Minnie and I, in collusion with our significant others including The Mollys, got together last weekend to begin the process of air-drying our own ham.
What we want to end up with is, essentially, prosciutto. When I say prosciutto I’m just using that as a familiar reference. I’m talking about the salt-cured then air dried leg of ham that you can carve off in ever-so-thin slices. The kind that’s quite expensive in “proper” delicatessen if you buy in slices then goes dry. Like the kind you buy when you’re on holiday in Italy, Spain or France and think, “god, I’d love to eat this at home”. We’re broadly following Meat-God-Recently-Veg-God Hugh Fernley-Whittingstalls’ method but have also done our own research. And although we’re making it now, we won’t get to eat it til next year anyways, so just think of it as preparing for our pork future. And perhaps yours. We’re not trying to replicate the flavour of what you can buy on the continent. We’re buying local pork and following a fairly basic formula (rather than Spanish or Italian regional breeds that have been fed on a very specific diet to produce a specific flavour and colour.)
Now, taking learnings from our last experience of joint food production, Minnie and I were very careful to ensure we were absolutely prepared this time so we made sure we had everything in advance and a plan in place. Box secured. Salt bought. Pig leg ordered. Research complete.
So, we met at Mr Finn’s to collect our pre-ordered boned legs. Mr Finn is an extremely enthusiastic butcher and very supportive. He’s also an extremely good salesman. His strategy is simply to pass delicious things under your nose. And wait. On that day it was his smokey bacon, which he does himself, and he made us sniff. Also the freshly baked pork pies sitting on the counter, still warm and wafting fine smells in our direction. And then there was the whole fillet of beef winking at me from behind the glass. We fell for it all. Out came the plastic and parents of The Two Molly’s left Mr Finn’s having spent a small meaty fortune. And Mr Finn was glad.
So, all heady with the smells of pork-based products still lingering, we headed back to Minnie and Jamie’s to get on with the task at hand.
After being distracted by lunch (still-warm pork pies from the butcher, cold-cuts and some baked eggs in tomatoes), a celebratory beer for doing so well, feeding the toddlers, putting the toddlers down for a nap, and recovering with a cup of tea after all the hard work, we set to task.
And then our brains fell out of our heads. We realised we’d forgotten to note the weights of the legs at Mr Finn’s (important for working out how long they are left in salt. We eventually worked it out based on remembering how much we’d paid for each leg and the cost per kg). We forgot to drill holes in our box. Having laid the first layer of salt, we almost forgot to salt the inside of the legs. And then we ran out of salt and had to buy more. Minnie and Jamie have done one of these before and all prior knowledge seemed to vaporise.
Personally, I’m blaming the pork pies for everything. We all got a little bit over excited and forgot our plan.
But we got there in the end. Both legs are in salt and doing their thing til the next phase. The plan is to have our beautifully cured and dried ham for next Christmas.
Below is a how-to and we will update this post as we go along.
It’s very easy to do and simple involves these two steps
- Cover in salt for a spell in a wine box
- Hang it to dry for a spell.
What you need:
- A wine box with a few holes drilled in the bottom.
- About 8kg of fine cooking salt.
- Peppercorns, coriander seeds, jumiper berries
- Something plastic or wood to cover afterwards
- A heavy weight, twice the weight of the ham. Bricks or a slab of concrete or something.
- Pre-ordered very fresh hind leg of pig, tunnel boned to remove the leg bone. NOTE THE WEIGHT WHEN YOU COLLECT IT.
- Muslin cloth (I ordered ours from a butcher suppliers outfit.)
What to do: Aim to do this the day you collect the leg.
- Put a layer of salt in the bottom of the winebox (about 2inches)
- Sprinkle the layer of salt with about 2tblespoons each of peppercorns, coriander seeds etc.
- Rub lots of salt into the cavity of the leg. It’s important to do this well to prevent rotting.
- Lay the meaty side down on the spices.
- Completely cover the leg in salt. You need about 2 inches of salt on top.
- Lay some plastic or wood on top then a weight which is twice the weight of the meat.
- Leave for 3 days per kg (and no more than 4 days according to Hugh F-W)
- Remove, give it a rinse in white wine vinegar, wrap in muslin cloth and hang in a drafty spot for about 6 months.
A couple of things we learned along the way that will help if you are considering doing this yourself because no account of what to in books or online could answer all the questions we had.
1. Tunnel boning: For first timers, tunnel boning is less risky. Even if you do all the steps correctly, there’s a chance that a ham will go bad even after the salt curing. Pork rots from the bone out so removing the bone reduces the chance of it going bad. It also leaves a cavity for you to rub with salt which will also help reduce the risk. The only negative thing for me was that it remove the leggy/footy big at the end which holds some appeal UNLESS you ask the butcher to keep that bit.
2. Salt: Don’t get us started on the salt. Minnie and I have learned a lot about all this in recent weeks. Some books say use sea salt, some say absolutely do NOT use sea salt. Two butchers we spoke to said use curing salt (which has it’s own specific ingredients). In fact, where we’ve got to is to use fine cooking salt (what Minnie and Jamie used first time around), bought from the super-market in 1.5kg bags for about .74p. Don’t use curing salt because that has nitrates and saltpetre in and specifically for curing bacon or doing a ham that you leave in the fridge. It has it’s own method and involves turning it regularly etc. ie. that’s not the salt to use for air-drying. Also, and most importantly, get a lot more than you need. Hugh reckoned to buy about 4kg of salt. Double that. Minnie and I used 17kg between us!
3. Hanging location: Some people say just somewhere well-ventilated, others say you need a through-draft. Hugh F-W used to hang his on his porch. We’ve decided to use our wooden garden shed. It has no door but is protected from rain and will hang high enough to stop the fox. But will come back to this at the time of hanging.
4. Write it all down. Write down what you intend to do on the day and write down what you bought and where from afterwards. Even something like sourcing the salt next time can hold you up if you forget everything.
And actually, that’s where the advice comes to an abrupt halt because that’s where we’re up to in this process. We’ve put our meat to salt and will come back to you when it comes to hanging the meat.