Steven Raichlen's Barbecue! Bible

Wham, Bam, Thank You, Ham

“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.)

  • Shop for a city-style ham that has been minimally processed, exhibiting skin, fat, and all four muscles of the leg. The more natural, the better.
  • If you’re a ham connoisseur and price is no object, buy an artisanal ham from a heritage breed like Berkshire, Duroc, or Red Wattle. They’re known for their superior marbling and taste. One online source is Heritage Foods USA.
  • Bone-in or boneless? I prefer bone-in because the bone adds flavor, indicates the ham has been minimally processed, and best of all, the bone can be saved to add ham flavor to beans or greens.
  • Spiral-cut hams (the hams are actually turned on a lathe) make the task of carving easier. The good news is they present more surface area for smoke, glazes, and other flavorings. The bad news is they can dry out if you overcook them.
  • A whole ham can weigh from 16 to 20 pounds. But most butchers are willing to cut hams in half. If you have the option, ask for the butt end if you like more fat, or the shank end if you prefer leaner meat. Figure on 1/2 to 3/4 pound of meat per person for bone-in ham and 1/4 to 1/3 pound for boneless.
  • Someone once defined eternity as “two people and a ham,” meaning a whole ham will easily feed a crowd … or two people for a long, long time. For a small gathering, consider buying bone-in ham steaks. (Which, of course, you can sizzle and char on the grill.)
  • If you purchase a frozen ham, either locally or from an online purveyor, allow plenty of time for it to defrost in the refrigerator—4 to 6 hours per pound, up to 2-1/2 days for a 10-pound ham.
  • The USDA grades ham by the amount of water or solution added during production. The grade is found on the label:

    Ham: Must have at least 20.5 percent protein with no water added. (Naturally, a pork leg is about 25 percent protein and 75 percent water.) Generally the most expensive.

    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.

Get the Maple Syrup- and Brown Sugar-Crusted Smoked Ham recipe.

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