What is "Formed Meat"?

From time to time I’m asked if we ever use “formed meat”…

No! Unlike most “supermarket” ham, ours is never “formed”, “reformed” or “reconstituted”. Here’s the text of an article I wrote in 2015 following a customer’s letter about a newspaper article:

It’s funny how you can potter along through life thinking that all’s well with the world, only to be brought up short with the realisation that someone has got completely the wrong end of the stick about something. Only this week I was horrified that an anxious customer would call us up in a panic about something they had read in the Daily Mail.

The basic premise of the article was that everyone would be in a flat spin if they really knew what went into the ham in their sandwich. I’m not an apologist for the pretty unsavoury practices of most mass produced ham; what horrified me was the thought that a customer might have been misled into thinking that OUR ham was produced by methods as unappetising as those described in the article. Clearly we have not done a good job of explaining how and why Dukeshill Ham is different.

I urge you to take a stroll through any supermarket and look at all the serried packs of sliced ham. What shape are they? I’ll bet they’re all round (or square!!), unless you’ve struck particularly lucky and find one with a cheerful smiley face mysteriously running up the middle. The more responsible producers may have the words “formed meat” tucked away somewhere on the label, but often don’t bother. Now take a drive in the countryside, and if you can find a field of pigs (sadly this isn’t as easy to do now that too many spend their whole life indoors – that’s another story). Surely it’s not rocket science to see that something fishy is going on? How were those lovable, noble but misshapen animals turned into the bland, homogenous, IDENTICAL slices purporting to be ham?

In this (and it grieves me to say it) the Mail had it about right. There is a huge spectrum of quality available in supermarkets, but one thing is unavoidable: to get homogeneity the pork has to be “formed” into an unnatural shape. To do this boneless pieces of meat are injected with a brine (water, salts, sugars and, as one gets further down the quality ladder, other nefarious ingredients designed to help the meat retain water) and then “tumbled”. Imagine the world’s biggest tumble drier (without the heat!) filled with wet meat. As it is churned for several hours the brine is forced into the meat, and gradually the protein in the meat starts to dissolve, creating a slimy pink goo all over the meat. Most manufacturers are delighted by this technology as it reduces a process that used to take weeks or months into one that takes a few hours, and to them time is money!

Once this process is complete the meat can be filled into moulds of any shape the manufacturer wants (the most common and efficient for slicing being circular logs about a metre long. The logs are then cooked, and thanks to proteinaceous properties of the goo, it sets into a firm, albeit rubbery, shape. Cheap sliced ham has a mixture of the cheapest bits of the carcass, more water and more clever chemistry aimed at getting the most protein out of the meat and the most (lovely, cheap) water locked away in it; expensive formed ham will use much less water, better whole cuts of meat and fewer “nasties” generally, but the general principle of manufacture is the same. To read more about how industry often pumps meat full of water, read my post about the white goo in bacon.

Dukeshill Ham is NOTHING LIKE THAT! We will never use formed meat. We don’t have a tumbler; wouldn’t know what to do with it if we did. It’s a bit on a nuisance really, as if we did we wouldn’t have to wait the weeks we do for the cure to penetrate into the whole legs of pork. Still, that time isn’t altogether wasted as it means that an often ignored thing – flavour!! – has a chance to develop. Sadly we aren’t able to force these whole legs into moulds for cooking either. Life would no doubt be easier if we could, and there’d be less wastage, but we haven’t got any moulds so there you have it. This means that our hams come in all shapes and sizes (yes, just like the pigs they come from), and when we slice them every slice is different. Caterers, and supermarkets would find this a pain because they like to know EXACTLY what each slice is going to be like. However, every cloud etc. etc. Because we haven’t relied on massaging and tumbling to extract copious amounts of soluble protein, our cooked ham doesn’t have that rubbery wobble and bite you’ll find elsewhere. It’s more like what it is…real meat!