On the Acquisition and Maintenance of a Ham
It's called prepping
There are lots of reasons to want a ham. Maybe you like to entertain, or value a good deal, or you just want to be prepared for winter or the next lockdown or the end of the world in style. I’m a combination of all of the above, but also, I really like ham. It is the most essential form of charcuterie and something I never get tired of.
I’m not talking about Boar’s Head Black Forest or Honey Baked but cured ham, along the lines of Prosciutto di Parma, Jambon de Bayonne, or Benton’s. A simple salt-cured hind quarter of a pig, aged until it transforms into something shelf-stable, sliceable, and delectable. But because it’s like $25 a pound and I have to leave my neighborhood to buy it, ham has always been more of a treat than a regular food. Not anymore.
Although most of us outsource our charcuterie needs to specialists, it is still possible and even useful to have a ham as long as you know what you’re getting into. In a different world, I would probably be curing my own from a piglet I raised and slaughtered to feed my family. Alas, I am but a city girl which is why I ended up with a jamón serrano kit my roommate got for me with her mom’s Costco membership. Conveniently, it came with a stand and knife for slicing and was also conveniently priced at $99.99, just a cent short of what I was allowed to invoice for (thanks Bustle!) so it was clearly meant to be.
Ham is a lifestyle, one that requires you to be a responsible steward of this preserved leg. Just because you think you can eat that much cured pork in a reasonable time doesn’t mean you’re ready to go quarter hog. You really don’t know the impact of having a preserved animal leg on display in your home until it’s there, but it’s kind of awesome. You can walk up and slice your daily ham ration or bring a platter-full to a party or carve a huge chunk to simmer for broth, and somehow there’s still ham left.
Where to get a ham
Not everyone is lucky enough to live with someone who can borrow a Costco card, but thankfully it’s not that hard to source a ham. It’s not even that expensive, especially if you start locally. American country hams are having a moment and you can take your pick of heritage brands that will ship you a whole ham from about $70 to $100. For one of the European breeds, your best bet is checking with a restaurant supplier like Baldor or specialty stores like Despaña.
Where to put a ham
Hams are cured under fairly controlled conditions in which humidity and temperature are regulated. My house, on the other hand, has selectively working radiators and a dog roaming through it regularly, so to give my ham the best chance at success, I stored it in the foyer, which doesn’t get any heat. I also waited until the temperature outside was consistently below 60 degrees before opening the packaging.
Ham needs a stand
As long as your ham is on the bone, the temperature is fairly cool, and the air is relatively dry, it should continue to cure after you have cut it without going bad — though it may dry out. It’s important for the ham to have airflow on all sides, hence the importance of the ham stand, which is not just a fancy display, but the thing you need to properly slice and store your meaty investment. Once you’ve cut all the ham off one side until you hit the bone, you rotate the ham and then lock it back in the stand so that you can taste the next muscle group and notice how it is more complex or sinewy or something until the whole ham is done.
The stand that came with my ham was made from pretty cheap parts, but it got the job done, holding the ham solidly in place while I took clumsy slices off the top. You could also get a very fancy one and pass it down to your kids.
You also need a knife
The other night I was at a Spanish food and wine event where a guy was cutting up the last bit of a Jamón Ibérico (the good stuff). I asked him what the secret was to good slices and he said it’s all in the knife. My ham kit came with a very long, narrow bladed knife for slicing which I didn’t think would work very well at first because it was clearly a cheap add-on, but if you want long slices of ham, you need a long knife. Not that my slices of ham are particularly long or thin, but they’re getting there.
How to cut it
Unless you’re a butcher or a sociopath it’s very intimidating to sink your knife into a piece of meat this big. It was actually more gruesome than I had imagined. What I hadn’t anticipated as my knife took the first thick strip off my ham was the texture of the skin, which although cured was still somewhat supple, with its layer of subcutaneous fat and felt very close to what I imagine it might be like to cut a living piece of flesh.
It’s good to be in touch with these things if you’re a carnivore, I think, because now I’m mostly over it. If it’s been a couple days the color of the exposed ham may have faded or developed some mold, in which case you just cut it off. The ham underneath will be perfectly pink or red depending on your cultivar. And the secret to slicing? Long, slow strokes with your very long knife. Not everyone is a natural, but we’ve all gotta start somewhere.
How to eat it
I usually take my ham plain, but that was before I had such a surplus. Now I cook with it too. I put some in a soufflé, crisped some diced bits for a salad, made broth for Spanish garlic soup, and still feel like I’ve barely brushed the surface of what’s possible. I should probably make croquettes. Figuring that out is what the rest of winter is for.
How to maintain it
When the ham is fresh out of the plastic wrap, it’s a little moist, but the exterior will dry out and toughen over time. It also smells more like ham right after you open it too, and will fill up the room with a savory, but not unpleasant, meaty note, which is why I don’t let my dog in the room where I store it anymore. Maybe it’s the colder temperatures, but it doesn’t really smell at all anymore. To keep it debris-free and contain the meaty aura, I drape the ham with a large piece of cheesecloth between slices.
To ham takes courage, especially when it comes to mold management. After a couple weeks of neglect, this thing can look downright terrifying with a fleece of fluffy white mold, that, once again, everyone says is normal. When I was confronted with such a sight, I wiped off as much as I could with some paper towels greased with olive oil, and then exfoliated the outside with some salt and sliced off a thick layer from the exposed side. The ham underneath was just as good, perhaps even better for the extra weeks of conditioning.
I am barely a third of the way into my pork project, so I can’t say for sure how long it will last me, but it’s been a good run for the past month or so. With nothing but bitter winter on the horizon, I can at least take comfort in knowing that even if something catastrophic happens and the power goes out and the stores close and everyone but me turns into a zombie, I will always have ham.