Curing ham with salt is a food preservation skill that came to North America with the arrival of the first European pioneers. Born from the need to cure and preserve meat without refrigeration, dry salt curing was an old-world method already familiar to these pioneers.
These early Americans soon realized the seasonal temperature changes of their new homeland were perfectly suited for curing fine tasting hams. In fact, the hams were so sought after they were used as one of the main trade goods with the old country.
🍖 Currying ham in modern times
Fast forward a few hundred years, and salt-cured, or “country” hams are still popular today, not so much for their ease of storage, but more for their outstanding flavor profile. Hams are prized in country kitchens and high-end gourmet restaurants alike. Salt-cured ham has an outstanding flavor and complex flavor profile.
Curing your own ham at home isn’t complicated. It’s as easy as finding out how long to cook a ham in the oven. Begin by choosing a fresh ham; the fresher, the better. We have been curing hams for more than a decade, and we’ve learned from more experienced friends to pick quality meat. We like to get hams no later than three days after the hog has been butchered.
Fresh hams just seem to cure better, and there is less chance that harmful bacteria have started to grow on a fresh ham.
Butcher shops that slaughter hogs on site are your best bet for a fresh, high-quality ham. Choose a well-muscled ham with firm, pink lean meat, and a small amount of white fat. We prefer our hams start out between 20 and 25 pounds.
This size allows the cure to penetrate evenly throughout the ham. If too small, the finished ham can come out too salty while much larger, and the cure might not penetrate deeply enough to preserve the ham fully.
The modern pork industry has pretty well taken care of the lean part of picking a good ham, there isn’t as much fat as we used to see on a pig.
🥩 When and how to do it
Hams are traditionally cured in the months of December and January when the air temperature and humidity levels are low enough and consistent enough to safely store the ham for the thirty to forty days necessary for the cure to fully penetrate the meat.
Rather than feeding them precious commodities through the winter, in colonial times, these were also popular times for killing hogs raised over the spring and summer months. If temperature-controlled storage is available, hams can be successfully cured throughout the year.
The cure mixture for a country ham starts with non-iodized salt. Many ham producers like to add sugar to the salt, either brown or white, with red or black pepper. For every 100 pounds of fresh ham, we use eight pounds of salt, two and a half pounds of sugar, and one pound of black pepper.
Instacure #1, a mixture of salt and sodium nitrite, is occasionally added as a preservative to guard against spoilage. For a single, 25-pound ham, simply divide the cure amounts by one quarter. If curing hams in a box, divide the cure amount into either two or three equal portions for the different cure applications. Salt cured country hams must contain at least four percent by weight of salt when they are finished curing.
There are two methods of curing ham, and while the cure amount and make up are the same for both methods, getting that cure into the ham is very different. Both methods take approximately the same amount of time.
The Bag Method
Often used when only a single, or just a few, hams are produced at a time, bag curing begins with rubbing and packing cure by hand on to all areas of the fresh ham. Massage extra cure into the exposed muscle end of the ham, as this area will absorb the cure faster than the skin.
Care should be taken to really pack cure into the hock end of the ham in order to prevent souring as the ham ages.
Once the ham has been completely coated with the salt mixture, wrap it in brown paper. Un-coated brown butcher or craft paper or even brown grocery bags will work. Do not use paper with any type of wax or plastic coating, as these will prevent moisture from escaping as the ham cures.
The paper-wrapped ham is then placed into a ham sock and hung, hock down, in an area with adequate air movement. As the ham ages, the moisture will escape through the paper, and salt will penetrate the meat. After a period ranging from 35 to 50 days, the ham will be cured.
Remove it from the sock, brush any remaining salt from the surface and place the ham into a new sock. At this point, the ham is ready to either smoke or age without smoking. Hams should be aged, hanging, for at least six months so that the salt has time to distribute throughout the meat evenly.
The Box Method
Used most often when large numbers of hams are cured at once, the box method is exactly as the name describes. Hams are rubbed with salt mixture and then stacked in a well-drained box to absorb the cure.
As with the bag method, begin by rubbing the fresh ham well with cure, packing it into both the hock and exposed muscle ends, and coat the entire ham well. I remember reading that many of the old-time ham cures called for the hams to be packed in salt cure, so a thick layer of salt separates the hams.
Modern ham producers generally just coat the outer surface of the ham and stack them tightly in the box.
Unlike the bag method, the cure is rubbed into the ham in multiple applications, usually two to three, each five to seven days apart. Hams are then stacked flat into the box with any extra cure mix poured between the layers of ham.
Make sure the curing box has plenty of drainage, as a great deal of moisture will escape during the process and must be able to move away from the hams in order to prevent spoilage.
Hams should be left in the curing box for one and a half to two days per pound of fresh ham. A twenty-five-pound ham should cure from 38 to 50 days. Remember that the longer the cure time, the saltier the finished product will be.
At the end of the curing process, the hams should be removed from the box. With a stiff brush, remove all salt from exterior of the ham and then wash the ham well under fresh running water. Dry the ham well and place into a ham sock to either smoke or age.
Country style hams can be eaten smoked or un-smoked. In Kentucky, most hams produced west of Interstate 65 are smoked, while those from east of the interstate are un-smoked.
Missouri and Northern Virginia hams are un-smoked for the most part, while Tennessee and Southern Virginia ham producers smoke their product.
Hams should be smoked at less than 100 degrees for three to seven days over hickory, fruitwood, or a mixture of the two. The cool temperatures allow the smoke flavoring to penetrate the meat without destroying any of the beneficial bacteria protecting the ham from spoilage.
Related reading: Smoking Meat For Long-term Storage – Smoking Secrets For 2020
Smoked or not, cured country hams need to be aged. Aging takes place as the ham hangs, shank down, in an area with good air circulation.
Temperatures can safely fluctuate wildly during the aging process, often reaching as high as 95-degrees during the summer months. Hams should be aged for a minimum of six months and for as long as one year. Hams aged in the Prosciutto style of old Europe are often aged two years or more.
As the hams age, they lose moisture, concentrating, and enhancing the flavors. Once aged in this manner, the hams do not require refrigeration.
👨🍳 Cooking a Country Ham
Country hams are traditionally served either roasted whole or sliced and fried. For roasting, begin by washing and scrubbing ham with a stiff bristle brush.
Place the ham into a large kettle and cover with cold water. Let it soak for a minimum of eight hours. Ten to 12 hours is better, and soaks as long as 24 hours aren’t totally uncommon. Change the soaking water every four to six hours.
Pour off the soaking water and recover ham with fresh, cold water. Cover roaster or kettle and bring to a simmer on the stove top. Simmer the ham for 20 minutes per pound. Lift cooked ham from kettle and remove the skin. Place the ham into a roasting dish and sprinkle the exterior with brown sugar.
Roast ham in a 35-degree oven until the sugar has melted and formed a glaze over the exterior of the ham. Pineapple is a popular addition to roasted hams, as is a pour of Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper over the top before baking.
For slicing, crosscut the ham into quarter-inch slices. Add a drizzle of vegetable oil to a skillet and fry ham slices gently on medium heat, turning often. Be careful not to burn the ham, the finished slices should be soft and meaty. Serve as a main course or between the layers of a warm biscuit.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy the distinctive flavor of a cured ham is to simply shave off a paper-thin sliver with an extremely sharp knife. Serve as you would Prosciutto on a cheese or cracker plate.
Once your ham has been cooked, refrigerate any leftovers for up to four weeks. Don’t be afraid to use cured ham as an ingredient or seasoning in other dishes. The salty tang of the ham melds well with other flavors. Save the hock from your ham to use as seasoning meat in a pot of beans or soup.
A salt-cured country ham is the true flavor of our ancestors, its flavors mirroring that of the hams our forefathers made when they first arrived on this continent. Those flavors are even more outstanding when you have cured the ham yourself.
Curing ham at home is not complicated, and it’s a pleasant way to make sure you have tasty ham in your pantry thought the entire year. All you need is fresh hams, a proper cure, and the patience to cure the hams. It’s a great meat preservation methods, and it will keep you fed for a long time.
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