Curing a ham is a Christmas tradition for many and last year we gave it a try for the first time. So it was very useful to go along to River Cottage last week to find out more about curing meat. To be honest I’d only ever thought about curing a ham, but in actual fact you can cure any sort of meat and it was a bit of an eye opener to be trying out a range of cured meats. In particular, we had a demonstration of brining, which is an easy way to preserve not just meat, but fish, cheese and even vegetables. The curing process, using salt and water as the main ingredients, is totally natural one that has been used down the centuries and does not need to involve any E numbers or other nasties.
I’ve put together a quick and simple guide for you from what I learnt listening to the talk and demonstration at River Cottage.
What joints of meat should I buy to brine my own ham?
A leg of pork is traditional, but might be a bit big. Consider a boned-out leg or half a large leg.
How long does the brining process take?
The pork has to be left for 3 days in the brine for every kilo of meat. Then you will need to cook it.
Use either a large earthenware pot or a plastic bucket(or other plastic container). Keep away from aluminium pots. Brine it in a cold room. We brined ours in our unheated conservatory, but a garage or pantry might fit the bill too.
How much salt and water do I need to use?
To brine pork you need 20% of salt per litre of liquid, so for every litre of liquid, you need 200g of salt. You need enough water to cover your ham. You might need to weigh it down to keep it under the liquid at all times. It doesn’t need to be water though as it can be another liquid (see the next question and answer).
How can I add flavour?
You can pick our almost anything to add. Think about using alcohol such as a beer, a wine or opt for cider or apple juice (as apple is a lovely complement to pork). You can use the alcohol as a substitute for some of your water. Add a little caramel flavour with either some dark sugar or some treacle. Don’t forget herbs and spices: rosemary and bay leaves maybe or black pepper and chillies for a little heat.The flavours will be quite subtle in the finished ham.
Salt opens up the cells of the meat and draws moisture out. It’s been used as a preservative over the centuries because salt kills bacteria and inhibits its growth.
How long will the ham keep after brining?
Pat dry the ham after curing it and keep it uncovered in the fridge. You have a week or two to get round to cooking it.
How should I cook the ham?
Boil it in fresh water. After a few minutes, taste the water and if it is very salty, discard it and replace it with fresh water. You can do this several times if needs be.
From 2-5 hours on a gentle simmer depending on how big your ham is.
Can you only brine pork?
No, we tried a range of cured meats at River Cottage including beef, venison and chicken. Beef and venison can be cured in a similar way to pork, but chicken and turkey need less salt because they contain less fat. The chicken was particularly delicious, with a delicate flavour that complemented the meat. Brining a chicken is fairly easy as less water and salt are required and you don’t need such a big container, so I’m very tempted to try that at home.
Of course, we had to taste some of these delicious cured meats. During the demonstration we sampled the bresaola and the cured chicken. For the main course of our meal we were served River Cottage Cider Cured Ham, Carrot Puree, Fried Savoy Cabbage and Braised Beans.
This was my second visit to River Cottage. It’s a really special place and the food is truly amazing. I’m planning a return trip soon for a cookery course.