“If you have a ham in the house, you can face any situation.”
So observed Edna Lewis, grand dame of Southern cooking (and spiritual founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance).
She wasn’t talking about precious worldly cured hams like Italian prosciutto, Spanish jamón iberíco, or French jambon de Bayonne. No, Ms. Lewis was referring to good old American ham—pink, salty, meaty, moist, and above all, smoky. The kind of ham you’d be proud to put on your table.
In America, the cured ham family tree splits into two branches—“city” hams and “country” hams.
City hams start with a wet cure—meaning they’ve been cured with a saline solution (brine) in one of three ways: submerged in brine in large containers; tumbled in brine in a machine that resembles a cement mixer; or injected with brine, which for producers, is the most efficient delivery system. The rosy color comes from curing agents like sodium nitrate, without which, the hams would look and taste like pork roast. They’re precooked and typically have a light smoky flavor from exposure to real wood smoke (a flavor you can intensify on your own grill or smoker; more on this below) or the addition of liquid smoke to the brine.
Country hams—popular in the South—are dry-cured with salt, sugar, and other seasonings for several months, then smoked and aged from 3 months to 2 years. They are sold raw, and must be scrubbed and soaked in several changes of fresh water before cooking. Country hams are very salty (even after soaking) and are noticeably drier than city hams. They are especially well suited to being thinly sliced and served with honey mustard on baking powder biscuits.
So, what should you look for when buying a ham, which by definition, is the hind leg of a pig? (Don’t be distracted by picnic or cottage hams—they’re actually pork shoulder cuts.)
Ham with natural juices: Widely available, these hams may retain a little of the liquid brine which adds to their juiciness. They are required to have at least 18.5 percent protein. A good choice for the grill or smoker.
Ham, water added: At least 17 percent protein is mandated, but of course, you’ll pay for the extra water weight.
Ham and water product: the USDA allows hams in this category to contain less than 17 percent protein (much less) as long as the percentage of added ingredients is stated on the label. This grade is often represented by spongy tinned hams containing compressed scraps of cured pork, fat, and gelatin. In short, not for this barbecue community.
Once you’ve acquired your ham, the rest is pretty simple. You could serve it as is providing it’s a precooked city-style ham. But why would you want to when you could reheat it (to 135, please—no higher) on your grill or smoker, not only activating the ham’s own juices, but deepening its flavor with natural wood smoke?
There’s not a ham out there that wouldn’t be improved by being blasted with pecan, hickory, apple, or maple wood smoke. You could even gild the lily (as it were) by painting a glaze on during the last hour of cooking. Something sweet, like maple syrup or brown sugar (to balance the saltiness) tempered with a generous splash of Kentucky bourbon.