Schweinsbraten – The Ultimate Ham

Schweinsbraten literally means “roasted pork”.  If you order it in an Austrian restaurant, you will get a slice of greyish meat, usually but not always from the shoulder of the animal.  If you order it in an Austrian Heuriger, you will get something a bit different.

Thinly sliced SchweinsbratenAll the food at a Heuriger is served cold, and meat is typically cured.  Schweinsbraten at a Heuriger is cured, like ham.  What makes this particular ham so special is the cut of meat it is made from: the Schopf.

The Schopf extends forward from the loin of the pig, into the shoulder primal.  It has the same round cross-section as the loin, only it also has a very healthy amount of fat marbled throughout.  For more specifics on where exactly this cut of meat is on the animal, and how to remove it, see this post.

To make Schweinsbraten, the Schopf is brined like any other ham.  Once cured, it can be slow-roasted.  If the meat will be sliced thin and served cold, it only needs to be roasted to 65°C.  If you would like to slice the meat thicker and serve it like baked ham, it will need to be roasted or braised up to 80°C to tenderize.

Braised Schweinsbrated with Serviettenknödel and sauerkraut

I suggest this cut as a superior alternative to pork leg for making ham.  When I first started cutting pork I used most of the shoulder for sausages and other ground applications, reserving the leg for hams and roasts.  But the shoulder makes such amazing hams, braises, and roasts, that increasingly I am using lean leg meat in conjunction with fatback for sausage and ground.

Pork Tongue

A brined, cooked, peeled pig's tongueThe tongue is one of those cuts that sounds way, way weirder than it really is.

The tongue has two sections.  There’s the part that we usually think of when we consider an animal’s tongue: the part at the front that can move freely around the mouth.  Then there’s the base, at the back of the mouth.  The meat from these two sections is different.

The tip meat has a very close, dense texture, and is lean. The base meat has a coarser texture, and is a bit fatty.

The meat from both sections is very tough in its raw state.  As you can imagine, the tongue is a highly exercised muscle, and requires extensive cooking at low temperatures, usually using a moist-heat method.  “Boiled tongue” is a classic, though I prefer braising for reasons I’ll discuss below.

Finding Tongue. When you buy a side of pork, there is not typically half a tongue on the carcass; the tongue is removed whole before the pig is split down the middle.  This is good, because it means we have whole pork tongues to work with, but it also means that if you’re ordering a side of pork, or a split head, you’ll have to expressly ask that the tongue be included.

If you want only a tongue, most pork producers will have no problem providing you one.  They usually sell for a few bucks.

Curing Tongue.  Once you’ve secured a tongue, you’ll have to ask yourself if you want to cure it.  I would say that if you plan on incorporating tongue into a ragout, or grind for sausage, or some other preparation that is going to mask its tonguiness, don’t cure it.  If you’re going to be enjoying it sliced or chopped on its own, cure it.

I use the Basic Curing Brine for four days.

Cooking Tongue.  The classic method of preparation, especially for beef tongue, is boiling.  This does a fine job of tenderizing the meat, but I figure if you’ve gone to the trouble of curing a tongue so that it’s seasoned throughout, there’s no sense in boiling it unless you plan on consuming the cooking liquid as a broth.  As we’ve noted on Button Soup several times (eg. cured bath chaps, ham hocks, et c), simmering cured meat in an excess of water leaches the salt and flavours from the meat into the liquid and makes the meat very, very bland.

I suppose the ideal solution is to vacuum-seal the tongue and poach it gently.  I don’t have a vacuum sealer, but I’ve found that a shallow braise is just as effective at tenderizing the meat and doesn’t leach much cure from the flesh.  I add enough light pork stock to come maybe a third up the side of the tongues.  If you don’t have pork stock on hand, use water and vegetables, and by the end of cooking you’ll have some. If you are using a pressure cooker, be sure that you add enough stock to meet the minimum liquid requirements.

Bring the liquid to a boil, then cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the meat is tender, maybe three hours.  One hour in a pressure cooker.

Peeling Tongue.  There is a layer of “skin” on the tongue.  It’s not like skin from other parts of the animal, which is thick, and has a layer of fat beneath.  This is very thin.  It’s not inedible or unsafe to eat, but it is always peeled away and discarded.  If the meat has been cooked, the skin should come away easily.  Best done while the tongue is still warm.

Eating Tongue.  Now that you have a cured, cooked, peeled pig’s tongue, the world is yours.  You can slice it cold and eat it with a bit of vinegar.  Maybe put it on a sandwich.

Church Function Food.  I’ve been thinking a bit about “church function food” lately.  I remember certain events in church basements, things like bake sales, or the reception after a funeral.  A very specific kind of food was served there.  From my own childhood in Ontario I remember there was a lot of mayonnaise: creamy slaw, macaroni salad, and potato salad, for instance.  For sweets there was jello, date squares, brownies, and cakes with ridiculous names like Queen Elizabeth and Wartime.  I really didn’t mind this food.

My favourite church function dish is minced ham sandwiches: ground ham bound with mayonnaise and garnished with finely chopped celery and parsley, served between slices of white bread, possibly crustless.  It’s the whitest dish known to man.

Here’s a variation on that.  Tongue on toast.  Chop the pork tongue, mix with celery and parsley.  Here it’s taken with beet ketchup.

Chopped tongue on toast with beet ketchup

 

On Brining Meat

A b- b- b- back bacon brine.There are two types of brine: seasoning and curing.  Each will be discussed in turn.

 

Part One: Seasoning Brine

Seasoning brine typically contains three ingredients: water, salt, and sugar.  But why do we season-brine meat to begin with? There are at least three reasons:

Flavour.  The first reason we season-brine meat is to evenly distribute flavour-enhancing salt throughout its mass, instead of simply on the outer surface.  We can also impart the flavour of herbs and spices to the meat.

Increased Tenderness.  As Harold McGee writes in On Food and Cooking, “salt disrupts the structure of the muscle filaments [and] dissolves parts of the the protein structure that supports the contracting filaments.”  A strong enough brine will also start to dissolve the filaments themselves.  During cooking, these partially dissolved filaments can’t coagulate in their usual way, so the meat seems more tender to the diner.

Increased Moisture.  Interactions between salt and protein increase the water-holding capacity of the muscle cells, which then absorb water from the brine.  McGee says that a brine with 5.5% salinity is required to start dissolving the meat filaments.  It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that many brine recipes, including the basic seasoning brine in Ruhlman’s Charcuterie, call for 5.6% salt by weight of water.

The Role of Sugar in Brine.  In seasoning brine, sugar is added strictly for flavour.  Sweet things taste good, and sweetness also helps to round out the salinity of the brine.  The sugar content can certainly be tailored to individual taste, but most recipes call for about 3% of the weight of the water.

Why we don’t season-brine beef and game.  Seasoning brine is usually applied to pork and poultry.  Beef steaks and roasts are usually cooked rare or medium, whereas pork and poultry are cooked medium-well and well, respectively.  Beef therefore doesn’t loose as much moisture during cooking, and isn’t in need of a brine the same way pork and poultry are.  A couple people have told me that brining beef yields a mushy texture.

Basic Seasoning Brine

Percentages, by weight

  • 100% – water
  • 5.6%  – kosher salt
  • 3.1%   – sugar

Example Recipe

  • 4 L water
  • 225 g kosher salt
  • 130 g sugar

 

Part Two: Curing Brine

Curing brine contains water, salt, sugar, and curing salt.  Curing brine performs all of the functions of a seasoning brine, as listed above, but they also cure the meat.  For a complete description of why we cure meat and what exactly curing salt is, see On Curing Salts (and Fearmongering).

Brine-Curing v. Rub-Curing.  Some meats are traditionally cured with brine, others with dry rub.  The later is often called “dry curing,” but this terminology is confusing, as air-dried charcuterie like salami and bresaola are also called dry-cured.  For this reason I refer to the process as rub-curing.

Some examples of what I’m talking about: the hams at the grocery store down the street are always brined, but proscuitto is always rub-cured.  Some charcuterie items can go either way: Ruhlman’s recipe for back bacon calls for a brine, but the the Irvings cure their pork loins with a dry rub.  Based on internet chat forums, it seems that belly bacon can also go either way.

So, my question: Why are some charcuterie items cured with brine, and others with rub?  This question has bothered me for some time.  Preparing brine can be a bit of a hassle, because you have to heat the water to dissolve all the salt and sugar, then chill the liquid thoroughly before the meat can be submerged.  It would be easier if I could just sprinkle a dry rub directly onto the meat and be done with it.

After a review of the relevant literature, here is my best answer to the above question.  Whether we’re brine-curing or rub-curing, salt is distributed through the meat, which:

  • cures the meat;
  • increases the tenderness of the meat by disrupting filament structure, partly dissolving some filaments, and preventing those partially-dissolved filaments from coagulating during cooking; and
  • improves mouthfeel by increasing the moisture-holding capacity of the muscle cells.

The only difference between the two processes is that, when brined, meat takes in water.  The meat’s mass actually increases by 10%, sometimes more.  Again, McGee: “When cooked, the meat still loses around 20% of its weight in moisture, but this loss in counter-balanced by the brine absorbed, so that moisture loss is effectively cut in half.”  In other words, we increase the yield on the meat, and increase the amount of moisture in the cooked meat.  Obviously there can be no water absorption when a rub-cure is used.

With this in mind, we can say that curing-brine can only be advantageous for meat that will be cooked, like hams and corned beef.  Meat that is going to be air-dried, like proscuitto or bresaola, should clearly not be brined, as the air-drying is intended to drive moisture out of the meat.

What about our belly and back bacon, then?  Why is it that some are brined and others rubbed?  I would argue that back bacon should always be brined.  Being made from the loin, it is prone to dryness.  Belly bacon, however, is about half fat, and is not prone to dryness in the least.

So as a general rule:

  • meat that will be air-dried should be rub-cured
  • lean meat that will be cooked (eg. loin, hock, leg) should be brine-cured
  • fatty meat that will be cooked (eg. belly, jowl) can be rub-cured

Now that we have established which cuts should be brine-cured, we need to consider the recipe.

Salt Content.  Most curing brine has a salinity of 8-9%.  In older sources (eg.  Fritz Sonnenschmidt’s Charcuterie), different cuts of meat all have unique brine recipes with varying salinity.  Very broadly, it seems that the tougher the cut of meat, the stronger the brine.  For instance, beef brisket that will become corned beef calls for a strong brine, while pork loin for Kassler Ripchen a weak brine.

You can certainly tweak brine in this way. I just stick to 8.5%.

Sugar Content.  As mentioned above, sugar is added to cures chiefly for its flavour.  Since curing brine has a much higher concentration of salt that seasoning brine, and sugar softens the aggressive taste of the salt, our curing brine will have a lot of sugar in them.

Again, surveying a set of brine recipes, we can see that sugar content varies widely, much more widely than salt content, in fact.  If I could discern one trend, I would say that large, festive roasts that are often accompanied by sweet glazes or sauces have the most sugar in them.  Holiday ham is probably the best example, so often served with honey, maple syrup, or brown sugar.

Basic Curing Brine

Percentages, by weight

  • 100% – water
  • 8.5%  – kosher
  • 1.2%  – curing salt
  • 3-10%- sugar

Example Recipe: Sweet Brine for Ham or Back Bacon

  • 4 L water
  • 340 g kosher
  • 48 g curing salt
  • 400 g sugar

 

Part Three: General Brine Notes

Brine Volumes.  The only rule is that the meat must be completely submerged.  Given a nice round roast and an appropriately sized container, 4 L of brine should work for everything from a 1 lb trotter to a 15 lb ham.

Cooling Brine.  Generally a brine must be heated in order to dissolve all the salts and sugars.  The brine must be completely chilled to fridge temperatures before the meat is added.  It takes a bucket of warm water a long time to cool in the fridge, and submerging meat in that water would have the meat exposed to microbe-friendly temperatures for several hours.

Basically this means you need to plan ahead.  If I know I’m going to be brining my Thanksgiving turkey on Saturday, I make a brine on Friday night.  There are lots of ways to speed up the cooling process.  The most effective is to make your brine with the full amount of salts and sugars, but only half the amount of water.  Heat on the stove, and once the salts are dissolved, add the remaining weight of water in ice.  If you don’t have enough ice, the same can be done with cold water.

Brine Times.  Season-brining is a much quicker process than cure-brining.  Seasoning-brines typically take a matter of hours.  In fact, there are quite often tables in charcuterie books, stating this many hours for a pork chop, this many hours for a chicken, and so on.  If the meat is already portioned into steaks or chops, I leave them for 12 hours.  If it is a roast that will be cut later, I leave it for 24 hours.

Curing brine usually takes days to fully penetrate a piece of meat.  I leave most items in for four or five days.  This includes tongues, hocks, and medium-sized roasts.  For larger roasts, like say a 10-15 lb ham, I inject brine and leave the meat submerged in for one week.  It’s a fairly forgiving process: leaving the meat in for an extra day does not, in my experience, make the meat too salty.

Don’t Re-Use Brine!  When you brine meat, salt and sugar are taken in, right?  That means that afterwards the concentrations of salt and sugar in your brine are no longer correct!  Discard brine after a single use!

Easter Ham 2012: Brine Injection

Injecting brine into a hamI like roasting large joints of meat.  The largest that I typically cook is the Easter ham, which is the better part of a pig’s hind leg.  This year’s fresh leg was fourteen and a half pounds.

In years past I’ve had problems with brine penetration.  Though I made the brine with the proper concentration of curing salt, and fully submerged the leg for the recommended week, when I carved the ham I found a patch of grey pork in the centre.  The year after that I brined the ham for a few extra days, but it still wasn’t pink all the way through.

This year I bought a syringe for injecting brine from  Hendrik’s.  It holds 2 fl. oz, and the needle has perforations all along its length so that brine is distributed to several places at once.  I can’t remember how much it cost, but it’s kind of a piece of junk.  The gasket on the piston doesn’t form a proper seal with the inside of the syringe, so it has trouble sucking up brine.  It still works; it’s just finicky.

Most sources recommend injecting 1 cup of brine for every 5 lbs of meat.  This amount would significantly accelerate the curing process.  Since I was still going to brine my ham for more than a week, I halved the recommended amount, injecting 4 fl. oz. per 5 lbs of meat into the very centre of the ham and near the bone.

After close inspection of the cooked, carved meat, the brine injection was deemed a success.  Complete, even penetration, making for a rosy, salty ham.

The ham, smoking on the barbecue

One of the ham rounds, pink throughout:

Cross section of the final ham: full brine penetration

On Ham Hocks

A fresh hockTraditionally, in North America the hock is a section of the front arm bone of the pig.  On one end the elbow joint is severed.  On the other, where the arm of the pig meats the body, a cut is made and the arm bone is sawed through.  So on one end of the hock there is a clean joint, and on the other the circular cross-section of a bone.

In traditional British butchery it is the analogous section from the hind leg that is called the hock; that from the front was known as the hand.

Nowadays, whether taken from the forearm or the hind leg, both cuts are considered hocks.  They are almost always processed into ham, that is, brined and hot-smoked.

After three days in a curing brine I rinse and pat my hocks dry, then leave them overnight in my refrigerator on a wire rack, uncovered, to dry out the surface.  The next day I hot-smoke them on my barbecue to an internal temperature of 65°C.  Once cooled they are frozen for later use.

Following is a brief description of those later uses.

Hocks are an interesting cut of pork.  The flesh is tough, and must be cooked low and slow to tenderize.  As described above, they have a nice bone with an exposed joint.  They also have a high skin-to-meat ratio.

They are prepared in only two ways in my house.

The first is simmering.  If you simmer a smoked ham hock, you must consume every drop of the cooking liquid.  Most or all of the smoke and cured pork flavour ends up in the broth, so to throw out the cooking liquid is a complete waste.  You also get a good amount of gelatin from the bone, which gives the broth body.  The meat can still be used, but it’s really only a garnish for the broth.

 

Ham Hock Soup

Throw the ham hock in a large pot of cold water.  Or place it gently in a large pot of cold water.  Bring to a boil, skimming away any foam that develops, then simmer gently until the hock is tender, maybe four hours.  Remove the hock from the broth and add roughly chopped onions, carrots, celery stalk and root, turnips, potatoes, and garlic.  Return the broth to a boil then simmer gently for another hour.

In the meantime, pull apart your hock.  The skin is easily removed in one piece, and having been boiled for a few hours, it has been adequately rendered to either have the fat cut off the back and be ground for skin sausage, or simply be diced and served in a bean dish.  Return the chunks of ham hock back to the broth.

Ladle the soup into deep, straight-sided bowls.  Consume with stale bread, mustard, pickles, and cheese.

Ham hock broth with vegetables

 

The second preparation is slow roasting.  My culinary school text (Professional Cooking for Canadian Chefs) tells me that low heat and high moisture are the two environmental essentials to turn collagen into gelatin.  As such, for tough cuts of meat like ham hocks, the book invariably recommends “moist-heat methods,” either simmering or braising.  However, meat is about 75% water, and even when applying the “dry-heat” of, say a 300°F residential oven, there is adequate moisture to tenderize even the toughest cut of meat.

This is one of my favourite dishes of all time.  By slow-roasting the ham hock you don’t leach any flavour into a surrounding liquid.  The meat is tender, with a very unique, sticky, gelatinous quality.  The skin becomes fantastic, glass-like crackling.

A roasted hock is a meal for two.  Left-over bits of roasted hock meat are my second most favourite pieces of pork to have in my fridge, after bacon but before conventional ham.  They make fantastic, flavourful, tender additions to eggs and starch dishes like macaroni.

Roast ham hock (or stelze) is a classic Bavarian beer hall dish.  Below is pictured just such a hock, served with mashed apples and potatoes (himmel und erd[1]) and braised cabbage with bacon.

 

Roast Ham Hock

Put the ham hock on a wire rack on a sheet pan.  Cook in a 300°F oven until tender, maybe four hours.

Once the meat is tender, raise the oven temperature to 450°F and cook until the skin is very crisp, maybe forty five minutes.

A roast ham hock with mash potatoes and braised cabbage

 

1.  I decided to footnote this explanation because it is pretty long-winded.  Himmel und Erde literally means “heaven and earth.”  You know how the French call potatoes pommes de terre (“earth apples”)?  Well, the Bavarians and Austrians kind of do the same thing.  In Hamburg potatoes are called kartoffeln, but in Munich and Salzburg they are called erdaepfel, or “earth apples.”  The dish “heaven and earth” is comprised of “heaven apples” (the red fruit that grows on tree tops) and “earth apples” (potatoes).

That’s not the only charming reference to heaven and earth in the Austro-Bavarian kitchen.  Raspberries, which grow on vertical canes are called himmelbeeren, “heaven berries,” while strawberries, which grow on low-lying stems are called erdbeeren, “earth berries.”

Bath Chaps, Revisited

A while back I wrote a post on cold-cut Bath chaps: a boned-out pig’s head, cured, rolled around the tongue, tied, poached, and sliced.   While I was extremely happy with the look of those Bath chaps, they were pretty bland.  I figure that the cure leached into the poaching liquid.

I had another go at the chaps with this fall’s pig.  This time, instead of using a whole head, I used only one jowl, cured, and wrapped around the tongue.

After rolling and tying, I seared the meat over high heat.  Once chilled, I vacuum-packed the chaps and simmered them for two or three hours.  This was not proper sous-vide: though the meat was vacuum-packed, it wasn’t cooked in a low-heat, temperature-controlled bath.  A good hunk of fat rendered from the chaps, and some insanely flavourful jus leached out.  The plastic seal definitely helped the meat retain its cure.  The final plate was very flavourful, strong of garlic and herbs and brown sugar and salt.

I think that the vacuum-packing also helped bind the tongue and jowl together.

Obviously the presentation of these chaps isn’t as striking as that of the whole-head chaps.  If I try tongue-and-cheek chaps again I’ll trim the jowl to a uniform thickness.  You can see that the left side of the chaps, below, is thicker.  Trimming that down would give a more balanced presentation, and maybe even let the jowl wrap all the way around the tongue.

Cured Bath Chaps

Bath chaps with peppergrass, apples, and pumpkin seedsBath chaps are the flesh from a pig’s head, removed from the skull and wrapped around the tongue. The “bath” part refers to the town of Bath, England, where the preparation became famous. I assume the “chaps” part refers to the two meaty jowls straddling the thinner snout, though that’s just a guess. Bath chaps are usually brined then simmered, and either eaten hot or cooled and used as a cold-cut.

There is a very similar preparation from old Italian peasant cookery called coppa di testa. As I say often on this blog, I favour the strong Anglo-Saxon descriptions, even if they aren’t as precise or pretty as the French, Italian, Latin, et c.

The Process

1. Clean the head. This was the first time I’ve worked with a whole pig’s head. Usually the entire animal is cut in half down the spine and through the head. Bath chaps require an intact head. If you ask your pork vendor really, really nicely, they should be able to get one for you.

The head must be cleaned thoroughly. Considering how much hair is on a live pig, the abattoirs do a pretty good job of cleaning them up, but there will always be some persistent whiskers that need to be shaved or singed off with a blowtorch. Beware that burning hair has a very strong, peculiar smell, so it’s best to work outside or at the very least under a proper vent hood. After singeing, scrape the black residue away with a knife and wipe the skin clean. There will be a few nooks that need to be cleaned, notably the folds of the ears. Q-tips don’t stand a chance: you have to use a slender knife. You may find it easier to clean the inner parts of the ear after the head has been boned out. Actually I sometimes cut the ear canals out instead of cleaning them.

A pig's head, cleaned and awaiting my boning knife
2. Bone out the head.
You can remove all of the flesh from the skull in one piece. Make an incision under the chin, then start cutting the jowls away from the jaw, staying as close to the bone as possible. Work up the jaws, past the temples and eyes to the earls and forehead, and finish with the snout. There is a good video of Chris Cosentino boning out a head here. He also describes the basic process for making porchetta di testa.

Once the meat has been removed from the skull, the tongue can be harvested. My first inclination was to open the pig’s mouth and cut out the tongue, but by the magic of rigor mortis, the jaw muscle was thoroughly seized. The best course of action is to cut and pull the tongue out through the bottom jaw. A detailed description of the process can be read here (the description is for game animals, but the details are transferable to swine…)

You should now have one sheet of flesh and one tongue.

The flesh and skin removed in one piece from a pig's head
3. Cure the meat.
I cured the head and tongue as I do bacon, pancetta, and jowls (“guanciale”). My “house cure” contains fir (part of my ongoing attempt to eat my Christmas tree), juniper, brown sugar, black pepper, kosher salt, curing salt, bay, garlic, nutmeg, and herbs. Cover the meat with the cure and leave for a week in the fridge, or until the flesh is firm throughout.

The boned-out head rubbed with cure
4. Roll and tie the meat.
In the video mentioned above, Cosentino tucks the tongue into the snout, then rolls the entire sheet of flesh in one direction. His finished cross-section is one spiral.

I tried a different rolling method, one that was intended to preserve the natural shape of the head, with the bulbous “brain portion” tapering to the snout. I rolled the two jowls towards the centre. The rolled head looked absolutely ridiculous (see below), especially with the awkward seam where the two rolled jowls met. In the end, however, I think it resulted in a more interesting cross-section. I’ll talk more about that later.

The wrapped pig's head, from the top
The wrapped pig's head, from the bottow
5. Cook the bath chaps.
Ideally this is done by sealing the chaps in plastic and cooking sous-vide. There are several advantages to the vacuum packing:

  • the gelatin released by the meat is kept in the chaps, binding the different elements and resulting in a more cohesive product,
  • none of the flavours from the cure are leached into the cooking liquid, and
  • the meat cooks more evenly.

Unfortunately I didn’t have access to a vacuum packer, so I just covered the bath chaps in cheesecloth and simmered them. I threw some mirepoix into the poaching liquid.

Poaching the wrapped pig's head

6. Slice. Frankly I was discouraged by how ridiculous the bath chaps looked in their whole, uncooked form, but when I sliced them after cooking, I was overjoyed. The cross-section was striking and distinctive: the shades of red and pink and white, the symmetrical curls of the jowls, the bright band of ear cartilage clinging to the perimeter.

The cross-section: red, white, and delicious
7. Consume. You might expect something like this to taste as odd as it looks. This was not the case, not by a long shot. Honestly it tasted like bologna. Most of the interest came from textural interplay: the firm meat, the slightly chewy skin, and the crunch of the ear.

The final plate: sliced bath chaps with peppergrass, apples, and pumpkin seeds, all dressed with a cider and pumpkin oil vinaigrette
The meat was sliced very thinly, arranged on a broad, round plate, sprinkled with salt, black pepper, and pumpkin seed oil, and garnished with the following salad.

  • shaved ambrosia apples
  • peppergrass (a fiery shoot that tastes like nasturtium)
  • toasted pumpkin seeds
  • a vinaigrette made of 2 parts pumpkin seed oil and 1 part apple cider vinegar, with a bit of hot English mustard
  • salt and pepper

This is a preparation that I’m sure I will try again at some point. Next time I would like to vacuum-pack the bath chaps before simmering, as I think a lot of the flavour from my cure was lost to the cooking liquid.

Looking at the picture of the whole pig’s head, then at the picture of the finished plate, I’m amazed by the transformation. Very gratifying.

Fir-Smoked Ham

Boughs of firIf you consult a North American resource on smoking meat, you’re likely find something like the following:

The first rule of smoking meat: use hardwood. Apple, hickory, maple, oak, pear, cherry, whatever you please, but do not use soft wood, and especially not evergreens. They are extremely resinous, and not only do they produce harsh, turpentine flavours in the meat, they are also poisonous!

These comments are discouraging to someone who lives where the prairies meet the boreal forest. Of course there are hardwood trees in Edmonton, but they’re not nearly as common as, say, poplars and spruce. There’s a spruce tree in my front yard that, if left to its own devices, will someday eat my house. There’s a fir tree in my living room right now, and in the new year I’ll put it on the curb and the city will take it away. Too bad I can’t use any of that resinous wood, or any of those perfumed needles, to flavour my cured meat…

A lone sentence in Larousse recently changed how I look at my Christmas tree: “Westphalian ham is… cold-smoked over strongly resinous wood.” After a little more research I found that there are several German hams that are smoked with wood from evergreens. Black forest ham, for instance, is smoked over fir. (That is, real black forest ham is smoked over fir: while black forest ham is a protected designation in Europe, in Canada and the States the name can be applied to the many inferior knock-offs.)

I decided to try smoking some brined ham hocks with balsam fir needles and twigs. Usually I am an all-or-nothing sort of cook, but at the last minute I decided to temper my fir trim with conventional hardwood chips.

Ham hocks smoked over fir boughsOnce the smoke got going I could smell the pronounced sweetness of the hardwood, spiked with some harshness from the softwood, specifically, the smell of burning tar, reminiscent of cigarettes.

I was really hoping to get a striking layer of black soot from the fir, but the final colour of the hocks was the same mahogany that you get from conventional hardwood smoking.

Hardwood smoke can be sickly sweet and strong of vanilla, but the pine and tar flavours of the fir added some complexity to the finished hams. The smoking process still needs a lot of work. There are lots of questions to be answered:

  • Which part of the tree should be used: the needles, the wood, or both?
  • Should the needles or wood be fresh? Dried? A combination of dried and soaked?
  • Hot smoke or cold? Perhaps cold-smoking mutes some of the harsher characteristics of evergreen smoke?

At this point all I can say is that there is some potential for a good regional specialty.

Easter Ham

For the last few years we’ve been curing our own Easter ham with more or less an entire leg of pork.

The primal cut of pork known as the leg is separated from the loin and belly by sawing through the middle of the pelvic bone.  The section of the pelvis that is left on the loin is called the pin bone.  The section on the leg is the haitch bone.  To remove the haitch bone you have to follow its frustrating curves with your knife until you expose the ball joint where the leg meets the pelvis.  Cut through this joint.

Next the skin is removed in one large sheet.

What remains of the leg typically weighs about 15 lbs, though obviously this depends on the animal. I brine the leg for about a week, a half pound per day, though I’ve been having some…

 

Problems with Brine Penetration 

Even working from Ruhlman’s recipes for ham, I always (always!) have problems with brine penetration.  With any ham larger than a hock, it seems that no matter how long I leave the meat in the brine, the brine can’t reach the middle of the cut, closest to the bone. The cheap and simple solution is to buy a syringe and inject brine to the innermost regions of the ham.

Anyways.

After curing I leave the ham in the fridge uncovered for a day so that the surface can dry and form a pellicle.  On Easter morning I smoke the ham on my barbecue. It takes about five hours to come to temperature. Usually for a roast this size I would expect at least ten degrees of carry-over cooking, but since the smoking temperature is so low, around 225°F, it’s typically closer to five degrees.

Grocery-store hams just don’t compare. Texturally they are very uniform, and kind of resemble a soft rubber. Flavour-wise, though most grocery-store hams are naturally smoked, they only taste of salt and sugar. The home-made ham is sinuous, but incredibly tender; since it’s a large cut, with the bones still in place, it actually tastes of pork; and the smoke lends a warm campfire complexity to that natural taste.

Even with eight people dining, a whole leg is overkill.  Thankfully we have ways of dealing with leftovers.

A freshly glazed ham, smoking on the barbecue

A plate of ham and scallop potatoes