Dry-cured hams combine tradition and science
Oct. 10, 2012 - Dry-cured hams are a long-standing tradition in the southeastern United States. Many curing ham recipes are handed down through generations. By studying dry-curing techniques, meat scientists hope to bring dry-cured hams to a broader market.
In the latest edition of Animal Frontiers, researchers at the University of Kentucky examine the history of dry-cured hams and how science can enhance ham quality.
Dry-cured hams are usually produced through ambient curing or artificial curing. Both methods take advantage of chemical changes in the ham over time. Ambient curing is when the environment provides the temperature changes needed to cure the meat. This method was developed before refrigerators were invented. Artificial cooling allows producers to artificially change the temperature and humidity levels and produce consistent hams from year to year.
“Technology has the ability to recreate the seasons,” said Gregg Rentfrow, professor of meat science at the University of Kentucky and co-author of the Animal Frontiers paper.
Typically, producers cure the ham during the winter months when the ham will stay cool. Then in the higher temperatures during spring, the salt added to the ham equalizes. During salt equalization, excess salt cure mixture is removed and salt is absorbed into the inner portions of the ham. After salt equalization, producers leave the hams to age and develop flavor. During the aging process, proteins in the meat begin to degrade, which contributes to the ham’s flavor and aroma.
Researchers know the flavor and the quality of the meat can vary according to pig diets and ham temperature and humidity. But they are unsure how these changes occur in different regions of the southeastern United States.
“We haven’t done a lot of research on what is occurring at the molecular level and how geography and processing affect the hams,” said Surendranath Suman, professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky and co-author of the Animal Frontiers paper.
Researchers hope to learn more about product development and what is occurring on the molecular level in the hams. In the future, Rentfrow believes that producers will move towards mechanized processes such as automatic deboning and slicing, which will aid in selling hams. Both Rentfrow and Suman hope to learn more about the processes affecting dry-cured ham quality and introduce dry-cured ham to a broader food market.
The article, “Technology of dry-cured ham production: Science enhancing art” can be read in full at animalfrontiers.org.
Gregg Rentfrow, University of Kentucky, email@example.com
ASAS Scientific Communications Associate
MadelineMS@asas.org / 217-689-2435