What Is Spam Made Out Of
Spam is probably one of America’s most popular meat snacks — even if you don’t know what it is or where it comes from. It has become synonymous with canned meat ever since it hit grocery store shelves during World War II. But what does “spiced salt pork” really mean? And what sets Spam apart from other products that are made from chopped meats that are cooked and pressed together (we’re thinking about scrapple)?
The name Spam may come from an advertisement for a company called Swift & Co., which sold frozen food items like Spam at the turn of the 20th century. The ad said that Spam could be used as a substitute for expensive fresh fish because it had similar taste and texture. Or maybe it came from another ad that claimed Spam could be substituted for any type of meat.
Either way, the first commercial production of Spam occurred in 1937 when Chester W. Swasey started making his product out of pig parts left over after slaughtering. He reportedly got the idea to use these cuts while he was sitting on a bench outside the slaughterhouse waiting for lunch. Before long, Swasey began selling his product to army personnel stationed overseas who were serving their country but didn’t have access to fresh seafood. Today, Spam can be found in many countries around the world, including Germany, Greece, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam and Taiwan. In fact, some people think that the U.S.’s love affair with this particular snack food started when American soldiers brought back Spam after returning home from service.
Swasey’s original recipe consisted of 75 percent lean pork shoulder and 25 percent fatback. Later versions switched up the ratio somewhat, but the main ingredients stayed the same until 1957, when the company introduced its first version of Hormel Classic Spam. This new version included 15 percent pork belly, 5 percent pork loin and 80 percent pork shoulder.
In addition to being tasty and filling, the main reason why Americans fell in love with Spam is that they thought it was cheap. When the war ended, the price of Spam dropped dramatically, so much so that it became affordable for average consumers. By 1959, Spam cost $0.60 per pound compared to $1.50 per pound just two years earlier. That’s when Spam officially entered the pantheon of iconic foods that we all want to eat, and we’ve been eating them ever since.
But how did this salty little sausage get its start? Read more to find out.
Pork Loins and Ham Hocks
Pork Shoulders and Belly
Salting and Smoking Meat
Pork Loins and Ham Hocks
If you’ve ever eaten a piece of bacon, then you already know the basics of how meat gets into cans. First, pigs are killed. Then, the carcass is divided into various sections, such as legs, arms, head and torso. From there, each section is taken off to separate local butcher shops, where trained workers remove every bit of usable meat from the bones. After that, the bones themselves are sent to factories where employees chop them down so they fit inside large machines. These machines grind everything up into small pieces, which are mixed with water, spices and seasonings. Finally, the mixture goes through rollers that squeeze it flat before it reaches the canning machine.
This process works pretty well for hogs that are raised for their meat, but it doesn’t work too well for animals whose muscles aren’t attached directly to bone. For example, humans need legs, so our legs are usually preserved separately from the rest of the body. The part of the animal known as the leg consists of several different muscles, but only one of these muscles is actually connected to the femur, the thighbone that runs right underneath the knee joint. Because of this, the muscle fibers in the hind leg tend to shrink more than those in the front leg, resulting in less flavorful meat overall. To avoid losing flavor, manufacturers sometimes take extra measures to preserve the hind leg.
For instance, the leg might go straight to a smoke house instead of a factory so that the flesh can hang out longer. If the leg isn’t smoked, however, it might end up going to a curing facility. There, workers apply dry seasoning and cure solution, such as salt and nitrites, to make sure the meat stays safe. Some companies add garlic or pepper to give the meat a smoky taste, or they’ll inject it with liquid smoke to replicate barbecue flavors. A lot of people also prefer uncured ham, which is cured with nothing but salt and sugar.
So now you understand how a leg ends up in a can, but what happens to the neck and shank portions of the pig? Headcheese is the answer. Headcheese is basically headmeat that’s been separated from the skull. The skull is removed, and the remaining meat is ground up and seasoned. Sometimes, the headcheese itself is packed in jars and sold as a delicacy. Other times, it’s blended with other types of meat and served as a spread on bread.
Read on to learn how the shoulders and bellies of a pig contribute to Spam.
Although the word Spam may sound like something you’d buy at a fast food restaurant, it wasn’t always a common sight in restaurants. During World War II, Spam became hugely popular among servicemen stationed abroad, especially those stationed in Pacific islands. Since they couldn’t import fresh seafood, the servicemen ate Spam instead. Soon enough, the demand grew so much that Spam joined the ranks of other canned goods that were commonly available in the United States. As time went on, Spam became a staple in military rations and eventually reached civilians’ kitchens.
Pork Shoulders and Belly
Now let’s talk about the major players in the game: pork shoulder and pork belly. Both of these parts of the pig contain collagen, which means they should never be heated above 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius). Collagen turns into gelatin when it heats up, and gelatin holds liquids together. Therefore, heating a piece of collagen will cause the protein chains within it to break, leading to a loss of quality.
When meat is processed, however, it will inevitably lose moisture, so that’s why pork shoulder and belly must stay cold during transportation and storage. Pork shoulder is generally sliced thin and fried whole, whereas pork belly is often diced and grilled or sautéed. Like ham, pork shoulder tastes best when paired with certain herbs and spices, such as sage, rosemary and thyme. Unlike ham, though, pork shoulder tends to be slightly sweeter than pork belly.
One thing to note about pork: Even though it contains plenty of calories, pork shouldn’t be classified as a “high-fat” food by the government. According to the USDA, “High-fat” refers to the amount of saturated fats found in red meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. However, the National Academy of Sciences says that pork belly and pork shoulder do not qualify as high-fat foods because of the low amounts of saturated fat in both products.
Next, read about what makes Spam so unique.
A few decades ago, scientists discovered that injecting pork with botulism bacteria kept the meat fresher longer. Botulinum toxin causes paralysis, so injecting it into a live animal keeps it alive but unable to move. By doing this, the meat continues to age slowly without spoiling. Scientists call this method fermentation brining; the term originally referred to pickling in vinegar. Thanks to fermentation brining, you can purchase refrigerated pork chops that last twice as long as conventionally aged pork.
Salting and Smoking Meat
As mentioned earlier, smoking meat helps preserve it. To smoke meat, cooks put it in special devices filled with wood chips or sawdust and place it under heat lamps. They control the temperature inside the smoker by adjusting air flow and fuel supply. Smokers typically run 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Once the meat has finished cooking, it can be stored indefinitely without fear of spoilage.
During the 19th century, salted meat was a regular part of American diets. Yet again, the lack of refrigeration prevented people from preserving meat for long periods of time. Around 1850, Eddy Deen invented a method of using saltwater injection to keep fresh meat from spoiling. Using this technique, he was able to preserve meat for weeks at a time. Although the technology behind this method was far from perfect, it sparked interest in preserving meat once again. Eventually, the science behind preserving meat caught up to Eddy Deen’s vision. Today, most people are familiar with the concept of freezing and vacuum sealing meat, but preserving meat still takes skill and experience to pull off successfully.
Smoked meat tastes great on sandwiches and salads, but it’s also useful for creating sauces and gravies. Salty, sweet and spicy sauces pair particularly well with smoked meat. One of the easiest ways to prepare your own sauce is to simply mix equal parts of ketchup and mustard with a little cayenne and black pepper.
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