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Like Wine, Ham Too Complex On Nose

Like fine wine, ham is also far more chemically complicated than previously thought as far as its aromas are concerned, say researchers.

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The study, led by Huanlu Song, a researcher in the College of Chemical & Environmental Engineering at China’s Beijing Technology & Business University, examined several kinds of ham to review the chemistry of their distinctive aromas.

The study was conducted on American country ham, which is produced in southern states and require curing and up to a year of aging to develop their flavours, and the compounds it releases.

“The aroma of country ham consists of a variety of compounds having different odour properties. A single compound cannot characterize the aroma,” Discovery News quoted Song, as saying.

In the study, hams from North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky manufacturers were included.

One test involved freezing pieces of ham in liquid nitrogen, grinding the mixture into a powder and then using special pumps to separate the ham odour’s individual chemicals. However, another test drew out the meat’s more acidic compounds.

The scientists compiled a list of all of the identified chemicals and their associated odour and flavour properties, similar to how wine tasters link wine characteristics to other well-known substance descriptions, like earthy or fruity.

For ham, the descriptions included: dark chocolate, fruity, fatty, vinegar-like, green orange, raw peanut, buttery, cheesy, cut grass, mushroom, popcorn, metallic, milky, cooked potato, cucumber, rosy, smoky, coconut-like, floury, peachy, burnt sugar, sour, tortilla-like and even faecal.

Song explained that most of these aromas and tastes arise from three chemical processes: the Maillard reaction, Strecker degradation and lipid oxidation.

The Maillard reaction happens when amino acids and sugar are heated to certain temperatures. Carbon atoms within the sugar react with organic amino acid compounds to produce what many cooks have described as the “golden brown deliciousness” of a range of odours and flavours most associate with caramelization.

Strecker degradation takes that reaction up a notch, to produce roasted, or even burnt, flavours and odours.

Lipid oxidation is the process of combining oxygen with fats on an atomic level. It’s one reason why ham smells so savoury and flavourful, but it can also indicate the presence of potentially dangerous free radicals, which are unstable molecules.

Song said different raw materials, pig species, processing technologies and even what the pigs eat all affect the final outcome of the ham.

Sources:The study is published in the Journal of Food Science.

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