Archive for Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Don’t get hamstrung at meat counter

April 4, 2001

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I want to buy a ham for Easter, but I'm confused by all the hams at the meat counter. Can you explain the different kinds to me?

The word "ham" refers to pork from the hind leg of a hog. Ham from the front leg will be labeled "pork shoulder picnic." "Turkey" ham must be made from the thigh meat of turkey.

Hams may be fresh, cured or cured-and-smoked. Cured ham is deep rose or pink in color. Fresh ham has the pale pink or beige color of a fresh pork roast.

Country hams and prosciutto, which are dry-cured, range from pink to mahogany in color.

Ready-to-eat hams include prosciutto and fully cooked hams. They can be eaten right out of the package, while fresh hams must be cooked before eating.

Cooked ham products are separated into four categories by the meat's protein content.

Premium ham product must contain at least 20.5 percent protein. This is labeled "ham" and sold in specialty stores. Some companies sell premium ham that is spiral-cut and coated with sugar.

Ham with natural juices must contain at least 18.5 percent protein. It is slightly juicier due to the higher moisture content. This is considered a good all-purpose ham and an excellent choice for a special meal.

Ham with water added must contain at least 17 percent protein.

Ham and water product contains water plus binders soy or milk proteins to help hold the water. The more water added, the juicier the ham and lower the cost.

How are hams cured?

Hams are cured using a dry- or a wet-cure method.

In dry curing the process used to make country hams and prosciutto fresh meat is rubbed with a dry-cure mixture of salt and other ingredients, such as sodium nitrate, nitrites, sugar, seasonings, phosphates and ascorbates. The meat is then aged for anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year.

Dry curing produces a salty product. Because dry curing draws out moisture, it reduces ham weight by 18 percent to 25 percent; this results in a more concentrated ham flavor.

Brine curing, a wet cure, is the most popular way to produce hams. Fresh meat is injected with a curing solution before cooking.

Brining ingredients include salt, sugar, sodium nitrite, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, water and flavorings. Cooking may occur during this process.

Brine/wet curing involves injecting the meat with a curing solution before cooking. Smoke flavoring may also be added with the brine solution.

After curing, some hams are hung in a smokehouse and allowed to absorb smoke from smoldering fires. Smoking the ham adds flavor and color.

How should I cook or reheat cooked ham?

Vacuum-packaged fully cooked and canned hams can be eaten cold from their packaging. However, if you'd like to reheat these fully cooked hams, set the oven no lower than 325 degrees and heat the ham to an internal temperature of 140 degrees (as measured with a meat thermometer).

Fully cooked ham leftovers or ham that has been repackaged outside the plant should be heated to 165 degrees.

Cook-before-eating hams must be heated to 160 degrees to serve. Cook in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees, or use a microwave oven, countertop appliance or stove top. Consult a cookbook for specific methods and timing.

To reduce the salt content of country hams before cooking, soak the ham for four to 12 hours in the refrigerator. Follow the manufacturer's instructions to cook by boiling or baking.

What's the nutritional value of ham?

Ham is a nutritious meat that comes from one of the leanest pork cuts the leg.

A 3.4-ounce serving of roasted extra-lean ham has about 145 calories, 5.5 grams fat, 21 grams protein and 53 milligrams cholesterol. Ham has a significant amount of thiamin (vitamin B-1) and vitamin B-12.

Although fresh pork is naturally low in sodium, sodium compounds are added during the curing process. A serving of ham can contain close to half the recommended daily intake of sodium.

There are many lower-sodium ham products on the market for those who prefer less sodium.

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