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DR. JERRY WILSON


Q:Isn’t plum pudding a cake rather than a pudding? (Asked by a curious cook.)

R: Well, the holidays are coming and so is plum pudding for a lot of folks. The pudding sort of looks like and has the texture of a moist cake. Plum pudding was a favorite of my father, who was of English descent. He always pointed out that there were no plums in plum pudding, but rather raisins or currants. In colonial times, both were called “plums,” hence the plum pudding name.

Oh yes, the question. No, it is not strictly a cake, since it contains no leavening and is steamed rather than baked.

Q:Why doesn’t ham change color like beef when you cook it? (Asked by another curious cook. Those cooks are curious these days.)

R: Basically, this is because you don’t cook ham, you just heat it – it is already precooked or cured. Like hot dogs, you really can’t overcook ham, other than drying out or burning it.

Before refrigeration, hams were cured using salt or were smoked. Salt curing makes the ham a bit dry and, of course, salty. (Great for high blood pressure.) Ham may also be smoked for preserving, which gives it a distinctive taste depending on the wood used. Then you have “boiled” ham, which is cooked in tanks of water that are below boiling temperature.

Nowadays the curing process for hams is a bit different. They are injected with several curing ingredients. I just went to the kitchen and looked at what was in a small can of ham -- fresh ham, water, salt, sugar, phosphates, ascorbate and sodium nitrite. The two most important in the curing process are sugar and the nitrite. Sugar provides flavor and also helps make the ham moist. The nitrite is the primary preservative that fights bacteria that would cause the meat to spoil. This may be injected as a nitrate, which turns to nitrite in the ham. The nitrite also adds to the taste associated with cured meats, particularly bacon.

Also, the nitrite stabilizes the color of the muscle tissue that contains the pink pigment giving ham its color. Some of the other ingredients in the curing process also contribute to this, such as ascorbate, and help speed up the curing process.

All of this is making me hungry. Think I’ll go open that can of ham and have a sandwich.

C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” -- Winston Churchill

Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or e-mail jerry@curiosity-corner.net. Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to www.curiosity-corner.net.