Archive for the ‘Country cured ham’ Category

For the last several years we have been making country cured hams. Part of our interest derived from the Rooster’s family having been hog farmers in middle Tennessee in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Stories from Grandma Rooster have long been part of the family lore. Stories about the festivities and hard work around Hog Killin’ Day and the start of curing and smoking hams. Remnants of the Tennessee farm are still owned by the family today. The notion of curing hams in recent years was catalyzed by an article entitled “The Wonders of Ham” in the December 2009 issue of Saveur magazine. For a few years we followed the instructions offered by the Missouri Extension Service, with the results described in an earlier post for Nobska country cured hams.

In a progression of experimental interests, the idea of making prosciutto crudo developed. There are, no doubt, as many different ways of making prosciutto as there are people who make it. To get started we discovered some helpful sources on YouTube. One was a series by Melody Kettle in her Hot from the Kettle video series featuring Lou Palma and his method for curing prosciutto. It is a four part series starting with a drive down Highway 3 to visit Nicolosi Fine Foods in Union City, NJ where they picked up Berkshire hams as the first step on the process. Lou does his curing in his garage in Montclair, NJ, and the series shows each step. In order, the videos are:

1) Visit to Nicolosi Fine Foods
2) Initial curing of the hams and pressing
3) Resalting and hanging
4) Applying sugna and aging

Lou cures his hams in plastic bags, which, with the salt, forms a brine. Strictly speaking, these are not dry-cured hams, but the result is still a prosciutto that looks and is (apparently) delicious. Another of Lou’s techniques is to press the hams in a mechanical press during the cure to help flatten them. Others stack their hams three or four high to provide the pressure for flattening (rotating the top to bottom ham when resalting). Some folks simply allow the ham to lay flat and cure under its own weight. (This is in contrast to the country cured hams, which are hung shank down so that the meat forms a round, bowling-ball shape over time. Makes for a large baking ham to carve at the table!)

There are, of course, large scale producers of prosciutto, which will be the subject of another post. For the moment, we will focus on the small scale work at Nobska Farms.

On the farm, we followed a process similar to our prior curing of country hams, but this time, allowed the hams to lay flat rather than hang. We did not press or stack the hams; they did flatten considerably under their own weight in contrast to their plump country cured cousins. Three weeks for the first salting; three weeks for the second salting (with periodic checks to make sure they were covered at all times); after that, the hams were hung to air dry for a couple of weeks after removing all surface salt. Couldn’t resist combining a little country cured cool smoking with the Italian prosciutto, so for three days the hams were put into the smoker with apple wood in the fire. Smoke temperature was controlled to about 75°, which provides good flavoring without doing any cooking. (Got to do this on cool/cold days; hard to get such cool smoke otherwise.)

After smoking, sugna was applied and we are now just patiently waiting, oh, 20+ months, for the final product. Worth the wait, but have to keep more in the pipeline.

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Having started our experience with dry cured hams using the Missouri Extension publication with some success, the Rooster wanted additional information on the subject from other sources. A visit to and the local library turned up several books with a range of new insight and appreciation for the curing of hams.

The right-brain offering is provided by Weinstein’s and Scarbrough’s, An Obsession with Ham, The Hindquarter while the left-brain is nourished by Kowalski’s The Art of Charcuterie. In between are Ruhlman’s and Poleyn’s Charcuterie and an oldie but goodie from Grigson, also called The Art of Charcuterie. Of the four books, only W&S are focused on hams. The other three cover a broader range of charcuterie arts including sausage, pâté, forcemeat, and other delights. It certainly makes one think about expanding beyond dry cured hams, but focus prevents excursions across that boundary. It is enough since, even within the limitations of dry cured hams, the options for exploration and adventure are wide and varied.

If there are heart-felt emotions in discussing hams, W&S tell the story from that perspective covering the full range from elation to despair. In order to gain an understanding of what ham is all about, they raise their on hog, Wilber, who comes to an end at the slaughter house. Wilber’s corpulent self is honored in all respects, but the finished result is sometimes that of soaring excellence and, at least once, that of abject ruin. So it goes with life. Honor in all ways. Take risks. Learn from failure. Humbly accept and acknowledge success. W&S tell the story of their journey learning about ham and its many manifestations in both the Old and New World. It is a wonderful read. Techniques and recipes are interspersed with the stories behind the stories.

As W&S are to the heart of the matter, Kowalski is to the head. Well written, direct, expository prose that provides clear, step-by-step instructions. Introduction material gives context for each section as well as tips and tricks of the trade. The section on dry curing is relatively short with a number of recipes for products including bacon (several varieties), pancetta, and prosciutto. The introduction to that chapter covers in clear language the fundamentals of dry curing with a description of the types of curing materials used, their proportions, and their application. The photographs in the book are instructive as well as artful … draws you in and makes you want to do more than read about things … makes you want to do them with your own hands. Good all around reference and book for inspiration.

The other two books lie somewhere between W&S and Kowalski, at least in some respects. Both cover the broad range of charcuterie arts and both have discussions about dry cured hams. Ruhlman and Polcyn present a modern book with a casual presentation that, nonetheless, feels authoritative. There is a section on general dry curing principles as well as a couple of methods for making dry cured hams; one prosciutto style and one country ham style. Nice discussion of hams in the context of nose to tail charcuterie methods.

Grigson’s book was published in 1968 and has a vintage feel to it. This is, in part, due to the age of publication, but it is also due to the historical information offered. Like Grigson, The Rooster’s grandmother told stories about hog-killin’ days back in the late 1800’s on their middle Tennessee farm; Grigson reflects on this tradition. These days were, by necessity, in the late fall and evolved to be more than just the labor required to prepare hogs for slaughter and preservation. The scale of the undertaking required people, people doing hard labor, labor well done. Team accomplishments engender team festivity, and hog-killing days were all of the above. Hard, unpleasant work that was combined with festive celebrations of the harvest, families gathered with friends and neighbors, and food and drink for all to share. Grandma Rooster relates that the kids often went off and found some good mischief in which to engage while the adults tended to the labor at hand required for hog-killin’, butchering, salting, and packing. In some measure, this is the spirit that Grigson imparts in the narrative. There is an entire chapter on Salt Port and Hams that starts with reflections on the early enthusiasm of the Romans for the dry cured hams of Gaul – two thousand years ago!

The basic methods for dry curing live on in today’s American country cured hams, Italian prosciutto, Spanish jamón, and Chinese Jinhua ham. Seems likely that these delicacies will be enjoyed for another two thousand years. The four books described here offer ample material for learning from the past, integrating and inventing in the present, and creating new methods for enjoyment in the future. Make memories every day, they are foundation of the future.

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Okay, so you have a country cured ham.  Unless you’ve been raised with this delicacy prepared at home, you might be wondering, Now what?

The process for preparing the ham, in its various forms, is involved and, frankly, time consuming.  With such an investment in time, you might hope that the results are mouth watering and that folks will be singing praises.  You will not be disappointed.  That being said, be sure there are a lot of folks around so that the praises will come in a chorus, not a solo or duet.  These hams will feed the masses, and do so for days.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, Easter, 4th of July, and other large gatherings are good occasions.

If you don’t have a gathering planned for a while, no problem.  The hams will keep, unrefrigerated, for extended periods of time.  The Rooster saw a ham this summer in Columbia, TN; it had been hanging for 70 years.  Can’t say for sure that it was still good, but it certainly didn’t look bad.  You don’t have to go to this extreme.  A few months, or even a year or more is fine to store the ham until you are ready for the feast.  Hang the ham in a cool(ish) place so that it gets good air circulation.  Keep it out of direct sunlight.  Pass by now and then to give the ham a squeeze.  Inhale the fragrance; let it take you back to feasts of yesterday or project you forward to the feast to come.  When you are ready … begin …

Remove the ham from its bag and give it good going over. Scrub the ham with a stiff bristle brush and a little vinegar to remove any mold and salt that may have been missed when the ham started its aging process. You will need to find a butcher to cut the ham into the various parts

Fresh cut salt country cured ham

Ham back from the butcher, ready to start cooking

required. Unless you have a bandsaw available (with a clean blade) don’t try this at home. One time, the Rooster figured it can’t be so hard … he did the butchering job with a hacksaw, yes, the blade was new … and no, the job didn’t come out so well. But, I digress. Take the ham to a butcher; have the hock removed, the center section cut into 1/4″ slices (about two inches worth), and the remainder left in one piece for baking.

Freeze the hock for later unless you plan to use it right away. Split pea soup is greatly improved with the hock. Will come back to this at a later time.

Put the slices in the refrigerator. Since you are having a crowd, you’ll want to fry these for breakfast on one or more mornings. Serve with eggs, biscuits, grits, and red eye gravy.

Now for the baking ham. Weigh the baking portion or have your butcher do it for you. The country ham is dry cured with salt. The first step in preparing the ham is to reduce the saltiness. Lot’s of different ways have been tried such as

  • soak for three days, changing the water every 12 hours, last soak is in beer; discard water and (gasp) the beer,
  • soak over night
    (the Rooster did this in the bathtub one time because there was no pot big enough for the ham … and yes, like the hacksaw incident, the tub was clean), or
  • simmer (not boil) for 20-25 minutes per pound.

At Nobska Farms, these days we prefer the last method. It is relatively fast and quite effective in reducing the salt content of the ham.

After the allotted soaking/simmering time is complete, place the ham on a cutting board and remove the skin and some of the fat. (If you have

Ham ready for oven after simmering, studded with cloves

Ham ready for oven after simmering, studded with cloves

chosen the simmering method, the ham will be HOT!! Wait a little while until it is cool enough to handle.) Do not remove the fat down to the meat. The remaining fat will help keep the meat moist during the baking phase. (If desired, this is a good breaking point, and the ham can be refrigerated overnight and baked the next day.)

When you are ready for the final step, place the ham fat side up in a Pyrex® baking dish or roasting pan. The Rooster’s mother (Mama Rooster) would pour Coca-Cola® soft drink into the pan. This year, the Rooster made a pseudo-Coke® mixture with a little molasses, brown sugar and water. The fluid helps to moisturize the ham during the baking. Score the fat with crossing diamond cuts and stud with whole cloves. Put the ham in a 275° F oven uncovered and bake until the internal temperature of the meat is 155° F (about 20 minutes per pound).

For the final step, make a mixture of bread crumbs (gluten-free if you like) and brown sugar. Use a little of the liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan to moisten the mixture into a paste. Pat the mixture on top of the ham and baste with the liquid from the bottom of the pan.

Country cured ham ready to eat with tur-duc-hen in background

Country cured ham ready to eat (with tur-duc-hen in background)

Place the ham back into the oven at 425° F until the glaze is nicely browned, might be 20 minutes, or so.  Baste the ham a few times during the glazing process.

The ham is done.

Remove from the pan and place on a cutting board. Let the ham cool a little while as you set out the rest of the feast. When you are ready, carve the ham in thin slices. This can be done en masse (buffet-style) or one slice at at time to order (standing-at-the-head-of-the-table-style).

You will have left overs that will disappear little by little over the next few days. Folks passing through the kitchen cannot resist a nibble of ham as they walk by.  The ham is also great for soups, e.g., split pea, as already mentioned, or Hoppin’ John soup.

More ways to use the ham will be posted later. Enjoy.

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In New England, a country cured ham is a novelty.  For years we would get hams from S & H Honey Farms in Columbia, TN whenever we were down that way.  Have been hearing about hams for years.  The Rooster’s family was in the hog/ham business in Columbia in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Story goes that Rooster’s great grandfather died of pneumonia after delivering hams by wagon in the cold rain to hotels in Nashville.

Virginia country cured ham salt

20-month country salt cured ham

At Nobska Farms we started curing hams a couple of years ago.  Used the method described by the University of Missouri Extension service.  The results are delicious.  The hams provide three basic cuts for three different purposes.  The hock is used for soups (split pea is a good one!), the middle section provides frying ham for breakfast (and red eye gravy, to boot), and the major portion is for baking (and makes lots of left overs for snacking later).

Flavor of the ham brings back wonderful memories of the South … just part of what we are thankful for on Thanksgiving Day.

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