27.5 lbs. That’s a big ham. I was thinking I’d get an 18-20 pounder. But no, 27.5. This was from Dave Warkentien at Young Earth Farm, and I think he was a little surprised too by what his processor gave him when he asked for a whole fresh ham for one of his customers. But, as they say, in for a penny, in for twenty-seven and a half pounds. If it worked, I’d have a lot of prosciutto.
It worked. I have a lot of prosciutto. Or, as I call it, since we’re not in Italy but a small city in West Michigan, ProZooto.
Backing up a bit: time is scarce, so in deciding whether try to make something ourselves that we can easily buy (pasta, jam, pickles, bread, etc.), my wife and I ask three questions: can we make it better? can we make it for significantly less money? is it enjoyable to make? A yes answer to one of these usually means we’ll at least try it. (There’s a wonderful and hilarious book by Jennifer Reese, recently given to us by our friend Joan, called Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, which goes through a whole bunch of projects looking at them through the lens of basically these questions. It’s a fun read and generally pretty reliable. Although for some inexplicable reason she hates chutney.)
Now, I love cured meats. For a long time I’d wanted to try my hand at making salami, but the equipment, process, and sanitary requirements were all a bit daunting — the last especially. (I’ve since overcome the fear, as I’ll write about in the future.) The big danger is that, in grinding the meat, pathogenic bacteria that might live on the outside of meat get spread around (this is partly why raw ground beef from commercial processors is so dangerous; grind your own and it’s much less so), and the initial warm, humid curing conditions give them a perfect environment for rapid growth. Then I realized I could cure whole cuts of meat, which would be both easier and much less risky than salami, since with whole cuts the nasties never have the chance to get on the inside. And it would be cheaper too, since I wouldn’t need a meat grinder or sausage stuffer. So I studied KPL’s copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s book Charcuterie and looked at a few other sources, including The River Cottage Cookbook (the River Cottage series is great – check it out if you don’t know it). I first tried guanciale, salt-cured hog jowl (weighing just a pound or two), which is a lot like pancetta – cured pork belly, but, unlike bacon, unsmoked – just from further forward on the underside of the pig, which is basically a straight, horizontal line from snout to belly. The guanciale turned out pretty well, so I thought I might as well aim high and go for the whole ham, not really thinking about working my way up by practicing on the smaller muscles that are also ripe for curing.
Thus the 27.5 pounder. That not only bumped up the cost and so the very real chance that I was just throwing money to the flies, it meant the projected time to eating (PTE, as I like to think of it) went from a year-ish to at least half again that much. But I had the ham, and since the only real alternative was cooking it and I didn’t have a church social I needed to cater, I went ahead as planned. The recipes I’d found looked simple enough, basically the same as those for the jowl just scaled up. There’s an initial stage of salting (outdoors, if the temps are cool enough but not too cold, as was the case in late February-early March when I started) and then a long stage of hanging, waiting for the ham to dry out. The River Cottage directions, which come from an English cook in a notoriously cool and damp climate, gave me some hope that I didn’t need a stable Mediterranean environment nor an expensive chamber for the curing process to work. What I had was a basement that was chilly in winter and always a good 10 degrees cooler in summer than the first floor of our (non-air-conditioned) house.
In February 2013, the ham went into the salt and under some weights in an inexpensive wooden wine crate I bought from Tiffany’s. A month or so later, the ham got a rinse, a layer of lard on the exposed meat (which I’m not sure was really necessary), a cheesecloth wrap, and its very own mesh bag to hang in – a lovely cocoon of hamminess. It then went into the basement.
This spring it came out of the basement, a full two years after I got it. It had lost close to the recommended 30% of its weight, but if you’re thinking I had the ham equivalent of one of those annoyingly svelte and beautiful Italians who populate Italy’s ham-curing regions (how, how, with so much ham to be had, can they be so thin and beautiful? is it the cigarettes?), you couldn’t be more wrong. I had a ham only a mother could love, if mothers had hams. It was ugly – really really ugly. Too ugly to describe in detail (since some people who read this may have or might yet consume some of it). But I’d had lots of time to read more while the ham was hanging, and I wasn’t too worried. The big issue was the mold. Was it good mold or bad mold? I chose to trust those who said that you don’t have to worry about most molds, even darker-hued ones of the grey-green variety (that’s as much detail about the ugliness you get). Provided they could be scrubbed off and the meat inside looked and smelled ok, I figured I’d be ok. So I cleaned the mold off, managed to get under and through the now Lego-hard skin, and then engaged in some grossly inexpert butchering based on complete ignorance of where the bones lay – the knee seemed to be in there somewhere, and apparently the pig was squatting when they killed it, which meant there was a bend I had to work around. Still, the results were good: a bunch of chunks of ham of varying shapes and sizes, with the meat in all of them moist and rich in color, with some interesting variation in both depending on the part of the muscle and how far from the surface it had been. More importantly, it smelled hammy, just perfectly hammy. Oh so hammy. Out of the cocoon of hamminess had come what appeared to be a true monarch of meat.
As I’ll discuss in another post, I’ve learned to trust my sense of smell for judging the safety of food, though I know it has its limitations. But in this case the trust was not misplaced. When we tasted it, well, as the kids say (or at least used to – who can keep up?): OMG! Unbelievably delicious. Sliced as thin as I could manage (I’d bought a slicing knife for just this task), it took only the tiniest chew before it dissolved on the tongue into rich, meaty, salty brilliance. It was certainly as good or better than any prosciutto I’ve had from a store or restaurant. A recent guest, who may have just been lying in order to get more ham, said: “better than I had in Italy.”
Maybe, maybe not, but thus was born proZooto: Kalamazoo dry-cured ham. No doubt there are superior products somewhere in the old world, where people can eat ham and remain thin, but I think my Michigan basement did ok.
The only problem now is that I’m sure I’ll be well through it before I can get the next one done.