Why is ham pork and not not pork?
December 14, 2007 11:12 PM   Subscribe

Why is ham a pork thing? Are other meats preserved in this way around the world?

I was baking a ham today and was asking myself, why ham? You have country hams, you got city hams... ham, ham ham! *wacks ham in the nose with football* Why don't we have Hillshire Farms lamb ham? Or beef ham? I don't mean that turkey stuff that tastes like ham, I mean actual legs of animals salted, smoked, and hung up like traditional country ham. Is there something about the hog that makes it ideal for preserving in this way? Would you consider dried beef, salt cod, corned beef, etc. to be ham like?
posted by Foam Pants to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There's spekemat, which is (Norwegian?) salt leg of lamb. And here in New Zealand I've had smoked cured leg of lamb that was actually very similar to ham. (It's not that common or popular though). I can buy a smoked cured chicken in the supermarket any day of the week, and they're damned tasty.

A pork ham has the following advantages:
- sweet taste that counters the salt nicely (unlike beef)
- protective fat layer (unlike beef)
- generally not that tough even when wild (unlike beef)
- convenient size to cure by packing in salt (unlike beef) and hang in a chimney or from a rafter
- tasty fat (many people don't like the taste of muttonfat)
- pigs don't have any purpose other than meat (no milk, no wool, no draught animal labour) so they end up as the raw material for traditional specialist meat products in peasant economies.
- pigs eat scraps and forage on ground where you can't run other stock, again lending themselves to traditional specialty meat for peasants.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:22 PM on December 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

Turkey ham exists. I think I remember seeing it in a Kosher case.

Curiously, Wikipedia deems "ham" as "the thigh and rump of any animal that is slaughtered for meat"
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:35 PM on December 14, 2007

Response by poster: I have been told that hogs convert feed to flesh at a much better rate than other livestock and have more young at a time making hogs the most economical animal to raise for slaughter. Perhaps that has something to do with it. City hams have such a distinctive taste and texture that it got me pondering over the lack of other hammy animal haunches.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:07 AM on December 15, 2007

Where I'm from we didn't eat ham. But there they preserve many meats (goat, poultry, cow, etc) in much the same way. Of course, the physical state of pigs is such that the upper leg of the animal provides a lot more meat than with other animals (except maybe a cow), and I think that some of these meats do better with a reasonable amount of fat in them. But the actual process of salting and curing and smoking meat "like traditional ham" is pretty common for many animals.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:07 AM on December 15, 2007

"Corned Beef" is what you get when you take beef and do all the same things to it that convert pork into ham. But it isn't called "beef ham".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:42 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Are you sure Steven? Corned beef in Australia is beef that has been boiled in vinegar and cloves and other secret ingredients. Is ham boiled pork? I genuinely don't know.

Do Americans eat ham for Christmas? It's very popular in Australia. Second only to prawns. Big, big, big prawns.
posted by taff at 2:03 AM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

My apologies.
A quick Wikipaedia survey assures me that you're quite correct, Steven.

No mention of the boiling in vinegar.
Must be unique to Australia.

As you were.
I'll shut up now.
posted by taff at 2:09 AM on December 15, 2007

Yes, in answer to taff's question, Americans do eat ham for Christmas. Very rarely prawns, though.
posted by mmoncur at 3:34 AM on December 15, 2007

A pig is one of the most useful domesticated animals. It is also relatively easy to take care of. In olden days, every household that could afford one, in Europe at least and in many other areas, had a pig. A pig can be eaten from head to tail. This is probably why methods for curing it, like ham, are more popular, varied and widespread than for other meats. There are so many ways of making a 'ham', from smoking to brining to drying slowly like prosciutto. Some of those methods are applied to other meats, but with varied results.

Also, turkey ham is an abomination. Just saying.
posted by derMax at 4:05 AM on December 15, 2007

Bresaola is italian dried beef. Eaten as an appetiser.
posted by jouke at 4:32 AM on December 15, 2007

Is ham boiled pork? I genuinely don't know.

You can make cooked ham which has a short shelf life. Or you can make cured ham, in which various chemical reactions within the meat change it enough to make it edible without cooking, and gives it a long shelf life. The same is also true for sausages. I know you can cure beef and fish in various ways, but I've never heard of cured lamb or poultry.
posted by happyturtle at 6:16 AM on December 15, 2007

I think venison is also cured the same way, but I have never partaken.
I don't think smoked fowl are cured the same way, but my knowledge is light on.
That said, there is pork that is prepared by nitrate curing with little or no smoking all the way through the spectrum to cured but not smoked, so maybe my supermarket smoked chicken exactly corresponds to what some little Italian town does to ham.
posted by bystander at 6:29 AM on December 15, 2007

One of the main reasons comes down to fat content. In order for meat to cure properly (and not spoil or go rancid) there needs to be a balance between the salt, fat, and meat. The usual cited proportion is 70% meat to 30% fat, which, as it turns out, is roughly the proportion occuring naturally in a ham or pork shoulder.

If you'd like to know more, I'd suggest checking out Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie.
posted by jacobian at 7:06 AM on December 15, 2007

We used to eat mutton (sheep) hams a lot in New Zealand when I was growing up. I mean, that's what they were called, but I don't know if they followed the same curing process.
posted by gaspode at 8:00 AM on December 15, 2007

I have a feeling that bresaola is what you're looking for.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:50 AM on December 15, 2007

I'd had venison, duck, and wild boar cured in the manner of prosciutto.
posted by desuetude at 11:25 AM on December 15, 2007

You need to distinguish how corned beef is made from how it's usually cooked.

Turning a piece of cow into corned beef involves a curing process similar to what some hams undergo. You soak it in salt brine with spices and (usually) sodium nitrate/nitrite to preserve it.

Turning corned beef into dinner involves, yeah, boiling it up with some vegetables, or sauerkraut, or vinegar and spices, or whatever you think would make it tastiest.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:53 AM on December 15, 2007

"Corned beef in Australia is beef that has been boiled in vinegar and cloves and other secret ingredients."

Taff, corned beef is cured everywhere as SCDB describes. I think what you're thinking of is how it's cooked after the cure - in the old days they used to be really salty. I remember my mum soaking them, discarding the water, and then boiling with vinegar in the water and serving with a sharp spicy sauce.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:58 AM on December 15, 2007

Chinese cuisine has duck and chicken breasts (with skin & fat) that's treated so it resembled proscuitto (damned tasty) and I've seen rabbit (? may have been cat/civet/whatever) done the same way.

There are also a lot of different smoked/kippered fish that are treated in similar ways to pork ham.
posted by porpoise at 3:33 PM on December 15, 2007

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