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Pigs have been domesticated and used as a source of food by people around the world since 7000 B.C.E. In wooded areas surrounding villages, pigs could be turned loose to grow fat on nuts and roots. On farms, pigs could be fed the remains of the grain used for brewing, the whey left after cheesemaking, scraps from the kitchen, or any spoiling fruit or vegetable.
No matter what they eat, pigs converted it into food for people, and many of the foods produced from pigs have become culinary staples. For example, the pork pie that is still beloved in England and barbecue that has become an icon of the South in the United States.
The pork pie has been an English tradition since at least 1390, when the first recipe for pork pie was recorded by the cooks at the court of Richard II. The traditional pork pie was thought to have originated from the Roman technique of sealing meat in a flour and oil paste to prevent the juices from seeping away while cooking. In the royal and noble households of medieval England, the humble pork pie was transferred into a molded container for a more elegant presentation at the table and upgraded appearance it has retained to this day.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus loaded hogs among the other provisions put on board his ship, crossed the Atlantic, and introduce them to the Americas. By the time the colonists arrived, pigs, a low-maintenance animal that could be put out to root in the forest and caught when needed, were a dietary staple.
In the South, wild pig catching and slaughtering became a neighborhood activity, with everyone invited to share in the work and the banquet. Every part of the pig was utilized: the meat either eaten immediately or cured for later consumption, the bones saved for stock in flavoring, and the ears and organs transformed into an assortment of delicacies. Such gatherings were the birthplace of the traditional southern barbecue, which was already well-established by the end of the colonial period but rose to great heights in the 50 years before the Civil War, when plantation owners regularly held large barbecues that lasted four days and were the social events of the year.
Although pigs are now raised in virtually every state in the United States, Iowa farmers raise 26-28% of the hogs that become US pork, making that state the number one in pork production.
Pork is an excellent source of protein. A 3 1/2 ounce serving of fresh pork tenderloin, broiled, provides 185 cal 30 g of protein and 6.3 g of fat, 2.2 g of which are saturated. Generally, commercially raised pork contains no omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition to its protein content, a 3 1/2 ounce serving of pork tenderloin is an excellent source of several B vitamins, especially thiamine (of which pork is the leading food source, providing 89% of the DV), niacin (82% of the DV), vitamin B12 (41% of the DV), riboflavin (35% of the DV), and pantothenic acid (18% of the DV).
A mineral rich-meat, a 3 1/2 ounce serving of pork tenderloin is also an excellent source of selenium (providing 93% of the DV) and zinc (37% of the DV), a very good source of potassium (13% of the DV) and magnesium (12% of the DV), and a good source of iron (8% of the DV) and copper (7% of the DV).
SELECTION & STORAGE
Choose cured pork products that are nitrate and nitrite free. These sorts of products are gaining in availability. However, keep in mind that pork products that have been cured with sodium nitrate have a much longer shelf life than fresh.
Fresh pork tenderloin should be deep red while leg and shoulder cuts should be pink or pinkish gray in color, the fat should be creamy white. Bones, if present, should be red and spongy at the ends. The whiter the bone ends, the older the animal when it was slaughtered and the tougher the meat will be.
Pork roasts should be rosy pink. The darker red indicates acidic meat, while juicy and delicious, it will not keep well and must be eaten immediately.
Purchase fresh pork no more than 2 to 3 days before you plan to cook it. Since pork contains much more unsaturated fat than beef, it turns rancid more quickly. Store it in its original store wrapper, in the coldest part of the fridge, it will stay fresh for three days.
Once cooked, pork should still be refrigerated and will keep for 4 to 5 days, or it can be frozen and kept for one month. To freeze, wrap the meat in plastic, foil, or butcher paper and store it at 18°F. Once thawed, do not refreeze.
Read the label carefully when choosing cured hams. It will list the ingredients used; the protein, fat, and sodium content; and directions for storage and cooking.
Cured ham can range from 6 to 24 pounds, depending upon the cut and whether the bone remains in or not. If the ham is in a clear plastic wrapping, look for one that is firm and plump, with much rosy pink, fine-grained meat. If the ham is canned you must rely on the reputation of the producer.
Canned hams that require refrigeration, even before opening, generally have a better flavor and texture than those that can be stored at room temperature until opened. This is because the very high heat required to process shelf stable meat negatively affects the product's flavor, aroma, texture, and nutritional value. Also, be aware that higher quality meat is typically reserved for the more expensive products.
Canned and dry-cured hams will keep for up to six months if stored in the refrigerator unopened. Once opened, wrap leftovers tightly and use within one week or freeze for up to one month.
Vacuum-packed, brine cured hams should be stored in the refrigerator, where they will keep for about one week or they can be frozen for up to three months. Once opened, wrap leftovers tightly in their original wrapping or aluminum foil and use within one week.
Some country style hams can be stored in a cool place for 1 to 2 months; check the label for storage length and instructions. Also, keep in mind that longer storage equals more evaporation, which will shrink and toughen country hams. Once cut, country ham must be refrigerated and should be used within 4 to 5 days, or leftovers can be frozen for up to one month.
Unopened vacuum-packed bacon should be marked with a sell by date. If unopened, it will keep for one week past this date, and it can be frozen before this date, keeping it for three months. Once opened, if tightly wrapped, it should keep about one week. Slab bacon, if tightly wrapped and refrigerated, will keep for several weeks. Canadian bacon will keep up to one week if in large pieces, 3 to 4 weeks if sliced.
Want to know more about delicious bacon? Check out our Foods that Heal on bacon HERE
THE MANY COLORS OF PORK
Fresh pork turns almost white when cooked, but cured ham retains its rosy hue because the myoglobin in the meat reacts with the nitrates and nitrites used in curing to form nitrosomyoglobin, a compound that stays red at high temperatures.
Uncut ham, a glistening, greenish, or rainbow iridescent appearance is not necessarily an indication of spoilage. The nitrates and nitrites used to cure pork that causes the meat to remain a rosy red, even when fully cooked, can also trigger a chemical reaction that produces pigment changes in pork when exposed to light and air.
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