Burgers’ Country Ham Curing based on centuries – old process
Burgers’ Smokehouse dry cured country hams are preserved in much the same way as they were centuries ago before the advent of modern refrigeration. Still followed are the four basic steps: curing, drying, aging, and smoking, but on a larger scale. Much larger, as in an estimated 705,000 hams cured this year. And, in most cases, environmentally controlled rooms provide the cooling and heating that once were dependent on the natural Mid-Missouri seasons.
(Chester Fewins is surrounded by hams in a curing room in this photograph taken in the 1950’s)
The dry cure is a mixture of salt, brown sugar, spices and nitrates, essentially the same as the one brought from Germany by Hulda Burger, mother of the founder, E.M. Burger. “We buy salt by the trailer truck load here,” explains Morris Burger, “and sugar virtually by the truck load, too.”
When the fresh hams come into the plant they are trimmed to Burgers’ specifications. After the dry cure mixture is rubbed on, the hams are wrapped in paper and placed in netting. “Curing is normally done in the last few day of the week so that we get fresher pork that does not lay over the weekend somewhere,” say Burger. “We prefer to have the slaughtering done Monday or Tuesday and to us the next day or so.”
(Hams are aging in this part of the 1964 building that is four stories high)
The hams are hung on wooden racks and placed in a curing cooler until the cure is absorbed. The cooler is known as the “Wintertime Room” because it simulates the cold of winter that farmers used years ago to prevent the hams from spoiling as the cure penetrates to the center. When the cure is absorbed, the hams are taken from the cooler and the paper is removed, a process known as shucking. Then the hams are re-netted to go into a drying room. This process is usually done the first couple of days of the week to balance out the workload.
Since the early ‘70’s, the hams are placed on moveable ham racks instead of the original fixed racks. In this way the entire rack can be moved from room to room with the aid of machinery instead of having to move each ham individually, thus saving a lot of backbreaking labor. There are about 3,000 such racks in the plant.
(Raymond Ford(left) and Bill Vogel are making sure that the hams are top quality by probing them with a thin boning knife and checking the aroma.)
“Springtime Rooms” are where the hams dry in mild temperature and moving air. Higher heat in the “Summertime Rooms” slowly ages the hams to perfection as it pulls out the grease and intensifies the flavor. Old-timers called this part of the procedure the “June sweat.” Finally, the hams are smoked.
Not all country hams are the same. Shorter or longer times of aging and smoking create different types and tastes. Burgers’ produces three basic types and sells five types:
1. Southern Smokehouse Ham, short aged four to six months, for a milder taste and aroma. This is the most popular country ham.
2. Attic Aged Ham, naturally aged a "Country Year" (7 to 9 months) This ham is a dryer ham with a more robust distinct flavor.
3. Boneless Italian Prosciutto Ham, aged in a traditional, natural, unhurried process and eaten uncooked and made for the company by the Volpi family in St. Louis.
4. German Dry Cured Hams, of which there are three types: Black Forest (slab shaped); Westphalian (a rounded cased ham); and the strongly smoked German Country (a small single muscle ham). These are made for Burgers’ by the Stiglmeier firm in the Chicago area.
A different method is used for the popular Cooked City Sugar Cured Ham. It is cured with sweet brine, then cooked and smoked at the same time to bring out a sweet moist flavor.
In taste tests the City Ham has been rated number one by Ladies Home Journal
magazines. One of the Burgers’ spiral sliced City Hams was displayed on the holiday food segment of the Today Show
at Christmas. Although company names are not usually used on the air, the Burgers’ name was, in this case, because the food stylist who prepared the segment for the show considered the ham so good.
The company also produces country and city bacon and hundreds of thousand of pounds of other cured and smoked meats, as well as poultry products.
Baking a Country Ham
1. Scrub the ham thoroughly with a stiff brush and warm water. (It is normal for a country ham to develop surface mold that is easily removed.)
2. Place ham, skin side up in a deep roaster. Add water to within 2 inches of the top of the pan and add a cup of sorghum, honey or brown sugar.
3. Insert a meat thermometer. Cook slowly in a preheated 250-degree oven so that the ham will simmer but not boil. Take the ham out of the oven when the thermometer registers 150-degrees, so that it does not overcook. Leave it in the water until it reaches 155 to 160 degrees. If a thermometer is not used, cook approximately 20 minutes per pound after the water starts to simmer.
4. When the ham has cooled, take it from the roaster and remove the skin and excess fat, leaving a thin layer of fat for glazing, if desired.
5. Make a thick paste using 1 cup of brown sugar and 1/4 cup of vinegar. Apply to fat side of ham.
6. Place under a broiler in a hot oven) at highest temperature) until the glaze is golden brown. Watch carefully to avoid burning.
Frying Country Ham
1. Slice the ham 3/16 to 1/4 inch thick.
2. Trim rind and excess fat from ham and render in hot skillet to generate grease for frying. Bacon grease also enhances the flavor, or one can purchase Country Skillet Seasoning from the Smokehouse.
3. Heat skillet to 350-degrees on medium heat.
4. Sear ham by frying vigorously for two minutes on each side.
5. Place lean part of ham away from hottest point of skillet.
6. If a mild flavor is desired or the ham seems too salty, the slices may be soaked in lukewarm water for several minutes before frying.
7. For a sweet flavor, add two or three tablespoons of 7-up when the ham starts to fry. Reduce the heat so that the sugar does not burn.
Red Eye Gravy
1. Pour excess grease from skillet after frying ham.
2. Add 1/2 cup of freshly brewed coffee.
3. Stir to release dripping from bottom of skillet and bring to a boil for one minute.
4. Pour over ham, eggs or biscuits.