During the Christmas and Easter holiday seasons those giant waist-level refrigerated bins at grocery stores fill with hams of all shapes and sizes. Over the past several years the selection has improved, in my opinion at least, away from those re-constituted, mechanically-formed miniature satellites towards a lot more options that have a bone and look like they may once have belonged to an animal. But finding a fresh (uncured, unsmoked) leg of pork is still a tall order here in Toronto.
Being a good citizen of the 21st century I turned to Twitter and asked the first three purveyors I could find: Sanagan’s Meat Locker, Olliffe Butcher Shop, and Fiesta Farms. On top of the amazing mental picture of a butcher in a heavy-duty, blood-spattered apron replying to my questions (with his vacuum packed iPhone, of course) I also received prompt answers from all three. Fiesta is considering carrying fresh pork legs in the future but don’t now, and luckily the other two had what I needed. Wanting to support the new guy on the block (of Baldwin, a street I lived on in the not-so-distant past) I made my way down to Sanagan’s.
The characteristic that impresses me most about this butcher shop is how efficiently they use a small space. There’s meat everywhere and definitely no sauce and spice rub aisle in which the timid customer could hide. To underline this point the large, free-standing butcher block to the right of the door displayed an entire pig, split into three primal sections (head and forequarter, rib and loin, and hind legs). As you can tell from the picture at the top of the post this pig looked much more like Babe than like the 250-pound behemoths we might usually think of as slaughter size.
As I was leaving Sanagan’s, a young girl, probably no older than five or six, came in with her mother, pointed at the butcher block and said, “look Mommy, that pig is just like on the farm.” Not at all freaked out and definitely no tears. That is the sort of meat outlook I can respect.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s (HFW) River Cottage Cookbook (RCCB) and the similar River Cottage Meat Book have won awards (important ones even like that badge featuring James Beard’s big, bald mug) and a huge serving of praise for how they holistically connect animal husbandry–as well as other agricultural functions in RCCB–all the way through to the plate. Preserving legs of pork as hams is one of the most popular and traditional means of extending this connection over a long period of time. Because RCCB seemed to have its shit together on the subject I used it as my principal guide. As laid out in RCCB there are four steps to the ham process: curing, drying, smoking, and cooking.
HFW calls for 3 pounds (1,361 grams) of salt into 3 quarts (actually only 2.84 litres but I’m assuming that the 3 quarts is a rough conversion from the original British recipe that was probably 3 litres) for an absolutely ridiculous 45% brine. By comparison Ferguson Henderson in The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating calls for only 2 1/4 cups coarse sea salt to 4 quarts of water (that’s a 15.3% brine concentration). There is some variation (though not nearly as much as I would have thought) to the solubility of water and sodium chloride (table salt) based on temperature and some confusion as to whether the percentage of salt is expressed in relation to the final solution or the amount of water (in this post I will always stick to the salt as a percentage of water method) but the bottom line is that 100 ml of water cannot hold more than about 38 grams of salt. It is therefore physically impossible (under normal surface-of-the-Earth conditions) to get three pounds of salt into 3 quarts of water. It’s a mistake, don’t try it.
On the River Cottage website HFW has a brined ham recipe that uses a still high seeming 30% brine. But, part of the smallholder ethos around which that operation is built includes the sort of idea that a leg from a pig slaughtered in late November can be preserved, hung in an outbuilding and not consumed until Easter. In other words salt is called on to play its traditional, preservative role and through many changes of water just before cooking the salt level is brought back down to palatable. I had calculated my schedule so that I knew I would be smoking the leg at most two days before we would eat it and those two days could be spent in a cold refrigerator so I settled on a 12% brine. I added 10 grams of ReadyCure to the brine for some added spoilage protection.
This worked perfectly but I should stress that I am not an expert. I wouldn’t recommend holding a piece of pork in the refrigerator for nearly two weeks without a brine so, presumably, it is just as inadvisable to have it in the refrigerator for that long with a too-weak brine. The leg I used was definitely on the small side so ten days in the brine was fine but for a larger ham (some can easily be three times the size of mine) I think I would stick closer to Fergus Henderson’s recipe and use a 15-18% brine.
I was following the Wiltshire cure variation from RCCB so dark beer stood in for water in the brine. Other flavours came from two pounds of dark molasses, thirty juniper berries, and two tablespoons of black peppercorns.
Brining (I use the term inter-changeably with “wet curing”) shares an important characteristic with cooking. In both cases we put a piece of meat into an environment that has a characteristic which varies widely from the meat’s, knowing it will change, from the outside in, to become more like the environment, and wait for this change to penetrate, to the desired degree, to the meat’s centre. In the case of cooking it is a temperature change; in the case of brining it is about water and salt (and possibly other flavours) penetrating the meat. The more I think about brining this way the less satisfied I am with the method of basing the brining time on the “for every x pounds brine for y hours (or z days)” system. With everything from pork chops right up to turkeys this doesn’t really matter because the time is so short but with hams you start to get into brining times that are measured in weeks and the margin for error grows considerably.
The solution for avoiding the cumbersome and ineffective equations when cooking is to use a probe or instant read thermometer to measure the temperature at the centre of the meat. For brining hams there must be an “olde tyme” trick–the domestication of pigs predates refrigeration by some ten thousand years and brining has long been an integral part of the preserving process–that probably has to do with measuring the weight change of the ham or its buoyancy. Something along the lines of determining whether a brine is properly salinated by judging whether it will float an egg.
So, no way to accurately measure but after ten days in the wet cure I was pretty confident that the ham was ready for the next step. Between curing and smoking the ham has to be hung to dry. The idea being that dry fat and skin take smoke flavours much better than surface water. The brined leg was wrapped in cheesecloth, trussed like a roast, and hung to dry in a cold room. A ham is much heavier than a duck breast (as seen in the duck breast prosciutto) so I was more careful to make the support doubly redundant by tying the butcher’s twine around the gathered top of the cheesecloth as well as the trussing.
After about thirty-six hours the cheesecloth had wicked up a noticeable amount of water and the skin was much drier. On the smoking front I was a bit less confident. In the River Cottage Cookbook HFW calls for smoking the ham for a constant twenty-four hours or intermittently over about a week. That’s fine and good if like him you live in a centuries-old farmhouse and have built a (ladder-access) smoking chamber into your chimney but there was no way I was going to tend my jury-rigged Cobb BBQ smoker setup for an entire day and night. I had about one-and-a-half loads of briquettes left from previous Cobb adventures so when it ran out the smoking would be done. Lightly smoked this ham would be.
Improvised changes to this rig were the order of the day. To keep the bacon off the Cobb’s grill I have used a cooling rack and aluminum foil spacers. Because the pork leg is heavier I constructed more stable supports for the rack by stacking cans around the Cobb. Also, I wanted to do more to keep the smoke near the meat (especially the top side) for longer so I turned a very large canning kettle upside-down and voila a smoke chamber!
On the question of cooking ham I think the British have the best answer. Instead of roasting the meat for hours it is gently boiled–if you’re Nigella Lawson in a purpose-built ham-shaped pot–and then quickly finished in the oven to add a glaze or crust. This allows the home ham-maker to test for salt as the ham cooks–if after about an hour of boiling the water tastes too salty change it for more water. If not, as was the case for me, add a few healthy glugs of apple cider, a quartered onion, some juniper berries and a few bay leaves and continue to simmer. Save the cooking liquid and dilute it with twice as much water for the perfect stock for a mind-blowing split-pea soup.
I was amazed by the results. To a depth of about an inch and a half the cooked leg had the characteristic rosy hue of ham and beyond that it much more closely resembled brined, roast pork. Obviously, three hours of smoking wasn’t long enough to get the smoke flavour all the way to the bone but definitely a pleasant contrast. The meat itself was noticeably above grocery store quality with, of course, the fatty bits offering the biggest flavour advantage. Again, if you plan on hanging your ham in an unrefrigerated out-building on your estate in the English countryside go with the full twenty-four hours of smoking but if your ham needs are more short term the lightly-smoked option is even better.