The process of preserving and smoking hams in the 18th century
A couple weeks have passed since my friends and I cut three hams down from the chimney of the recreated tenement house at Historic London Town and Gardens. Following the recipe from three 18th century books on cookery, we explored the historical process of preserving and smoking large cuts of meat.
Back in October, we collected the meat from a meat-share that we purchased from local Maryland farmer, Mike De Paola (he isn't taking any more orders this year, but still reach out to him if you'd like to buy a part of or an entire hog for next year--this was without any doubt the best pork and ham I have ever eaten). Besides the anticipated freshness, flavor, and bulk-price, what drew us to buying shares of a hog was the desire to smoke part of the meat as an experiment in 18th century foodways. Once we eventually determined on the hams, I dove into researching the history of 18th century hog-preservation.
In both the 18th century recipe books as well as some secondary sources, I kept coming across this term: Westphalia ham. In some recipes, these hams were pickled in a brine (so a water-based curing process). In others, the author recommended rubbing the hams with the salt mixture and letting them dry on a shelf or barrel (or "dry curing"). What both processes agreed on however, was that the cure should be simple (salt, sugar, and saltpeter) and that it must end with smoking the hams. Today, Westphalia hams are still produced and are described by Wikipedia as "ham produced from acorn-fed pigs raised in the forests of Westphalia, Germany. The resulting meat is dry cured and then smoked over a mixture of beechwood and juniper branches." It seems from the 18th century accounts that I've read that what the pigs ate wasn't really what made the ham what it was, but rather, the process of curing and smoking it. At the very least, as Thomas Jefferson recorded in his observations while visiting Germany in 1788, the hog should be small (120-200 lbs) as it "makes the sweetest meat." More than just describing the size, Jefferson helpfully provides an overview of the process of making Westphalia ham while passing through Dusseldorp:
I observe the hog of this country [Westphalia] of which the celebrated ham is made, is tall, gaunt, and with heavy lop ears. Fatted at a year old, would weigh 100. or 120 ℔. at 2 years old 200 ℔. Their principal food is acorns. The pork fresh sells @ 2½d sterl. the ℔. The ham ready made @ 5½d sterl. the ℔. 106. ℔ of this country is equal to 100. ℔ of Holland. About 4. ℔ of fine Holland salt is put on 100. ℔ of pork. It is smoked in a room which has no chimney. Well informed people here tell me there is no other part of the world where the bacon is smoked. They do not know that we do it.
Jefferson observed that fine Holland salt is "put to" to the pork and then it's smoked. My best guess by "put to" is that the salt was rubbed in as I feel like a brine requires somewhat different language. I also note that sugar and saltpeter--two commonly cited ingredients in ham making--are absent in his description. What's more, he doesn't describe the time it takes to cure the ham. By all accounts, the meat needs to cure for around a month or more before smoking it. In all, I think it's safe to assume that Jefferson was only detailing the parts of the process that were unique (i.e. "fine Holland salt" and "smoked in a room which has no chimney") as opposed to a step-by-step procedure. By Jefferson's description, Westphalia ham is produced from small, one-year old hogs that were first dry cured, and then smoked.
"They do not know that we do it"
When Jefferson visited Dusseldorp in 1788, he made a minor comment to the fact that Virginia was also fairly well known for producing a similar quality ham. Reinforcing his defense of his homeland's hams are comments from two English travelers to Virginia, one in the late 17th century and another in the early 18th. Reverend John Clayton wrote in 1688 that Virginia's hams were "as good as any Westphalia, certainly far exceeding our English.” Half a century later, in 1724, traveler Hugh Jones wrote that Virginia "pork is famous, whole Virginia shoats [young pigs] being frequently barbecued in England; their bacon is excellent, their hams being scarce to be distinguished from those of Westphalia" (primary source quotes from this article: "Setting the table for Virginia ham"). So Virginia really was producing comparable--if not better--hams than those known in Europe as being of the highest quality.
Since their arrival in North America in the 17th century, English settlers participated in a tradition of salting and smoking meats. Salting meat in general is a practice of preservation that most human societies practiced for millennia, but what's interesting about the English custom of salting and smoking is that, by the 17th century, it was done not just to preserve the meat, but also because they enjoyed the flavor. Certainly this applied to other cultures, too but for the scope of my research and application of the process, I focused on that of England.
When you dive into 18th century recipe books and thumb through the section on food preservation, you'll notice that there are myriad recipes for salting various cuts of meat, but smoking the meat is only thrown in at the end of certain recipes (i.e. Westphalia ham) where smoke is part of the flavor profile. Salting is all that's required to preserve meat; smoking the meat afterward is just an additional and optional step in the process (though there certainly is some benefit of smoke as a preservative). Take for example The Experienced English Housekeeper, published in 1769. The author, Elizabeth Raffald lists the following recipes in the section on "Pickling, Potting, and Collaring" (thus a section on food preservation): "To pot beef... To pot ox cheek... To collar a breast of veal... To collar a Calf's-Head... To souse Tripe... To salt Hams... To smoke Hams... To salt Chops... To salt Bacon... To salt Tongues...To pickle Pork" (emphasis added by me). The only mention of smoking is for hams. At the end of each recipe for all of the salted meats is the phrase "hang them up" or "hang them to dry in a dry place." It's not a large assumption to make, therefore, that smoking is unnecessary to the preservation of the already-salted meat; that it was done at this point in history to add flavor.
Another source that reinforces this idea while also explicitly providing a recipe for Westphalia ham is from Sarah Harrison's The House-keeper's Pocket-book, published in 1760. In the section entitled "Directions for Drying, Salting, Collaring, Potting, and Pickling Flesh and Fish after the most elegant Manner," Harrison provides the following recipes: "To dry a Leg of Mutton like Ham... To machinate Tongues... To salt Hams and Tongues... To salt Hams of Bacon... To make Brawn... To salt Ham... To make a Ham... To make Westphalia Ham." Harrison offers no recipes for smoking as a form of preservation in the section on preserving food. In fact, the only mention of smoking in any of the recipes is in that "To make Westphalia Ham." If you follow her recipe to "salt Ham" or the one after that "To make a Ham," then the last thing you should do is "dry it for your Use" or "send it to be dried" respectively. To make Westphalia ham, Harrison writes that, after salting the ham for three weeks, you should "Dry it in a Chimney where you burn Wood or Turf." Smoking was clearly not a method of food preservation in England by the 18th century.
Adding smoke to meat was a method of flavoring it and is argued by other food historians. In her article "MECHANICS AND FUNCTIONS OF A SMOKE HOUSE: A prepatory report for running the John Dickinson Smoke House," author and historian Judith Quinn draws upon late 18th and early 19th century sources when she writes that:
Recommended fuels for the fire include; green hickory, hickory bark, oak, apple, cherry, and maple woods, sassafras, com cobs, sawdust (preferably oak) and juniper berries, tanner's bark, and "horselitter" (straw). Recipes advised against using ash, locust, and pine wood, as well as paper. The most popular fuel by far was hickory wood (in chips or kindling form). Sawdust and straw were more often suggested in English recipes where smoking took place in chimneys, not in a smoke house. Each fire was built according to the taste of the cook and his/her conviction ·of having found the "sweetest smoke".
Interestingly, the description "sweetest smoke" comes from a 1799 diary written by John Beale Bordley of Philadelphia. He described how "Green hiccory gives the sweetest and best smoke: superior to dry hiccory or locust, ash, oak; and to corn stalks."
Most 18th century recipes I came across, however, don't offer much for what to use in smoking the meat. Harrison wrote that you should "Dry it in a Chimney where you burn Wood or Turf." I'm not sure I'd use peat for smoking hams, but maybe it does offer a decent flavor. In Charles Carter's The London and Country Cook published in 1749, the author merely offers that you should "hang them up high in a chimney to smoke." Raffald offers the most details on engineering the smoke when she wrote that one should "make a Fire of Oak Shavings, and lay over it Horse Litter [straw], and one Pound of Juniper Berries." Her use of juniper berries coincides with the modern definition of Westphalia ham--clearly it's been part of the process for at least 270 years. So while smoking was done to add flavor to already-preserved meat, cooks were only just beginning to experiment with wood types by the late 18th century to alter the flavor the smoked meat.
One fascinating tidbit of history I discovered while researching 18th century salted and smoked hams was the relationship between smoking meats and American architecture. While salting preserved the meats, smoking imparted flavor. This was so desired that even the rich in colonial America wanted access to a steady source of smoked meat. Judith Quinn writes in her article that
the widespread use of the smoke house is an American phenomenon. In the many primary sources examined on the subject, of those published in England, only one made any mention of using a smoke house. The common English advice was to smoke meat in a chimney. The concept of a smoke house, and even its structural form may well have emigrated from Europe, but the realization of the smoke house as an integral element of the kitchen yard (both rural and urban) was a purely American adaptation.
Anyone who has ever visited places like Colonial Williamsburg or Mount Vernon has surely seen those small outhouse-like buildings and perhaps mistook the buildings to be the elite colonists' privies, separate from the mansion. Smoke houses were built by the elite and less well off alike to produce the smoked meats that visitors extolled. In his article "Setting the table for Virginia ham," author Mark St. John Erickson writes:
Embraced first by the trend-setting chefs of the French court — then the exiled household of King Charles II upon its return to England — salted meat became notoriously stylish in the late-1600s because of its renown as a favorite among the ancient Romans... And when the English gentry began consuming salted pork — especially hams — in a self-conscious display of their command of the latest gastronomic theories and fashion, the planters of Virginia joined them, adding the attraction of the chic to a meat that had long occupied a privileged place at their dinner tables.
What started off as a revival in the consumption of salted meat among the elite, ended with a refinement of the meat product. Adding smoke to the salted meat imparted a desired flavor that suited the refined palate. Erickson writes that "As early as 1670, the Chesapeake gentry began erecting small structures devoted to smoking meat alongside their country manors and townhouses... soon, nearly every person of means had their own." By the time of the American Revolution, smoked meats--with ham at the forefront--helped to inspire one small aspect of American architecture and preserve a tasty aspect of Chesapeake foodways for future generations to still enjoy.
There were two methods to prepare hams in the 18th century: the dry cure and the brine. What appeared to me to be perhaps the most common method--and one I was already a bit familiar with--was the dry cure, so I used that when making the hams. Unsurprisingly, all the recipes that offered a dry cure for salting hams agreed on one ingredient: salt. That said, most specify some variation of a "bay salt" or salt produced by evaporating water from sea salt. More particularly, John Bordley explains that "Salt is produced, generally, by evaporating sea water: and this is by means of the sun and wind, or by boiling the water. The method by sun and wind is slow and regular; which produces bay-salt, (on the fides of bays or ponds) and... That by fire is quick, and gives blown-salt." The best salt for preserving food, Bordley argues is salt that has been sun-evaporated as they did in Spain and Portugal in the 18th century. Bordley claims that the "spirit" of the salt (the footnote defines this as "the nature of both the vitriolic and the nitrous acid") is lost by the quick evaporation with fire, but retained when slowly evaporated with the sun. He confirms that "This spirit of the salt is essential for keeping provisions; and when extracted and applied to pickle, gives an agreeable flavor: so that bay-salt, both as it has less of the bad substances, and more of the spirit of the salt, which is an essential of it, is preferable in its qualities to blown or boiled salt; besides its greater weight in the bushel." By 21st century contexts, I interpreted Bordley's bay salt as being equivalent to kosher salt today.
After choosing kosher salt, I opted to throw brown sugar into the dry cure mix based on Charles Carter's recipe. Sarah Harrison also called for sugar, but unlike Carter, did not specify "brown" sugar, but rather "the coarsest Sugar you can get" which I suppose should be interpreted as unrefined, and thus brown sugar. In modern dry curing, sugar is added to cut some of the saltiness of the finished product and, according to Judith Quinn, "it made the meat tender retarding the hardening qualities of the salt, while giving the meat a mellowness and richness." While I did not come across molasses being used in the dry cure, Quinn does mention in her article seeing references to it being used.
The final ingredient in my dry cure was saltpeter. While not every single recipe for dry curing meat called for it, almost all of them did. When dry curing meats today, it's still recommended that some form of nitrate be added to the meat to further prevent the bacteria which causes botulism. It's here that I did a little research into modern dry-curing to insure that I had the correct ratio of saltpeter to salt as avoiding botulism was a little more important to me than following the historical recipes to the letter. That said, I found the recipes comparable if not perhaps a little more saltpeter-heavy. In modern recipes, cooks use around half an ounce of saltpeter per pound of salt used (plus around half a pound of brown sugar). In addition to preventing the growth of botulism-causing bacteria, saltpeter helps to preserve the redness of the meat, while an exclusively-salt cure would simply turn the meat an unappealing gray. Fortunately, I have a friend who teaches at a local university who had some saltpeter to spare. If you don't have such a connection, you can find saltpeter on Amazon. In all, I mixed eight pounds of kosher salt, four pounds of brown sugar, and four ounces of saltpeter to create my dry cure.
The first real step, after simply mixing the three ingredients together, was preparing the hams and the barrel. Thanks to a friend of mine who lent me a barrel for our ham-curing, I obtained a ten-gallon wood barrel that was coated with pine pitch (the pitch is irrelevant for the curing process but I thought I'd still mention it). The first thing I had to do was break open one end of the barrel for the top access and then drill a couple of drainage holes in the bottom. Once done, I cleaned the barrel with soap and water and dried it out. For the hams, I just pat-dried them and then rubbed a fair coating of the cure mix into them. Where the meat had little cuts in it from the butchering or a little space between the meat and bone, I made sure to stuff those little cavities with the cure. Once coated, I dropped each ham into the barrel, first with a layer of just kosher salt on the bottom of the barrel, then the first cure-coated ham, then a layer of salt, then a ham, salt, ham, and yet again, more salt. The added layers of kosher salt between hams seemed to just make sense to me, having seen how regular salted pork is made, but none of the recipe books suggested that step. I did this out of an abundance of caution, but was perhaps not necessary.
I then stored the barrel in my pantry which is a separate room off of my kitchen and which I can keep closed with a door. The room is unheated and, even here in Maryland, I find that the pantry can get down into the 40-degree range. This is vital for the preservation process because while the meat is beginning to dry out, it still retains a lot of moisture--the salt that's freshly rubbed into the ham has only just started to work on the meat. In the first couple weeks, bacteria can still spoil the meat, so it really must be kept in an area that's consistently below 50. For some, that could be a pantry, basement, or garage, for others that could be a curing chamber. If you have access to a wine cooler fridge, those would work very well since they operate in the 45-55 degree range.
For the first two weeks, I would take the hams out every three days, brush off any salt on the hams, rub fresh cure into them, and restack them in the barrel but in a different order and upside down (to insure even "drainage"). I also had to empty the cookie sheet I left under the barrel which collected the ham-juices. After the first two weeks, I just left the hams to sit in the barrel, checking them only twice in the remaining two weeks (they cured for a total of four weeks), applying a fresh coating of cure and layers of salt each time.
At this point, the recipe books suggest I now had salted hams. If I wanted to keep salted hams in my pantry through the summer, each book recommends that I then hang the hams to dry. This would be critical in the Chesapeake area in the 18th century since of course refrigeration did not yet exist and fresh meat spoiled quickly. Quoting a "French visitor's" account of Virginia's foods, author and food historian James E. McWilliams writes in his 2005 book A Revolution In Eating: How The Quest For Food Shaped America, "The summer heat restricts them to this diet [of salted meat], for fresh killed meat must be consumed within twenty-four hours else it will spoil" (126). Salted meats were often boiled a couple of times--each time with fresh water--to flush out the excess salt and then served as-is with perhaps a condiment, or sometimes fried or even incorporated into another dish (i.e. a soup, porridge, pie, etc.).
Since, however, this entire culinary experiment was conceived of because of our desire to smoke the meat, the last step was necessary for us, plus to truly make a Westphalia ham, the meat needed to be smoked. In the three recipes I drew upon, they all reference hanging the hams in a chimney (particularly one that's just normally used for heat and cooking--not a separate structure). Interestingly, in the 17th/18th century farmhouse in Brockley, UK, an entire chamber was built around the chimney on the second floor--a sort of U-shaped closet surrounding the chimney, but instead of shelves or clothing racks, there were pegs that protruded from the walls for hanging meat from. The farmer would hang meats from the pegs and then remove a panel from the side of the chimney, allowing smoke to fill the second-floor curing-chamber. The benefit of this curing chamber is that the meat would not be exposed to the heat from the fire on the first floor at all, but would still receive the smoke from it, allowing the farmer to make as hot a fire as they needed for warmth and/or cooking. Needless to say, it seemed common for English cooks to smoke meats in their chimney, either in a specially-built curing-chamber on the second floor, or hanging from a horizontal pole high up in the chimney. Fortunately for me, Historic London Town and Gardens near Annapolis, MD has a reproduction tenement house sporting a chimney with a smoking-rod eight feet above the ground and they were excited to host my friends and I for a weekend of ham-smoking.
The process of smoking ham in the chimney is straightforward. Take the hams out of the barrel, wipe off the salt with a cloth, and then truss them with some twine (or in my case, hand them over to your friend who portrays a sailor and understands ropes and knots). Finally, hang the hams from the rod in the chimney at least three feet above a very low fire--well enough above it that they will not be cooked. There the hams rested from noon on Friday until noon or so on Sunday while we kept a low/medium fire going all weekend. London Town provided us with maple wood which we also supplemented with hickory chunks. On Sunday, we cut down the hams and wrapped them in linen. In total, they smoked for two days. In the recipe books, I've seen two to three days as a minimum smoke-time, but in Quinn's article, she's seen as long as six weeks. In modern smoking, the hams would have been done after about eight hours. The problem with smoking for an extended period of time (more than a few days), is that smoke is carcinogenic--the more the meat is exposed to smoke, the greater the risk to the consumer. We opted for two days because it met the minimum requirement for the 18th century and it's well within the safety limits, vis-à-vis carcinogens. One other note I found interesting in Quinn's article was that she writes that, while smoking meat, the fire should be left to die out for the night--that smoking does not occur at night.
After letting my ham sit around for one week, I finally got around to trying slicing it open for myself. I think what surprised me the most was how similar the flavor and texture of Westphalia ham is to a good prosciutto di parma. It's fairly salty (but not nearly unbearable) with a subtle smokiness while also still retaining a gorgeous red color. As a part-Italian who grew up eating prosciutto, the connection was immediate for me, as it was to my non-reenacting friends who commented the same. Having following the recipes to the letter, I feel confident in arguing that 18th century Westphalia ham (and Virginia ham by extension) would have tasted like a modern prosciutto.
If this article inspired you to make your own salted and smoked meat, let me know! Also, please don't hold me liable if you get botulism. I am only writing about my experiment and the history surrounding it, and am in no way an actual expert with years of experience curing meat. Consume traditionally-cured meat at your own risk!