PNG images: Ham

Ham is pork from a leg cut that has been preserved by wet or dry curing, with or without smoking. As a processed meat, the term "ham" includes both whole cuts of meat and ones that have been mechanically formed.

Ham is made around the world, including a number of highly coveted regional specialties, such as Westphalian ham and some varieties of Spanish jamón. In addition, numerous ham products have specific geographical naming protection, such as Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto Toscano in Europe, and Smithfield ham in the US.

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Traditional dry cure hams may use only salt as the curative agent, such as with San Daniele or Parma hams, although this is comparatively rare. This process involves cleaning the raw meat, covering it in salt while it is gradually pressed draining all the blood. Specific herbs and spices may be used to add flavour during this step. The hams are then washed and hung in a dark, temperature-regulated place until dry. It is then hung to air for another period of time.

The duration of the curing process varies by the type of ham, with, for example, Serrano ham curing in 9–12 months, Parma hams taking more than 12 months, and Iberian ham taking up to 2 years to reach the desired flavour characteristics. Some dry cured hams, such as the Jinhua ham, take approximately 8 to 10 months to complete.

Most modern dry cure hams also use nitrites (either sodium nitrite or potassium nitrate), which are added along with the salt. Nitrates are used because they prevent bacterial growth and, in a reaction with the meat's myoglobin, give the product a desirable dark red color. The amount and mixture of salt and nitrites used have an effect on the shrinkage of the meat. Because of the toxicity of nitrite (the lethal dose of nitrite for humans is about 22 mg per kg body weight), some areas specify a maximum allowable content of nitrite in the final product. Under certain conditions, especially during cooking, nitrites in meat can react with degradation products of amino acids, forming nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens.

The dry curing of ham involves a number of enzymatic reactions. The enzymes involved are proteinases (cathepsins – B, D, H & L, and calpains) and exopeptidases (peptidase and aminopeptidase). These enzymes cause proteolysis of muscle tissue, which creates large numbers of small peptides and free amino acids, while the adipose tissue undergoes lipolysis to create free fatty acids. Salt and phosphates act as strong inhibitors of proteolytic activity. Animal factors influencing enzymatic activity include age, weight, and breed. During the process itself, conditions such as temperature, duration, water content, redox potential, and salt content all have an effect.

The salt content in dry-cured ham varies throughout a piece of meat, with gradients determinable through sampling and testing or non-invasively through CT scanning.

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