Air-dried hams rely simply on salting and drying to produce their finished texture and taste. The basic procedure is a two-stage affair: curing, then drying. Find out how to do it yourself with this step-by-step guide from The River Cottage Cookbook.
For the cure, the whole leg is completely packed in salt and pressed under a substantial weight to accelerate the moisture loss and salt penetration.
This pressing also contributes to the dense texture of the ham. Once cured, the ham is hung to dry and mature in a cool airy place for several months.
Air-dried hams are eaten 'raw', and at their best must rank as one of the greatest delicacies you can make with a pig. In Italy every region has its special air-dried ham, of which Parma ham is the most famous.
The Alpine hams of Haute Savoie and the Serrano hams of Spain can also be delectably distinctive, demonstrating that the taste and texture of an air-dried ham varies according to the diet and variety of the pig, and the length and conditions of the curing and hanging.
In making your own dry-cured ham it is best not to think in terms of imitating European regional classics but rather enjoying whatever turns out to be distinctive about your own idiosyncratic version.
As long as you don't salt it too much or cut it too early, it is very likely to be delicious.
The secret of success is to be well organised: read the instructions below carefully before you even take your pigs to slaughter. Get your ham-making kit together well in advance and talk to your butcher about your needs.
Work out where you are going to store your ham while it cures, and where you are going to hang it. Attend to the detail and you have every chance of first-time success.
Once in a while, and sometimes for no good reason one can think of, a hanging ham will go rotten on you. It's heart-breaking when it does, but all you can do is get back in the saddle and try again.
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