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Cured Ham

Wednesday, 2 September 2009 | Tags: ,

A way to preserve, meat and fish, curing has been used throughout much of history and the process has become a bit of an art form. We set out to find out more about cured ham and the differences between prosciutto and Serrano ham, which are often noted as interchangeable in recipes.

The Basics

  • Ham comes from the back leg of a pig or boar. Some hams have the full shank and even the trotter (foot) attached.

  • Curing ham is a long-time European tradition, but more and more North American producers are perfecting their own prosciutto and Spanish-style hams, with processes not as rooted in tradition as their European counterparts.

  • There many types of hams produced around the world, including Jinhua (China), Jambon de Bayonne (France), Black Forest and Westphalian ham (Germany), Virginia hams (USA), Prosciutto di Parma (Italy), and Jamón Serrano (Spain).

  • Since prosciutto and Serrano are often noted as interchangeable in recipes, we’re focusing our investigation on these two types. The differences are mainly in the curing process:

    • Prosciutto

      • Prosciutto is the Italian word for ham. Prosciutto crudo is the cured, uncooked product (in North America we call it just plain prosciutto). Prosciutto cotto is cooked, like what we call cooked ham. Most delis in North America understand you want crudo style when you ask for prosciutto.

      • The diet fed to the pigs includes cheese whey from making Parmigiano-Reggiano, and gives the meat a distinctive salty, creamy, nutty flavour.

      • The curing process includes a sea salt rub, refrigeration in a controlled humidity environment, drying and aging for 13-30 months. The addition of sugar, spices, smoke, water, and nitrites/nitrates to the ham are all prohibited

      • A serving of Prosciutto di Parma (about 2 slices or one ounce) has 75 calories, 6 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fat, about 2/3 of which is “good” unsaturated fat. Unfortunately, it also contains about 20% of your daily sodium intake.

    • Serrano

      • Serrano means “of the mountains” in Spanish, where the curing process originated with the help of the cool, low-humidity air.

      • The ham is cured with a sea salt rub and may include such nutritionally undesirable additives and preservatives as sodium nitrite, potassium nitrate, and ascorbic acid. The rest of the process includes “resting”, maturing, and aging for 7-24 months.

      • Nutritionally, Serrano is known for being slightly more fatty and less salty than prosciutto.

  • When shopping for cured ham, keep these tips in mind:

    • The more the ham is aged, the more deeply developed and savoury the flavour.

    • Both prosciutto and Serrano ham are heavily marbled, with many “veins” of fat running through the meat. Although they’re high-fat foods, most is the “good”, unsaturated fat. The fat should be white or pale pink in colour. Avoid any hams with fat appearing dark or yellow.

    • The ham should be firm-textured but not dry or cracking. Look for meat that has a supple, velvety appearance. If you sample it, the texture should be slightly chewy.

Other Considerations

  • For use in cooking, buy prosciutto and jamón Serrano in whole pieces so you can chop it fresh to the size you require. Or ask the butcher for ¼ inch-thick slices for cooking.

  • For eating raw, ask for the meat to be sliced 1/16 of an inch thick, which is the perfect thinness for wrapping around melon or asparagus, or for laying a thin slice on top of crostini.

  • Pre-sliced, vacuum-sealed prosciutto is also available, but freshly sliced is always preferable.

TEST CRITERIA

We were cooking appetizers from a cookbook called “Small Bites” and it said that prosciutto and Serrano ham are interchangeable. We wanted to find out if that was really true, and if one tastes better than the other, so we tested:

  • Prosciutto di Parma: about $5.99/100 grams
  • Jamón Serrano: about $7.99/100 grams

Taste Test

We invited Chef Jonathan of Culinary Capers (a busy catering company in Vancouver) to help us decide which ham tasted best:

  • The chef definitely preferred the Serrano ham and we agreed. It was saltier, fattier, which melted in your mouth, and had a much better flavour than the prosciutto we tried.

OUR TOP PICK

We preferred the Jamón Serrano in our taste test, but we do feel the cookbook was right in saying that the two are interchangeable. The prosciutto was good too, but in a comparison test, the particular Serrano we had was just a bit more flavourful.

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