Having set out a basic approach to dry curing, where the rub mix containing both the curing ingredients and the sweeteners and aromats and spices are all applied dry to the surface of the meat, we can now look at wet methods, where a liquid brine is mixed and the meat immersed in this in order to cure and absorb the flavour elements.
Brining is still an excellent method that we use a lot commercially, when curing different cuts. It’s incredibly efficient, in that once the meat is cut up into it’s primal (shoulders, bellies, loins and hams) they can all be put into the same brine tank to cure and simply be pulled out at different times, when each of them would have been suitably cured. This is the traditional curing approach for the creation of cured collars, ham hocks, back and streaky bacon, as well as typical gammons, and allows one brine cure to be mixed for all of them.
For the sake of this article though, I’m going to concentrate on methods most suitable for the home user wanting to brine cure their own ham, but be aware that once you have mastered this simple technique, it can be applied to many other cuts, including immersion cure bacons or ham hocks.
The method that is by far the simplest and doesn’t rely, as the big brine tank methods described above do, on the precise timing of when to pull the meat from the cure in order to stop it becoming too salty, is the 2:1 measured brine approach.
For me, it is the equivalent in simplicity and reliability of the measured dry cure equilibrium approach, and it’s beautiful simplicity is that the brine should weigh half of the meat weight and that the brine is of a known and adequate salinity, which ensures effective curing, but can never be overly salty, even if left too long. (note: Credit is due to Oddly, Phil and Paul on Franco’s great sausagemaking forum for successfully developing this method)
This simple approach to beautiful homemade hams is below.
STEP 1: THE MEAT
As with the discussion over bacon above, the fundamental rule of curing is that the end product will only be as good as what you put in at the beginning. Quality of the ingredient is key. Source outdoor reared (ideally pastured or woodland) pork, and preferably an older animal, rather than an immature, factory farmed and basically flavourless protein. This will provide you with a flavour, texture and intramuscular fat content that makes for better product.
For the purposes of this example, we’re going to talk about boned leg meat, to provide us with the classic cylindrical ham that is most popular. If you don’t fancy doing this yourself, ask your butcher for a boned, rolled and well tied joint of the size you prefer. This should be relatively lean, but with a nice, even covering of fat to it’s exterior, which is essential for flavour and the cooking process.
STEP 2: SALT & CURE
Brine strength is important here, and rather like the dry cure approach, there is a margin for personal preference. It’s not for anyone to tell anyone else what the best salt content is, as this is purely a matter of taste. But there are lower limits, below which the cure will not be effective and upper limits beyond which the product will be inedible. There is also to be born in mind whether the ham will be eaten hot or cold, as with all cookery, this will effect how the seasonings taste.
My recommendation is to start at somewhere around a 10% salt content for your brine. This will then be the first weight in your 2:1 cure recipe set out below:
Basic brine is to use a 2:1 ratio meat to liquid.
Cure #1 4.5g
(or all in one salt/cure mix 54.5g)
Total Amount 500g
You can then add the sweetener of your choice, be that honey, simple white sugar or a dark
muscavado, in order to counteract some of the saltiness and also to give an appealing sweetness to the ham.
Some spices and aromats of your choice can then be added to this, to create the flavours within the brine that you want in your ham. Once this is done the liquid forms the balance of the brine weight required to total half your meat’s weight.
This liquid may generally be water, but could just as easily be a beer, a cider, or a wine added in at whatever ratio you fancy trying. Some recommend cooking off alcohol when used in a brine, other recipes have perfectly good success without doing so, it will generally depend on what the alcohol content was in the first place.
So, in order to come up with the calculation, you take your, for example, one kilo boned leg joint and know that you need to create a brine with the total weight of 500 grams. The salt content, with it’s nitrite mix included, would be 29.5 grams to give you the required salt content in the finished ham, the sugar is 25 grams to provide the balance, meaning that we need to complete the 500 grams with 420.5 grams of water (or other liquid). This mix should be heated briefly to get the salts and sugars to dissolve, and then allowed to cool completely.
STEP 3: IMMERSION CURE PHASE
Then, the meat can be immersed completely within the brine, for the curing phase.
Given how efficient this method is, and the relatively small amount of brine we’re using, it’s the best that a reasonably tight fitting container is used, which will allow the brine to completely cover the meat, or I would recommend the use of a ziplock or other type of sealing bag, as this allows the meat to be put in, the brine to be poured in and then the excess air to be blown out until the meat is entirely surrounded by the brine. The bag then being sealed, this can be popped into the fridge without any mess, where it can be turned and generally jiggled around occasionally during the curing phase, which follows the same rule of thumb as the dry cure (one day per half inch to centre, plus two days).
Important though to bear in mind, that the beauty of this approach is that leaving it longer, or even accidentally forgetting about it, doesn’t matter. The ham will not become over salty, as you have limited the available salt to the level that you want.
STEP 4; EQUALISATION
As with all of these cured meats, once the initial curing stage is complete, the important
equalization stage must be remembered, however tempting it may be to get stuck in. Remember, what you are creating here is specifically supposed to be a high quality product and not the wet, flavourless junk that you may as well buy at the supermarket.
So once the ham is out of the brine, give it a quick rinse and pat dry, before setting it on a rack back in the fridge to rest, equalize, and for the flavours to really develop. This is especially important here, as the thicker the piece of meat, the more time this will take. Setting your ham aside like this for a week will pay dividends.
And there you have it, quality brine cured ham, which you can adjust to your liking, using exactly the same method, providing everything from a simple, everyday sandwich ham to a dark beer and treacle cured treat.
Once you have produced your bacons and hams or whatever other goodies you’ve created following these methods, the options are then open for hot smoking or gentle cold smoking before use.