Aging Gracefully

Dave Arnold / April 2007

Every country has a different take on the crafted metamorphosis of fresh pork into fragrant aged hams, but all agree that the final product is well worth the time and trouble.

Dry-cured ham is not ham as most Americans today know it. For decades, Americans have served city ham on holiday tables—salty-sweet moist folds of pink meat, pumped with brine. Many city hams are in fact delicious and produced with great care—but they have managed to almost completely eclipse the much more sophisticated and culturally significant dry-cured ham. Until now.

Aged, dense, and intensely flavored, dry-cured hams are the pinnacle of cured meats. Dry-cured hams go by many names, depending on where they are produced. Italian prosciutto has been steadily gaining in popularity since the United States raised its ban on imported Prosciutto di Parma in 1989. And the popularity of Spanish cuisine in the United States has led to an interest in the native Serrano hams. America's Spanish chef impresario, José Andrés, has teamed up with the Spanish producer Embutidos Fermín to bring the ultraexpensive, ultrarare, and ultradelicious Jamón Ibérico de Bellota to the States. This ham has already enjoyed a flurry of press, and a cult of ardent fans are willing to plunk down hundreds of dollars just to get in line to buy one—for $1,000 and change. Unfortunately, 21st century Americans are less aware of their own native product: American country ham. Country ham has traditionally been cooked, but many forward-looking chefs are serving these hams in a new way, as many of their European brethren always have, simply thinly sliced or used as an ingredient that sees only gentle heat. Many of these chefs, such as Jimmy Sneed, are rooted in the Southern tradition and have been around country ham their whole lives; some, like Bobby Flay, who serves American country ham in dishes at Bar Americain in New York City, are interested in new takes on American classics; and others, like David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ssäm in New York City, who serves tasting platters of thinly sliced country ham, are simply interested in showcasing high-quality delicious pork in all its forms, including dry-cured. All dry-cured hams share similarities, but understanding their distinctive characteristics will help you appreciate them the way you might cheeses and wines. First step: understanding what a dry-cured ham is.

Cured-ham basics Traditional dry-cured ham was a seasonal product--it started with the slaughter of a pig when the weather turned cold. The hind legs were trimmed and rubbed with salt and sometimes with sugar, spices, and nitrates, and then cured for several weeks at low temperature. Because the salt only penetrated the exposed meaty portion of the ham where the leg was attached to the pig (the ham's "face") and not the skin and fat, the ham, after the initial cure, was much saltier in some places than others. To correct this imbalance the ham was cleaned and hung for a while so the salt could redistribute and equalize itself before serious aging began. At this point, traditionally around spring, some hams were smoked with hardwoods or aromatics--not a hot smoke that would cook the meat, but a cool smoke that added color and flavor. This process enhanced preservation and prevented attack from pests. Producers in colder climates, like Germany and England, typically smoked their meats, while those from warmer climates like Italy and Spain did not. One exception was the United States, where only one rule applied: except for Virginia, which always smoked, there was no rule. Finally, the hams were hung to dry and age; they gained the most flavor and character during the warmer summer months. Good hams aged for a year or more and lost 25 to 35 percent of their weight while drying. Some special hams are at their best when they are two to three years old or more. The aging temperature and the aging room's local molds and bacteria have a profound influence on the finished product's flavor. Many ham producers even tout the quality of their local air and the benefits it brings to the finished ham.

Most producers no longer honor the seasonal nature of great ham, but they all aim to reproduce the effects of a seasonal production cycle. The Italians lead the way: in the 1950s the Italian company Travaglini introduced special aging rooms to mimic the conditions of natural aging, including daily temperature and humidity cycles, with specially designed louvers that admit temperature-controlled doses of "local air" in an attempt to re-create the traditional process as closely as possible. The success of these techniques has made Italian hams some of the most consistent in the world.

When hams age, two important things are happening: the meat is losing water, thus the flavor is concentrating, and enzymes within the meat are breaking down proteins and fats into smaller, much more flavorful components. Smaller hams dry out faster and therefore slice better and seem more aged than large hams. Don't be fooled, however, by a producer who tells you that a smaller ham at nine months is like a larger ham at 12 months. These hams might slice the same, but the older ham is much more complex in flavor. The curing and aging temperatures are also key factors in the character of a cured ham. Italian hams imported to the United States are typically aged at cellar temperatures (59° to 64°F), producing mild sweet prosciutto as we know it. Spanish hams are typically aged at a higher temperature (60° to 78°F; in rare cases up to 93°F) and display a more robust flavor profile. American country hams are cured at some of the highest temperatures (86°F and hotter) which give the best ones a distinctive delicious funk. Unlike dried sausages, which are acidic due to bacterial action, there is no real fermentation in a ham because the bacteria counts inside the meat are too low. But molds, bacteria, and the microflora of the aging room make a big difference in the flavor of the ham. Sam Edwards, of S. Wallace Edwards & Sons in Surry, Virginia, has three main aging rooms, and the hams are slightly different from room to room. "I can tell you which room I'm in blindfolded just by the aroma," he says.

Resourceful pigs Pigs are omnivores that forage for their own food, converting garbage and scraps into tasty pork. Anything edible on the ground--nuts, plants, roots, even snakes--are fair game for pigs at no cost to their owner. Turning plentiful, underused products into delicious meat is a useful skill and was the traditional role of the pig in society. It was unusual to devote good farmland to growing pig feed, as is done today. The best traditional hams were great, in part, because the pig's cheap local diet happened to produce fantastic pork; diet has a huge impact on both flavor and texture. Pigs incorporate a good portion of the fatty acids they consume directly into their own fat, much more than other domestic animals, and these fatty acids change the nature of the pork. Virginia hogs were once fattened on the gleanings from the peanut harvest. Peanuts gave an oily, nutty flavor to the pig's fat, which made for delicious, and world-famous, aged ham. Sadly, peanuts are no longer an important crop in the region, and pigs have not been fattened this way commercially since the 1960s. Spain, the only country to preserve an entirely traditional system, still relies on this type of feeding for its famed bellota-fed Ibérico hams. Bellota, or acorns, fall from the trees and are eaten by free-range pigs. Pigs fattened on this diet produce hams with an unmistakable oily mouthfeel and distinct nutty flavor. This type of feeding, called mast feeding, was once commonplace throughout the world. But it's now too expensive for regions outside Spain to raise pigs off the "free" fat of the land because free-range hogs need too much space to be raised with modern efficiency.

Different pig breeds have different meat textures and flavors, show different marbling tendencies, and have varying propensities to grow large fat caps around the meat. Around the world, indigenous breeds that had once been selected for traits such as their suitability to the local climate, their ability to forage effectively, or their tendency to put on fat, have been gradually replaced by breeds that are more suited to modern farming. Prosciutto di Parma has been made from the nonindigenous Large White breed for more than 100 years. Again, Spain is the only country that has preserved its traditions by maintaining a herd of Ibérico pigs, sometimes known as "pata negra," or black-footed pigs (though not all Iberian pigs have black feet). These pigs have tremendous flavor and extremely marbled meat.

Most modern pork is too lean to make great ham. Marbling is important in ham because as a ham dries out, much of its succulence comes from fat instead of water. In the days before plentiful supplies of vegetable-based oils and shortenings, lard was a prevalent, widely used ingredient and fat pigs were desirable. After the decline in lard use--unfortunate, because lard is delicious--pigs were bred to be leaner. The American antifat craze accelerated this trend. U.S. pork is now fashion runway lean, partially due to breeding but also due to extremely efficient feeding regimens. Lean pigs are cheaper for farmers to raise because they consume less food per pound of weight-gain than fattier pigs.

The weight and age of the hog also affects marbling and fat content. Older, heavier hogs have more fat and more marbling and yield tastier hams. Larger hams can also be aged longer because it takes them much longer to dry out. Finally, meat from older pigs has more flavor, a darker, more enticing color, and a different enzyme profile that helps develop their distinct flavors.

The ham belt Farmers traditionally slaughtered pigs when the weather turned cold for three reasons: First, after slaughter, much of the pig's meat was preserved for later use, and cold weather made for easier curing without spoiling in the absence of refrigeration. Second, because pigs were typically fattened on nuts, apples, and other bounties of fall, they were at their fattest and most delicious in early winter. Third, as winter approached and the amount of fresh, free food and foraging material waned, farmers had two choices: feed pigs valuable food crops or slaughter them.

Cold, but not freezing, winter weather was the first thing our ancestors needed to make a great dry-cured ham. If the climate was too cold, a whole ham would freeze before it could be cured in the classic technique; too warm, and the whole ham would spoil. The tradition of the dry-cured ham, therefore, wraps around the world in a distinct climate zone. This ham belt includes most of lower Europe and the Mediterranean, is interrupted by Islamic and Jewish interdictions on pork consumption, extremely high mountains, and vegetarian-based cultures, and picks up again in China, which has a fantastic dry-cured ham tradition (alas, no Chinese dry-cured hams are available in the United States. Chinese cooking authority Eileen Yin-Fei Lo uses Smithfield ham in the cloth bag with black pepper, widely sold in Chinatown, as a substitute; the P.F. Chang's chain uses Serrano in its Yunnan "Year of the Golden Pig" menu). The ham belt in this country threads through the south, extending from Virginia in the north to North Carolina (some say to northern Georgia) in the south and west through Tennessee and Kentucky to Missouri and northern Arkansas. There, in the Ozarks, the tradition stopped. There are no legendary Great Plains hams. Modern technology, however, has made it possible to dry-cure ham anywhere from the North Pole to the equator. Ninety-nine percent of the world's ham producers keep their ham under constant temperature and humidity control, even in the ham belt regions, because temperature control has made ham-curing a year-round business. Most producers aren't willing to make hams only in the winter, though some artisans contend that only "ambient-cured" hams (those subject to the vicissitudes of day-in day-out and seasonal temperature and humidity changes without artificial control) are truly special. Some producers strike a middle road by making "semi-ambient cured" hams, partially aging them under temperature control before allowing them to age in the natural environment.

Slicing In the old European style, hams are sliced horizontally by hand along the grain from a bone-in ham. On a machine, boneless hams are sliced across the grain. Cross-cut hams are more tender and give the taster a cross section of the entire ham; most Americans prefer this style. Horizontal cuts are chewier and provide a sample of the ham from front to back. Typically, horizontal slices are thicker than cross-cut slices. Unless you are a master with a slicing knife (and very few people are), you should buy a good slicing machine and cross-cut. Cross-cuts are nearly impossible to produce well by hand.

Without the meat slicer, European dry-cured hams would never have gained the popularity they enjoy today. The first meat slicer was patented by W. A. Van Berkel in 1898, and today antique Berkel slicers are collected by an avid group of ham aficionados and restaurateurs because of their beauty and slicing prowess. Good slicers can produce accurate, thin cuts without mangling the bottom of your ham. They're also easy to clean and sharpen, have a large hollow ground (concave) blade, and don't break easily. Bad slicers make slicing a complete nightmare. For ham, stay away from small blades. Slicers fall into two categories: vertical and gravity feed. Gravity feed machines are less expensive, have a small footprint, and are very versatile. Most Americans use gravity fed machines. Vertical slicers make a cleaner slice but cost more and aren't good for small or oddly shaped foods. The original Berkel slicers were vertical machines, and vertical machines continue to be popular in Europe to this day.

For restaurant use, the Bizerba SE12 gravity slicer is hard to beat. It isn't huge, has a nice big blade, produces a great slice, and is easy to clean. If you want a vertical slicer and an older look on a modern machine, the Berkel 330M is a good choice. Whole Foods uses this model as the slicer that the customer sees. An informal survey of employees says that these slicers not only look good but also slice better than anything else in the store. Hobart is currently releasing its new 3000 series slicer, which has won a 2007 NRA Kitchens Innovations Award and is designed to be state-of-the-art in cleanliness and efficiency. (I have yet to try it.)

European hams slice well. They are designed to slice well. American hams can be more difficult. Most American hams are aged with their shankside pointing down. Hanging this way makes the ham assume a squat shape with a meaty section much thicker than their European counterparts. Americans also don't protect the face of the meat from drying out, so the hams don't dry out evenly. On an American ham you will often see that the face area of the ham is dark and hard, while the meaty portion is very soft. If a ham is too soft, it gums up when you slice it. Most boned country hams also still have a big hole where the bone was removed, making for unsightly slices. Many chefs get around both problems by trimming off the face sections and slicing them separately.

The truth about nitrates Chefs are often unclear about the difference between nitrates and nitrites, and about the health implications of both. Nitrates, in the form of potassium nitrate (saltpeter) and sodium nitrate (also sometimes called saltpeter), have been intentionally added to cured meat for centuries and have been present as a natural impurity in curing salts for millennia. Though many think of them as artificial additives, they are in fact traditional ingredients. Nitrates help develop the color and flavor we associate with cured meats like bacon and ham. They also help prevent rancidity in fats and inhibit the bacterium that causes botulism. In the late 1800s, scientists discovered that it wasn't nitrates that were doing the work but rather the nitrites that naturally occurring bacteria produce from nitrates. Today, producers add nitrites directly to make their cured products, with the exception of long-cured products like ham (the nitrites would be consumed well before they could do their work, since it takes much longer for bacteria to convert added nitrate to nitrite). In the second half of the 20th century, many people started worrying about the health consequences of nitrates and nitrites, which, when heated to high temperatures, can react with certain amino acids to produce potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines. The residual nitrite level in a long-cured ham, however, is very low and the conversion to nitrosamine is unlikely because the hams are cooked gently, if at all. The risk associated with added nitrate in ham is negligible.

Hams made without nitrates, like Prosciutto di Parma, get their stable cured color through the action of specific bacteria. The bacteria are present in small numbers and take a long time to act. This is why a long-cured ham can look good without nitrates, but bacon without nitrites cannot.

Tasting hams Methodical comparative ham tasting is difficult, as no two hams are exactly alike. Imported Italian hams are the most consistent, but even they vary. Within a single ham the flavor can change from the face of the meat to the cushion (the face is typically slightly more dehydrated and tastes saltier), from the tip of the ham to the shank (the shank end has more connective tissue and produces a smaller slice) and from muscle to muscle (hams have several muscles in them, each with its own properties). When tasting, cut a thicker slice than you would normally serve; the texture might be overly chewy, but it's much easier to judge aroma, flavor, and salt content. All hams should be sampled at room temperature. All slices should be fresh. If the cut surface of the ham is old or unprotected, discard the first slice. Some experts recommend holding the slice in your hand for a moment to bring the meat closer to body temperature. Get your nose close to the slice to really savor the aroma. Between hams, do what the U.S. ham judges do and cleanse your palate with something a little sweet, like apple juice. When selecting a ham to purchase in quantity, you should sample more than one ham from each producer to determine the range of ham-to-ham flavor and quality. Up to 10 percent of the hams from small artisanal producers can have off-flavor notes or small areas of taint or spoilage--but the excellent 90 percent makes this inconvenience worth putting up with.
Hams country by country

Prosciutto di Parma
The most famous dry-cured ham, Parma hams are produced from the legs of Large White pigs that are much heavier than most pigs raised in the United States. Traditionally, pigs destined for Parma ham were fattened on the whey left over from the production of Parma's other famous product, Parmigiano-Reggiano. The whey is high in protein, which fattened the hogs and was in good supply until the early winter slaughtering time. Although the whey does not have the same marked effect on ham flavor that acorn feeding does, farmers today still feed the pigs a modicum of whey to keep the tradition alive. Parma hams are cured with salt only. No nitrates. After the salt equalization period, the ham is squished into the familiar Parma ham shape and the face of the meat is rubbed with a mixture of lard, salt, pepper, and rice flour. The squishing helps even out the profile of the ham so that it dries evenly and slices well, and the lard prevents the face from drying out and prevents attack from pests. The lard is the main reason the color of Parma hams is fairly even from top to bottom. All Parma hams imported today are factory-made hams and are remarkably consistent. They are aged for over a year, usually 14 to 18 months and sometimes as long as two years. Boneless Parma hams are produced by removing the bone after aging and pressing the ham into refrigerated molds under extremely high pressure. Without refrigeration the friction would create enough heat to ruin the ham. The pressure is so great that the hole where the bone used to be is completely eliminated: important, because any cracks or crevices would allow mold mites and bacteria to damage the ham. Real Parma hams are stamped on the skin with a crown bearing the word "Parma." Prosciutto di Parma has a low salt level and is enjoyed for its mild, sweet, sometimes fruity flavor.
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Prosciutto di San Daniele
Do not confuse this product with the Canadian prosciutto of a similar name. The real thing comes from San Daniele in Friuli, Italy, a town that is all about ham. San Daniele hams are produced by a process similar to Prosciutto di Parma but are often even sweeter in taste.
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Speck Alto Adige IGP
Speck is produced in Alto Adige, the northernmost region of Italy on the Austrian border. Austrians make a similar product, but it is much drier than its Italian counterpart. Speck is an unusual ham for several reasons. It is boned and cured flat, perhaps because the cold weather in the southern Alps necessitated a faster cure than a whole ham would allow. Speck is also cured with salt and aromatic spices, such as juniper, not found in other Italian hams. And Speck is smoked--atypical for an Italian ham. Because it is rolled flat, Speck Alto Adige IGP is not aged as long as other prosciutti, typically for only 22 weeks. Real Speck Alto Adige IGP has been available in the United States for several years and is rapidly gaining a following. The aromatics give Speck an unmistakable flavor and aroma. As a bonus, Speck slices very nicely into even, rectangular pieces. The hams are remarkably consistent in flavor and texture.
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Ham mandarins consider the best Spanish hams to be the best in the world. The Spanish have preserved a traditional system of pig breeding and ham curing while other countries have bowed in varying degrees to the pressures of modernization. Spanish hams break roughly into two groups: Jamón Serrano, which is made with white pigs that are not usually fed a special diet, and Jamón Ibérico, which is made from an indigenous breed of pig native to the southwestern portion of Spain near the Portuguese border. Spanish hams are typically placed in a stand called a jamonero and hand-sliced horizontally along the grain, a feat that requires great skill. These hams are usually sold bone-in, but producers are now making boneless varieties that can be cut on regular machines. Spanish hams can be easily recognized by the way they are trimmed: the skin on the top side of the ham is cut off to expose the fat underneath, often in a distinctive "v" shape.
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Jamón Serrano
Serrano is the generic term for mountain-cured Spanish hams. With the exception of Jamón de Teruel and Jamón de Trévelez, they don't need to come from any particular location. They are typically large hams, aged 14 to 18 months, although some are two years old. The three major producers you are likely to see:

  1. Campofrio has just released a line of 18 and 24 month Serrano hams specifically designed to please the American palate: a ham without a lot of internal fat, an unfortunate trait in an otherwise good product. It has a robust taste that attests to the relatively high temperatures at which it is aged.

  2. Navidul was purchased by Campofrio but maintains its own production. Navidul hams can have different flavor and aroma profiles but are characterized by fairly low salt level, a medium robustness, and a detectable odor of canned meat, which sounds bad but is intentional and pleasant.

  3. Redondo Iglesias, whose hams fall midway between Campofrio and Navidul in taste. Redondo Serrano is aged a minimum of 12 months; Redondo Oro a minimum of 18 months.
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Jamón Ibérico and Jamón Ibérico de Bellota
The king of hams, Jamón Ibérico refers to ham made from special Iberian hogs. These pigs show intense marbling and produce great ham. The most common variety of Ibérico ham is Pienso or Cebo and comes from hogs that are fed a grain-based diet. Recebo, middle level Ibéricos, come from hogs fed both acorns and grain. The superior Jamón Ibérico de Bellota comes from two year old pigs that eat foraged acorns on the Spanish dehesa--huge pasture areas studded with oak and cork trees. The Bellota label permits only one pig per hectare of land, one of the reasons this meat is so costly. But the results are astounding: the hams aren't as robust as some American hams but are incredibly complex and subtle with fruity and nutty notes. Ibérico hams are designated by origin: Guijuelo-Salamanca, Dehesa de Extremadura, and Huelva. Jabugo, a town in Huelva, markets hams with a worldwide reputation under its own name. While none of these hams are available in the United States now, one will be soon. Embutidos Fermín, a producer from the Salamanca region, is slated to bring in Jamón Ibérico de Recebo in May and Jamón Ibérico de Bellota in 2008. Embutidos Fermín is the only producer with the necessary import permits; the hams will be imported by The Rogers Collection in partnership with Andrés and Fermín USA. Dried sausage and lomo (from these same pigs) are currently available here, and if the hams are the same quality as the smaller cured meats, we are all in for a treat.
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United States
In terms of raw power, American hams blow everyone else's out of the water. Good American hams are very robust; in an international tasting they should always be eaten last. They have more salt than most imported hams but are not overwhelmingly salty when consumed properly. The salt in the ham should be considered part of the dish's seasoning. Uncooked and sliced thin like their Euro-cousins, they are addictive, if you choose the right ham. Though some American producers make good imitations of European products (La Quercia produces "Prosciutto Americano" using organic and heirloom pork in Iowa (, this discussion focuses on country ham, an endangered national culinary treasure.

Country ham consumption, even in the South, has been waning for years. Consumers don't know what to do with a country ham, frequently saying it is too salty. American hams are traditionally cooked--or overcooked--and overcooked country ham, especially when sliced into thick pieces like a city ham, is dry, tough, and unpleasantly salty. Unfortunately, the legally mandated cooking instructions that accompany a country ham actually tell you to overcook it, certainly hurting the product's popularity. Additionally, we often think of ham as a main-course meat, not an accent, which is how country ham should be consumed.

By law, hams need to be just 70 days old and to lose just 18 percent of their weight during drying to be sold as country hams. Honest-to-goodness country hams start hitting their prime at nine months and should be aged a year or better; they typically lose 25 to 35 percent of their weight. Producers, however, often make hams to the letter of the law and churn out a product that even they know is not their best. Uneducated consumers are adrift because they cannot discern from a label if they are dealing with a young commodity product or a great ham. Chefs should get specific information from the producer before buying, like the age of the oldest hams--many companies produce city hams, commodity country hams, and real aged hams. Hams less than 10 months old are often difficult to slice unless they are small, and those won't have good depth of flavor. If you plan to purchase a number of hams, be aware that they are often cured in batches; when a producer runs out of a delicious 14 month ham, their next oldest ham might be a too-young nine-month ham. Most producers will bone their hams for you if you ask (if you can, request that they leave the skin and fat intact). Most producers also assume you want a cooked ham. Make sure you are getting an uncooked product.
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Ham culture in the United States started in Virginia and spread west and south. The famous Smithfield name has become synonymous with Virginia ham. For an artisanal Virginia experience, get the Wigwam ham from S. Wallace Edwards & Sons of Surry, Virginia. The Edwards family has been curing ham for generations. The Wigwam is a large ham with the heavy smoke characteristic of Virginia hams, and it slices beautifully. The Wigwam is often over a year old and is semiambient-cured. Unlike most American hams, it is hung by the shank end and assumes a long flat shape. Their Web site doesn't say so, but you can get the Wigwam ham boned.
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Tennessee and Kentucky
Tennessee and Kentucky have maintained their ham culture better than other states--perhaps because they have also maintained more of their rural nature. In Tennessee, Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams produces a fine ham that is distinctively smoky (they also make an unsmoked version). Benton's uses a semiambient-cure, and carries hams in a variety of ages. Colonel Bill Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Ham and Finchville Farms are two Kentucky producers that make 100 percent ambient-cured hams without nitrates--but the hams could not be more different. Finchville Farms hams are not smoked, while Newsom's hams are smoked in the Virginia tradition (the family recipe comes from Virginia and was originally written down in a will in the late 1700s). Finchville hams, because they lack smoke and nitrates, are a good transition from more familiar Italian types of hams but with an American taste. Newsom's hams have a distinct taste, which in aged samples can take on an almost blue cheese note in the finish. Nancy Newsom Mahaffey, the curemaster at Newsom's, attributes this to particular climate around her aging rooms. Because both hams are ambient-cured, they are seasonal products. You can't get a 12 month old ham in June. These hams are perfect for slicing around December. If you can, obtain hams that were cured the previous winter in the following winter or early spring and buy enough to last until the next batch is ready. These hams often sell out.
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The Ozarks are the westernmost outpost of traditional American ham culture. Burgers' Smokehouse's Attic Aged Ham is an admirable example of Ozark ham. Semiambient-cured, hung in the highest point in their aging room, and allowed to age for a year or more, the Attic Aged Ham isn't a big moneymaker for the Burgers--they make it just to keep the tradition alive. It is not smoked.