe are more art than science and procedures are
admittedly vague. The general principles are pretty simple, though, and
there is plenty of room for variations.

In the Tidewater area of Virginia, hogs are killed from mid-November to late
January. We try to pick a time when cold weather has settled in but we do
not expect it to get too cold. Once meat has frozen, it does not take the
cure properly and extended periods of warm weather (50 F ambient) before the
cure has penetrated will spoil the meat. Fresh meat freezes at 28 F but as
the cure is absorbed, the freezing temp is lowered. The ideal conditions for
the first phase, taking the cure, is about 38 F with relatively high humid-
ity. The curing process stops at meat temperatures below 34 F. and curing
time must be increased to compensate. Time varies depending on the cut and
weight from 2 weeks min. for bacon to over two months for large hams.

After the initial cure, the meat can stand a gradual warm-up through the
aging process. Good cures start with good meat. We raise our own hogs and
fatten them on a corn based ration supplemented by whatever is available -
stale bakery products, household garbage, etc. Garbage should not dominate
the ration as the fat will be soft. Top hogs weigh 220 pounds and yield
about a 16 pound ham. We like to cure hams between 20 and 30 pounds. Large
hams with adequate fat layers age better and don't dry out as much during
extended storage. Country cured hams will keep indefinitely but achieve their
full flavor after about one year when "white flecks" appear in the muscle.
We feed our hogs to 300 pounds or better but don't let them get too fat.
Some cuts may be slightly tougher with heavy hogs.

Hams, shoulders and bellies may be bought from packing houses and can be
ordered by butchers if you are not in position to grow your own. You may
have to buy box lots but make absolutely sure that the meat is fresh and
quickly chilled. Pork should be put in cure as soon as possible after

chilling and trimming but, properly handled, it can be a couple of days old.
I once bought ten, 25 pound hams that had been two days in transit to the
butcher and then were left in his cooler over the weekend. I lost the whole
batch! Those hams had also been trimmed excessively leaving little skin and
fat covering. As a result, I have gone back to raising my own so I know what
I have to work with. I am supposed to talk about curing bacon and I will get
around to it. As hams (and shoulders) are more valuable, demanding and
risky, the entire process is keyed to the larger cuts.

Curing and smoking facilities vary greatly. Traditional farm hamhouses/
smokehouses are windowless wood frame buildings about ten feet square with a
dirt floor. Wooden plank benches provide work areas for mixing the cure and
salting down meat. Joists are within reach and studded with 20 penny nails
for hanging meat. The dirt floor allows a higher humidity in winter and al-
lows a smoldering fire to be built inside - both for smoking and to keep
meat from freezing during extreme cold. Some hamhouses have external smoke
generators - simply a firebox with a stovepipe stuck through the wall. This
arrangement makes it easier to cold smoke for several days (or weeks) in the
spring without exceeding 100 F. and is essential if the smokehouse is made of
wood and insulated. Either the eaves are loosely fitted or there are oper-
able vents to allow for air exchange, especially during smoking, so that
there is adequate fresh air and the smoke does not become stale and acrid.
Openings are covered by fine screen mesh and the interior is kept dark to
discourage skippers (larvae of a small black fly which also likes pork).

My smokehouse follows the tradition except that the walls are poured concrete
and the roof is metal. The thick walls store a lot of heat and smooth out
daily temperature fluctuations. I have no smoke generator or operable vents
but there is plenty of air exchange at the eaves. In places where conditions
are not favorable, curing and smoking chambers with temperature and humidity
controls and a smoke generator can be easily fabricated or small cuts may be
cured in the refrigerator.

My dry cure is mixed by the "pour 'til it looks right" method. My daddy
showed me how. There was a request from a pork eater in Israel to provide
metric measurements. Unfortunately, I don't know how to convert the SAH
(Standard American Handful)! I buy plain (not iodized) dairy salt in 50
lb. bags from a farm supply co-op and other ingredients from one of the ware-
house retailers.

I had better stop writing and start posting. Sorry about the verbosity,
Rick, but it should be clear. Will finish this one soon and then talk
about bagged sausage - my favorite!


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