Black Ham - Part I - Getting the Information

I've been asked a few times how I devise a recipe for a cure, so I thought I'd try to get some of the thought processes down in writing. This one's just for other curing anoraks out there! It's inevitably somewhat technical and may be boring to some. You have been warned! This particular ham is a work in progress, and as things are rarely 'spot on' at the first attempt, I don't suggest that anyone makes this recipe until at least I can report back on the finished article. But, for better or worse, here's the sort of process my befuddled twisted mind goes through:

What springs to mind if I mention Emmet? Is it a Cornish tourist, or maybe the neighbour of Hyacinth Bouquet in the famous sit-com? Well, to any foodie or meat curer it won't be either; it'll be the makers of the justifiably famous Suffolk Black Ham, Emmett's of Peasenhall. They've been making ham for over 150 years. Whilst there are other black hams, including the famous Bradenham from Wiltshire, Shropshire Black Ham, and a less well known one from Derbyshire, Emmett's seems to have become the one people talk about - at least, that is, if you move in circles that spend their time talking about ham! It's featured in the press, and often rolled out on Delia's TV programmes at Christmas.

Now, a confession: I've never actually eaten Emmett's ham. But where to start in designing a recipe for curing smaller pieces of meat in a similar fashion? Well, there's quite a bit of information online about the ham, regrettably much of it conflicting. There's also Emmett's own website and blog, from which I can get a time-scale for curing a full ham, along with details of (some) of the ingredients. I know from this that full hams for Christmas are started in early September, go into the marinade a week later, and after a further 5½ weeks are coming out of the smoke-house. Then, Mark Thomas, Emmett's owner, tells us in the Rick Stein video that they are pickled for 6 weeks in stout, natural brown sugar and molasses, and then smoked. From elsewhere I learn that they are oak smoked and that the beer used is local Nethergate 'Old Growler', a Porter with 5.0 % abv. As Nethergate were only founded in 1986 I wondered what had been used prior to that. Was it beer from one of the old established Suffolk brewers? Biting the bullet, I phoned Emmett's to ask and was somewhat disappointed to learn that it was Guinness!

Much has been made elsewhere of a pre-pickling period, whereby the meat is cured and then just marinated/matured, as against cured, during the 6 weeks it is in the brine. Under a week seems like a very short time to cure a whole leg but it's not that unusual in traditional curing - a high(ish) level of cure being used for a (comparatively) short period of time followed by a longer period of maturing. Such cures often reuse brines which are therefore already active and don't have the 'time-lag' often present with fresh saltpetre based brine.

I actually set off with the intention of making a Leicestershire version of the ham, using 'Offie Dark Porter' from the local Wicked Hathern Brewery, a beer made for, and named after The Offie, a "An award winning, specialist, independent beer, wine & spirit retailer." - Off Licence to you or me! Mind you, one with a difference - they sell over 500 different bottled beers. However, my oldest mate Mike, who lives in Ipswich, came up trumps and brought me 4 bottles of the real McCoy. Of the other ingredients, there was just the Molasses that I didn't have - I got this from my local whole-food shop.

So I've got the basics for the ingredients and process, and it's fairly apparent that it can't be either a dry or injection cure. One for obvious reasons as the ingredients are wet, and the other because the meat will end up a black colour, not very appetising to say the least! That leaves an immersion brine, and for simplicity I'm not going for the two stage method used by Emmett's. If you've read my previous post on the subject, you will know introduces it's own set of problems. As I need a recipe that can be easily scaled for different weights of meat, I turned to a method devised by 'Oddley', a very knowledgeable curer who's a member of the sausagemaking.org forum. It uses a 2:1 ratio of meat to brine and as such is scalable. The small amount of brine, in relation to the meat, also means that the costs are kept down, for what in curing terms, is quite an expensive cure. This method also uses the longer curing times which will give a good colour to the meat; after all, Black Ham, should be good and black on the outside otherwise it wouldn't be Black Ham!

For simplicity, I will calculate my cure based on using 2kg of meat in 1kg of brine. What I know about these immersion cures is that if the meat is left in the brine long enough, it will contain the same level of salt, sugar, cure and any other soluble ingredients as are in the brine. In curing terms it's said to have reached equilibrium. So to calculate the percentage of an ingredient in the finished article, if it's left long enough to do this, I will need to use the following calculation:

Cure calculation

In the case of the nitrites and nitrates, I need to know the mg/kg rather than percentage, and I also need to allow for the fact that the curing salt may only contain a percentage of these ingredients. In this case the calculation will be:

Cure calculation

Armed with this, I can calculate the maximum possible levels of ingredients that will end up in my ham if I were to leave it long enough, however, I won't actually be doing that; I plan on curing it for 10 days per kilogram which, from tests carried out by another curer known as NCPaul, I know is only 85% towards reaching equilibrium. I will also have to allow for this in my calculations. Needless to say, I'll use a spreadsheet to do these calculations for me.

I can now move to the next stage:

Part II - Curing the meat...


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