Country vs. City: Family ham-curing businesses keep traditional methods alive

Spring is in the air, conjuring desires for crisp, fresh, cool food after a winter of slow-cooked sauces, mushy casseroles and oven-roasted meats. For most of us, that is. Producers of traditional dry-cured hams are thinking about stocking our holiday tables with their meats, because the techniques they use take between four and 15 months.

If you think it’s rough going a few months without grilling, imagine life before refrigeration. It really wasn’t that long ago. Without refrigeration, folks put up fruits and vegetables grown in their gardens. They slaughtered the livestock they had raised and preserved the meat to make it through Missouri’s winters. In the accounts of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, pages are devoted to describing how food was prepared and stored for winter. In the journals of Lewis and Clark, the explorers detail how American Indians preserved fish, buffalo and bear meat as well as other wild game. Immigrants who settled in Missouri brought with them their traditional winter preparations. Their children grew up marking the seasons by the harvest and some of them saw the opportunities of providing for city folks. “Some people are just born with that entrepreneurial spirit,” Morris Burger, chairman of Burgers’ Smokehouse, said. “My father was one of them.”

E.M. Burger’s California, Mo., neighbors, it seems, didn’t think too much of his idea of curing hams and selling them to folks in nearby Jefferson City and Columbia. It was the Great Depression, and they didn’t know what he knew: Selling one ham in the city was more profitable than selling a whole hog elsewhere. So that’s what E.M. Burger did, and by the mid-1950s he and his family, including young Morris, were curing about 5,000 hams a year and had expanded the Burgers’ Smokehouse plant.

It was all done in the custom E.M. Burger had learned from his parents.

“We only got electricity a year or two before I went to college,” Burger said, telling his family’s story with Southern ease. Butchering day was more than tradition; it was a way of life. Neighbors, usually family members, helped neighbors and nothing went to waste. In 2004, Burgers’ Smokehouse sold almost 1 million hams, along with turkeys, bacon and a wide variety of other products sold directly to restaurants and via the Internet. Still, nothing goes to waste. Even trimmings are sold to other food processors.

A tour of the 7-acre plant starts with a modern view of the age-old process. About 25,000 hams are put up each year just as Burger’s German immigrant grandparents did it. They are rubbed with a curing mixture, primarily salt and sugar, wrapped in paper and a stockinette and hung to dry. They are left in Mother Nature’s charge, no electric temperature controls here. Once the curing agent is absorbed, the paper is removed, the stockinette is replaced and they are rehung in the room. The hams can spend more than a year curing before sale.

“Some things we’ve been doing the same way for more than 50 years,” Burger said of the company. “But you’d be surprised how modern we are in some aspects of how we do things.”

A substantial portion of the plant is dedicated to room upon temperature-controlled room where the seasons are simulated and accelerated. Hams put through this process are ready to ship in as little as four months. Under winter conditions, the seasoned hams are wrapped in paper and stockinette until the cure is absorbed. Under moderate spring conditions, the paper is removed and the cure equalizes. Then, in the humid summer room, the meat ages and dries, taking on more flavor. Finally, some of these hams are smoked for a golden-brown finish.

As the business grew, it became apparent that Southern cooking isn’t for everyone. Dry-cured hams tend to be a bit dryer and saltier at the table than what some folks are used to. Polish- or Danish-style hams (known as wet-cured or city-cured hams) are much moister. “The weather’s not right in those parts of the world for dry curing,” Burger said, producing a map that highlights “the dry-curing belt.” It’s easy to see why Missouri plays such a role in providing this style of meat to the world. The belt cuts a swath from the Straights of Gibralter across France and up through Germany … the very countries to which so many Missourians can trace their ancestors. Another swath reaches from Missouri east to Virginia and the third is a section of China where this tradition also is practiced.

Of special note, especially for St. Louisans, is Italy, a center of sorts not just for dry-cured hams and delicious sausages but also for the technology that makes more rapid curing possible. Most of the equipment at Burger’s is made in Italy, and any St. Louisan worth his salt can understand why. If not, make the trek to The Hill and seek out the corner door at 5250 Daggett Ave. Enter and discover a world of Italian treasures brought to St. Louis more than 100 years ago. The Volpi family, like the Burgers, has taken family tradition and built a worldwide food empire. One breath of the well-seasoned air that fills the shop will leave you wondering what to try first. Start with the expertly prepared prosciutto and work your way out from there. It just might be the single best illustration of the flavor punch provided by the dry-curing process.

Outside that dry-curing belt, however, Mother Nature’s hands are tied and other methods for preserving meat were developed. It’s in the wet-curing process, which yields the Polish and Danish styles, that so many flavors have been introduced to the meat.

“In the city hams you can put any flavor profile you want just by the goody bag … the flavorings you choose to inject,” Burger said. “Maple ham, Cajun ham, just about anything.”

The seasonings are suspended in a fluid, then injected with multiple needles into the raw meat. That carries the cure to the center of the meat more quickly than the dry-curing process. The meat soaks for a few hours or a few days and later is smoked, yielding a moist meat with only a moderate saltiness. “It’s similar to the difference between a mild Cheddar and a super sharp,” Burger said.

In Pacific, Mo., Glenda Hoerstkamp and her brother Greig Gatzert run Double G Brands, curing hams in the German tradition their father Glenn taught them. Here hams are trimmed and seasoned with a wet cure, then left for about 24 hours before being slow smoked. The result is a juicy ham with a flavor enhanced by the seasoning of the hardwoods used in the smoker.

When Jim Garrett married his wife, Amy, he became part of the third generation of her family to cure hams for a living. The Bonne Terre Meat Company’s Ozark Pride-label hams boast a flavor produced in the Ozark tradition, using cane and brown sugars and natural hickory smoke. First the hams are wet cured. Then they spend five or six hours in the smokehouse where the smoke of hickory sawdust adds extra flavor. They cook about 10 hours more, until the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees. “You always have to be sure about any ham you buy,” Jim Garrett said. “Not all of them are fully cooked.”

Preventing illness was a goal of those early preservation techniques, too. Dry curing is not, technically, a cooking process. The meat never reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees. But the chemical equation of cure plus temperature plus time does get the job done.

“Most food-borne pathogens cannot survive in a country ham,” Burger said. “There’s just so little water in it.” So those hams left to Mother Nature’s care at Burgers’ are safe to eat, though never cooked. However, Burger added, most people fry, bake or boil country ham in the United States.

Comparing the flavors is a bit like learning about wine. Some are drier, some are sweeter, some are more robust. It’s not so much learning what technique makes the best ham, but learning what kind of ham you like best.