There is still some confusion today about the difference between bacon, ham and gammon, but we're happy to explain. Firstly, however, to make good bacon, gammon and ham, you need to start with a naturally reared, happy pig.
Some of the best bacon comes from pure breeds such as Tamworth, Middle White and Saddleback. Look for good-quality brands in your supermarket or visit a good independent butcher.
BUYING TIPS: WHAT TO LOOK FOR
- Good-quality bacon should not smell of anything. If it has any smell then it’s not fresh.
- Bacon should be slightly damp to the touch, but not wet or slimy.
- The fat should be firm and white – not yellow at all, unless it is smoked.
- There should be no yellow or green shimmery stains on the meat; these stains imply that it is past its best.
- The rind should be smooth and elastic, but the colour will depend on the curing process it has undergone. Some will be darker than others.
- The meat should be firm (not wet and floppy), lean, and with a deep pink colour.
There are two basic methods of curing: the dry cure and wet cure. Dry-cured bacon has been rubbed with a mixture of salt and sugar, and is usually the method that produces the best type of bacon – with a drier finish and fuller, more pronounced flavour. For wet-cured bacon, the side of pork is immersed in brine (a salt and water solution), which penetrates the meat faster than a dry cure, but this is also the method most open to abuse.
Some manufacturers inject the brine directly into the meat, bulking out its weight and helping to improve profits in the process. By law, they are allowed to add up to 10% of the meat’s weight in brine without having to declare it. But all this produces is tasteless bacon that shrinks during cooking and leaches back out a white ‘curdy’ liquid that makes it virtually impossible to get a crisp rasher.
Tendersweet bacon has undergone a milder curing process, usually using more sugar. The curing process can take from a few days to several months and it can be left as it is, which is ‘green’ bacon, or it can then be smoked.
THE CUTS (WORKING FROM HEAD TO TAIL)
A pig destined for bacon, as with fresh pork, will be split in half along the backbone and then divided into three sections: the fore end, middle, and hind leg.
THE FORE END
The COLLAR is cut from the shoulder area of the pig just behind the head. It is usually boned and rolled, and can be divided into two joints: the PRIME COLLAR, which is one of the best joints for boiling and weighs about 2.75kg, and the END OF COLLAR, a smaller more economical cut that weighs about 1kg. THE FORE HOCK is the front leg of the pig. It can be left whole or divided into two to give you the PRIME HOCK, a small fatty joint that weighs about 600g, and it is excellent for flavouring soups, or cooked with dried beans, peas and lentils, and the HOCK KNUCKLE which, despite being larger (at about 1.5kg) consists of a lot of bone and is best boned, skinned and the meat diced for use in casseroles along with other meats. When this cut is boned, rolled, cooked and left to go cold it is often known as a PICNIC HAM. Recipes with hock
THE BACK was once available on the bone, and sliced between the ribs into bacon chops, but these are a delicacy and are, sadly, hard to find these days. It is more often boned and thinly sliced into BACK BACON RASHERS for quick grilling or frying.
THE BELLY is again boned and thinly sliced across into STREAKY BACON.
MIDDLE BACON RASHERS are larger slices of bacon, made up of both the loin and the belly. Recipes with bacon
THE HIND LEG
This is known as a gammon and is a huge joint, weighing, on average, about 8.5-9.5kg, thus making it difficult to cook at home. So it is more often divided into smaller cuts.
CORNER GAMMON is, as you would expect, a small, lean, boneless joint cut from the top corner of the whole leg and weighing about 1.8kg. It is ideal for boiling or roasting, and can also be sliced across – a little more thickly than bacon – into LEAN GRILLING RASHERS.
MIDDLE GAMMON or FILLET END OF GAMMON is the top half of the leg, weighing about 2-3kg, and is the best gammon joint for roasting or boiling because it yields the largest, neatest slices. It can be cooked either on the bone, or boned and rolled for ease of carving. It is also the cut that is sliced across to give GAMMON STEAKS, which are ideal for grilling.
GAMMON HOCK or KNUCKLE END can be cooked on or off the bone, and gives a slightly more economical cut for boiling, or par-boiling then baking for eating cold.
SLIPPER GAMMON is a small, lean joint, cut from the side of the whole gammon, and weighs about 750g. Ideal for boiling or roasting. How to cook gammon
Pancetta is a type of Italian bacon from cured pork belly, and it is very similar to our dry-cured streaky bacon. It can be flavoured with a selection of herbs, or smoked and rolled into a cylindrical shape. It can either be bought in one piece, or already cut into small dice, or thinly sliced. It has a fantastic flavour and is an essential in many Italian dishes. Recipes with pancetta.
HOW TO COOK A GAMMON
THE MEAT GUIDE: PORK
Pig illustration: Russell Cobb