I noticed small white 'bloomed' spots in a piece of Iglesias serrano while slicing some a couple of days ago. The texture was harder than the meat surrounding it. Honestly, we had no idea what it was but I ate a piece just to make sure no one else would die, puke, or end up with a worm growing within their muscle tissue. That's just the sort of dedication us chefs have for our guests (as long as it doesn't become dead-ication).
Well honestly, I was pretty sure it was safe, but just to make sure I sent the above picture (crystal is shown directly in the center) to Jorge Ruiz Carrascal from La Margarita Seagita in Spain. He is an expert of all things that are both flesh and cured. He assured me that this was actually a sign of quality... or basically proof of good long term curing process of the pork.
His explanation was...
They are tyrosine crystals. Tyrosine is an amino acid presents in meat
proteins (proteins are formed by amino acids). After the whole ripening
process there is a considerable amount of free tyrosine due to the action
of muscle proteases (muscle proteolytic enzymes which remain active during
the ripening; they break down proteins releasing amino acids and
peptides). At the same time, there is a dehydration process, which means
that there is a high amount of tyrosine in a not too high amount of water
(at least, not as high amount of water is in raw meat). Tyrosine is not
very soluble in water, which means that when the amount of tyrosine in the
ham reaches a certain level, tyrosine precipitates forming tyrosine
crystals. In fact, in Iberian dry cured ham the presence of these crystals
is a signal of a long processing and it is not considered a drawback at
all. And of course, there is no danger in eating as much as you want.
Well, maybe a little danger of a heart attack if I really ate as much serrano as I would like to. A little web hopping revealed that these are the same crystals found in hard aged cheeses like asiago and parmesan (good guess, Chef K). It's great for chefs to know this stuff so that we can sound like geniuses when a guest or waiter asks us about such things.
Thank you, Jorge, for your expertise.
Now we know... and knowing is half the battle. GI Joe!