Ham came about to preserve meat, but now we just love it

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By: Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross

Matthew Mead/AP

Ham was historically served at Easter because it was a preserved meat that needed to be eaten. It also could have been a meat that the butcher or farmer still had in stock. In the days before refrigeration, much of the meat was salted or otherwise cured for longer keeping. Only about one-third of pork is sold fresh. Although you no longer need to cure meats for the purpose of long-term storage, people have developed a taste for the various hams and sausages created by this process over the years.

A leg of fresh pork can come as a ham roast, pork steaks, leg cutlets, smoked ham, canned ham or ham steaks. Fresh pork is cured in a variety of ways, one of which is salting—either with a dry salt rub or with brine. Salting draws out the meat’s natural moisture, making it inhospitable to harmful organisms. In addition to salting, pork is often smoked and/or air-dried to draw off additional moisture.

Although these curing processes were originally developed to yield pork that could be kept for long periods at room temperature, today’s methods usually do not cure pork to that degree. Hams and bacon are injected with brine to give them flavor. They are not sufficiently cured, however, to be stored at room temperature; they must be refrigerated. Exceptions are the country hams that are salted and aged in a procedure that may take up to one year. Italian style prosciutto and Smithfield and Virginia hams are of this type.

Most hams today are labeled “fully cooked” and are ready to eat. They work great for a variety of ham recipes and can be served either cold or heated. Before a package is opened, it will stay fresh in the refrigerator for several weeks. Once the package is opened, it may be tightly wrapped and refrigerated for up to five days. Ham does not retain its high quality for long in the freezer because of changes in flavor and texture. When you freeze leftover ham, wrap it tightly in plastic and then place it in a freezer bag to freeze. The ham will be best if used in two to three months.

It’s no surprise that ham is popular—kids love the taste and people of all ages enjoy it. The ham sandwich has been the No. 1 sandwich in America for more than 15 years, beating out even hamburgers and hot dogs for the top spot. Three ounces of ham, which is a serving, is around 120 calories and 4 grams of fat.

Don’t Call it a Leftover
Now for some ideas for the planned over Easter ham. Of course there are ham sandwiches—they can be cold or hot, with cheese or without and a lot of tasty items added such as lettuce, tomatoes, fruit jelly or even cranberry chutney with a flavorful bread. Try different kinds of breads, rolls and wraps to liven up the color, shape and texture of ham sandwiches.

With ham and beans, make sure to brown the ham in an iron skillet for more flavor. When you’re making your ham and beans, try some different kinds of beans, and even mixing them. You can also brown the ham and freeze it for later use. You can make ham salad, or be creative and try making different spreads.

Other ways to use the ham is to try it in pasta salad hot or cold, breakfast casseroles and ham gravy for biscuits. Ham chunks can also be added to your favorite potato, broccoli, cheese or vegetable soup.

On the Calendar
Food enthusiasts should check out this upcoming event: Learn more about gluten at 7 p.m. Monday, April 21. Stephanie Polei, registered dietitian and extension educator, will host this program in the conference room of the Extension Office. Call 574-533-0554 for more details or to register.

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