Country Ham

Country ham, dry-cured in salt, is the most internationally famous southern food. No wonder: the recipes for curing have not changed in 350 years. Harriott Pinckney Horry wrote down curing receipts from Virginia in her late-18th-century journal. Now, in the late 20th century, curers in Smith-field, Virginia, ship more than 10 million hams each year!

Real ham lovers like me prefer “old hams,” aged a year or more. Like so many fine wines and cheeses, they develop character over time. Many ham producers today “cure” hams in 90 days, injecting them with brine rather than rubbing them with salt. Some “country hams” aren’t even smoked. When customers other than certified southerners call the toll-free number for one of the big producers I know in Virginia, they are discouraged from buying the old-fashioned cured hams because “they are too salty.” John Egerton’s essay on country ham in his Southern Food (1987) is definitive but melancholy: “the real hams may die out . . . simply because fewer and fewer people will be willing to spend the time it takes to cure, smoke, and age them.”

I know two butchers in South Carolina who made old-cure hams, in very limited production. I pay a premium for the old-fashioned hams and cook them in copper boilers made especially for that purpose. The buyer needs to know what he’s getting into: cooking a country ham is tough and greasy work. It also comes as a shock to many first-timers to see mold growing on the hams. And no matter how long they are soaked or how much they are glazed, they will always be salty; that is why the slices are invariably served with grits or tucked into yeast biscuits.

Thornton’s Southern Gardener and Receipt Book, written in Camden, South Carolina, in 1839, included the following curing instructions, which are typical.

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To prepare a country ham for the table, you must first soak it at least overnight in cold water. I soak the old hams that I cook for about 2 days, changing the water every 8 to 12 hours. It helps to have a ham boiler, which will fit over 2 burners on a standard kitchen stove. When you’re ready to cook, scrub the ham well in warm water, removing all the black pepper and mold. If you do not have a pot big enough to cook the entire ham, you can saw off the hock so that it will fit into a smaller pot; however, you will still need a pot that is deep enough for the ham to be covered in water. Bring the water to a simmer and let the ham cook at barely a simmer, never a boil, for about 15 to 20 minutes per pound or until the meat becomes tender. (Most country hams weigh between 12 and 18 pounds; you will need 4 to 6 hours of cooking time.) Remove the pot from the stove (quite a job in itself; you will probably need two sets of arms) and allow the ham to cool enough to handle, about an hour.

Remove the ham from the water and trim off the skin and all but ½ inch of fat. The ham may be sliced and served at this point. It may also be glazed with brown sugar or molasses or saved until another day and reheated in a 350° oven, with or without a glaze. I never glaze a ham, but I always serve it with a chutney such as the Golden Pear Chutney.

To carve the ham, place it on a cutting board with the meaty side up. Cut a V out of the ham perpendicular to the bone, near the hock. Use a sharp, thin knife and cut the slices at a 45-degree angle, as thinly as possible.

You may refrigerate cooked country ham for much longer than other, uncured meats. Wrapped in aluminum foil, cooked country ham will last several weeks in the refrigerator. Wrapped in plastic, the ham spoils quickly because moisture is trapped. I freeze cooked ham, but only to use in composed dishes, such as the ham paste.

A country ham will feed a lot of people. Even as the main meat at a meal, a 15-pound ham should feed 40; the same ham can fill 200 of the biscuits.