The Alchemy of Dry-Cured Flavor

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Some of the muscles’ biochemical machinery survives intact, in particular the enzymes that break flavorless proteins down into savory peptides and amino acids, which over the course of months may convert a third or more of the meat protein to flavor molecules. The concentration of mouth-filling, meaty glutamic acid rises ten- to twenty-fold, and as in cheese, so much of the amino acid tyrosine is freed that it may form small white crystals. In addition, the unsaturated fats in pig muscle break apart and react to form hundreds of volatile compounds, some of them characteristic of the aroma of melon (a traditional and chemically fitting accompaniment to ham!), apple, citrus, flowers, freshly cut grass, and butter. Other compounds react with the products of protein breakdown to give nutty, caramel flavors normally found only in cooked meats (concentration compensates for the subcooking temperature). In sum, the flavor of dry-cured ham is astonishingly complex and evocative.