What makes a ham a country ham? We will start with a little ham history. Curing meat is a very old tradition that was done for years out of necessity. Before people had refrigerators, meat would spoil quickly if it wasn’t preserved in some way. After animals, especially hogs, were slaughtered much of their meat was cured with salt, sugar, and spices. Doing this kept the meat from spoiling for much longer amounts of time—sometimes a year or more!
Hog slaughtering was done in the late fall so the temperature would be cool enough to keep the meat fresh until it could be cured but not so cold that the meat would freeze. This was the perfect time of year to save a little fresh meat for the holidays, too.
Every part of the butchered hog was used for something. Some parts that couldn’t be easily cured with salt were eaten immediately. But many of the big cuts of meat, such as the shoulder, ham, and side were cured with salt right away so they would keep without being refrigerated. It is this curing process that makes what we know as a country ham.
The hams that are sold in the refrigerator case at the grocery store would be considered “city” hams. They are cured by a much faster process. The cure is dissolved in water and injected into the meat. It gives flavor, but it does not remove enough moisture from the meat to allow it to be stored without refrigeration.
The process of curing a country ham removes a large percentage of the moisture from the meat so that bacteria no longer grows, allowing the ham to be stored for up to a year without refrigeration as long as the temperature is a steady, moderate level. Hams will weigh between 15 and 25 pounds at the start of the curing process and only 12-18 pounds at the end.
The ingredients used to cure a country ham may vary from producer to producer, but they have three basic components: salt, sugar, and nitrate or nitrite. Salt is the most important ingredient. In fact, you could cure a country ham with just salt alone. A finished country ham should contain about 4% salt to be shelf stable. Any higher would make the hams taste too salty. When a ham is cured, salt must come in contact with the entire surface of the ham. Sugar is optional in curing hams. Many producers include it in their cure mix because it adds flavor to the ham, can offset the harsh taste of the salt, and keeps the ham soft during the curing process. Either brown or white sugar can be used, depending on the flavor desired in the finished country ham. Nitrate or Nitrite is an optional ingredient. These ingredients can add flavor to the ham, fix the color of the ham, and lengthen the shelf life of the ham. Nitrate and nitrite are used only in very small amounts, only 1 to 2 ounces for every 100 pounds of ham that is cured. Other spices can be added for unique flavors and coloration to country ham. The most common spices used are red and black pepper.
The cooking process for a country ham begins with 1-2 days of soaking in water to remove some of the salt. The hock is then removed and saved for cooking with white beans later on. The skin is also removed, leaving a nice layer of fat for flavor. The ham is then placed in a large roasting pan and liquid is added to come up about half-way on the ham. Choices can range from fruit juices to Dr. Pepper to bourbon to sweet pickle juice. Tent the ham with heavy-duty foil and seal tightly so that the ham can steam.
Put the ham on the bottom rack of an oven that has been preheated to 400 ̊F for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 ̊F. Bake until an internal temperature of 140 ̊F has been reached. This is usually about 20 minutes per pound. After baking, let the ham rest for 30 minutes and slice paper-thin. Country ham is best served with biscuits or soft yeast rolls. Remember the ham will still be salty so thin slicing is best.
The recipes to follow all include ham. Enjoy!
For more information contact Cecelia Hostilo at the Trigg County Extension Office by calling 522-3269.
Information for the article was obtained from publications by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, the Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, the University of Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, and the Iowa State University Cooperative Extension Service.
Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, or national origin.
Ham and Cheese Calzone
1 (14-ounce) package refrigerated pizza dough
8 ounces cubed cooked ham
1⁄4 cup coarse-grain mustard
4 slices provolone cheese
Heat oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with foil. Spray with cooking spray. Cut pizza dough into 4 rectangles. Place on baking sheet. Spread lightly with mustard. Add cheese and ham to one triangular side of rectangle. Fold other half over, pinching to seal. Bake 15 minutes or until brown.
Yield: 4 servings
Nutrition Facts Per Serving: 495 calories; 17 g total fat; 61 mg cholesterol; 1820 mg sodium; 47 g carbohydrate; 29 g protein
Ham and Brown Rice
1 (14-ounce) can low-sodium chicken broth
2 1⁄2 cups cooked chopped ham
1⁄2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 1⁄2 cups instant brown rice
1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups frozen green peas
Optional: 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan Cheese
In a skillet, combine broth, ham, and garlic. Bring to a boil. Stir in rice and black pepper. Reduce heat to a simmer; cover and cook for 10 minutes. Uncover; cook for 4 more minutes until rice is tender and beans are hot. If desired, sprinkle Parmesan cheese on top and serve immediately.
Yield: 6 (1 1⁄2 cups) servings
Nutrition Facts Per Serving: 310 calories; 5 g total fat; 35 mg cholesterol; 1160 mg sodium; 43 g total carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 22 g protein
Ham and Lima Beans
2 tbsp. margarine
2 tbsp. onion, minced
1 1/3 cups quick cooking rice
1 1/2 cups hot water
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup cooked ham, cubed
1 cup cooked lima beans
Salt and pepper, to taste
Melt margarine in skillet and cook onions until tender. Add rice to onions and cook until rice is golden brown. Add hot water, chicken soup, ham, and lima beans. Bring to boil, simmer uncovered 5 minutes.
Yield: 6 servings
Nutrition Facts Per Serving: 290 calories; 6 g total fat; 950 mg sodium; 44g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber