Just Do It: Home-Cured Ham
What inspires you to cook something new or prepare a special recipe? I am moved to try something new by a recipe in a cookbook, a meal at a restaurant, a cooking show, or a request from my wife.
Home-Cured Ham Insperation
Like most of you, I watch Steven Raichlen create delicious dishes on his shows and want to replicate them. The “Hog Wild” episode of Project Smoke sparked my desire to make a whole ham. The occasion to make ham from scratch finally arrived.
You may not know this, but Steven likes to have his recipes tested to check cooking times, serving amounts, and ensure the instructions are easy to follow. Steven recently wrote an article about ham for the New York Times, so he reached out and asked if I could assist and test a few ham recipes. I jumped at the opportunity since it was something I wanted cook—cured meats have always intimidated me (you, too?)— and it was Steven asking.
In addition to working as the fire wrangler on Project Fire, I had the unique experience of testing his amazing recipes for his upcoming book How to Grill Vegetables.
Ham in a Hurry
I smoked two picnic hams on two separate kettle grills comparing cooking times. I also smoke-roasted a “Ham in a Hurry” pork loin. The test began by creating a brine with spices, salt, honey, brown sugar, Prague powder (curing salt), and water. I injected the hams with the brine to make sure the cure was delivered deep into the meat. Next, I submerged the hams in the brine in separate brining buckets. Three days later, I injected the hams a second time. The hams brined for a total of seven days, although I wonder if the second injection might shorten the curing time?
I injected and brined the “Ham in a Hurray” pork loin for 24 hours and then re-injected. The total brining time was 48 hours.
Prepping the Grill and Cooking
I set up two kettle grills with lump charcoal and wood chunks to smoke the hams at a temperature of 250 degrees. In my experience, maintaining a temperature of 250 degrees in kettle grills is a challenge. Insufficient airflow will choke out the fire and smoke, and too much will cause the hams to burn. I set up an airflow controller on one of the kettle grills to keep an even cooking temperature throughout the smoking process. The airflow controller did maintain a consistent temperature, but I did need to replace the charcoal more often on this grill.
I cooked one ham for 7 hours until it reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees. When the second ham reached an internal temperature of 130 degrees, I increased the temperature by opening the vents to raise the grill temperature to 400 degrees. I held the temperature at 350 degrees since the edges of the hams were getting dark and I did not want the ham to burn. The higher temperature shortened the cooking time by one hour.
I scored the fat cap of the second ham to see if it improved the aesthetic of the ham and to see if the skin would be easier to remove. The scoring did create a unique appearance but made it more difficult to remove the skin. I did not try to cook the pork skin harvested from the hams since I jumped right into the “Ham in a Hurry” pork loin.
I replenished the charcoal and wood chunks in one of the kettle grills to achieve a cooking temperature of 350 degrees to smoke-roast the pork loin. After 48 hours in the brine, the pork loin took on an attractive pink hue—the one characteristic of commercially-cured hams. I set up the kettle for indirect grilling and placed the pork loin in the center. The smoke quickly bronzed the outside of the pork loin. I basted the pork loin with an orange cognac glaze for the last 30 minutes of cooking time. It took an hour and a half to reach an internal temperature of 155 degrees.
The smoking process created a dark mahogany color, crusty edges, and a wonderful aroma. Finally, time to slice the ham and taste the result of my day’s work! The unscored pork skin (rind) was easier to remove than the scored one. To slice the ham, I placed it point side up like an inverted ice cream cone.
I knew my day of cooking was a success as soon as I tasted the ham. Right away I noticed the sweetness, the smoke, and the salty flavor you expect from ham. By making my own brine, I can control the amount of salt in the hams. The curing process creates a gorgeous deep rose color in the ham. There is no doubt, homemade ham is absolutely better than store bought!
The pork loin treated me to a similar sweet, salty, smoky flavor as did the picnic hams. After a second bite, I noticed the cinnamon, the clove, and orange flavors in the glaze. Based on my results, I would enthusiastically encourage you to try making your own ham. However, I do not suggest cooking 3 hams on the same day as I did.