Friday, April 18, 2014

Doin' it Country Style....

Okay, so it’s been awhile.

A LONG while…

But stuff got in the way and such.

But this entry is one I want to get in, mainly to share with like minded people.

One of my ‘bucket list’ items has been to learn how to ‘dry cure’ a country ham. My grandfather was an old country farmer who lived off the land his entire life. By the time I came along the farm had electricity and refrigeration, so there was no need to cure meat like in the old days.

Sure, I heard the stories at grandpa’s knee… but early childhood isn’t exactly conducive to learning and retaining such trivial things.

Fast forward to now. I’m a lot older, a tad wiser (some will argue that point, but what do they know?) and am wishing I could have learned a lot of this stuff firsthand.

So when a random trip to the grocery store put me on a collision course with a 10 pound green ham, fate decided to step in and put me on the path to knocking out this particular item on the bucket list.

My local grocer had a nice little 10 pound green ham for $.99 per pound. First, let’s discuss the terminology… Green ham is not a Dr. Seuss takeoff here. The term “green ham” refers to the ham portion of a hog that is fresh and uncured. Basically, it’s the entire front or back leg of the hog, minus the hocks and trotters (a cool term for the feet). The front legs are where picnic hams come from, and these hams are usually left whole because of their relatively small size. The rear legs are where you get the butt and shank hams. These hams are usually cut into two portions, the shank end (the part closest to the hock) and the butt portion, which is the end closest to the shoulder. Don’t confuse this piece with the pork butt. That is typically the ‘shoulder’ portion from high on the front leg.

In my case, I got the picnic ham, and it weighed in at just a tad over 10 pounds. Just right for a first attempt at dry curing. I figured if it didn’t work, ten bucks was a small loss.

Since the thing was in a cryo-pak, I had the luxury of a couple days to do some research. I’d done a lot already, like I said… this was a bucket list item, but in reality it had sorta become a low level obsession…
I finally settled on a process from the University of Missouri extension office (, mainly because it seemed simple and straight forward, and I figured it would give me the best outcome without being overly complicated. It’s been my experience with things like this that the more complicated the process, the more places things can go south on you. And since going south in this case could mean a nasty case of food poisoning, I deferred to my good judgement.

You can follow the link to see the recipe, but here’s the short take on what I used:
  • 4 cups salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup black pepper
  • ¼ cup red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon pink salt (sodium nitrate, to preserve color)

Mix it all up thoroughly.

Now we get to the how-to, complete with pictures…

Here’s the ham all laid out in a nice clean pan for applying the cure

Here’s the shank end. Notice it’s nicely trimmed and even. We’ll get to this in a minute.

 Here’s the ham and cure. Nothing important here, just had the picture and thought I’d throw it in.

Here are several pictures of the cure being applied to the ham. As you can tell, it’s pretty much an exact science… ham goes in pan, cure goes on ham, repeat until covered. 

That’s pretty much it to get started.

Now, back to that shank end…. Since this is an exposed end with a bone, this end gets extra attention. One of the things you DON’T want to happen is for your cure to not work its way all the way to the bone. This can result in a mostly cured ham with a nice pocket of rotten pork in the middle.

NOT good eats.

Not safe either.

You can deal with this one of two ways… extra curing, or injecting. Back in the wayback days, there really wasn’t a way to inject your cure, so they resorted to the first option. My grandpa had a large box he called ‘the meatbox’. This was pretty much the size of a large coffin, maybe a bit wider and deeper. When it came time to cure the hogs, which always happened after cold weather set in, he would lay a good amount of salt in the bottom of the box, then layer some meat in. Layer more salt, then more meat. Repeat until the box was full. After a week or so, he’d come back and do it all over again. This made sure to get salt into the meat completely. 

 Which brings us to a good time to talk about what’s really happening here.

Salt curing is actually a science experiment with edible results. The curing process is the process of osmosis. I shamelessly stole this from Wikipedia:
Salt inhibits the growth of microorganisms by drawing water out of microbial cells through osmosis. Concentrations of salt up to 20% are required to kill most species of unwanted bacteriaSmoking, often used in the process of curing meat, adds chemicals to the surface of meat that reduce the concentration of salt required.

So your next question is… what’s Osmosis….
Osmosis is the spontaneous net movement of solvent molecules through a partially permeable membrane into a region of higher solute concentration, in the direction that tends to equalize the solute concentrations on the two sides.
So what happens is this… the ham has meat fibers which are essentially devoid of any salt molecules. The cure is predominantly salt. When the cure is applied to the exterior of the meat, the salt molecules are slowly absorbed into the meat, due to a chemical process called osmotic pressure.

So, your next question is… what’s Osmotic Pressure…

The osmotic pressure is defined to be the pressure required to maintain an equilibrium, with no net movement of solvent. Osmotic pressure is a colligative property, meaning that the osmotic pressure depends on the molar concentration of the solute but not on its identity.
The key here is the equilibrium…. The balance… There’s an old saying that “Nature abhors a vacuum”… meaning anytime there’s a vacant space, something will fill it.
In this case, there are microscopic pores in the meat fibers that are full of water. The cure has air pockets around the salt molecules. This creates an imbalance. As the salt molecules are drawn into the meat because of the osmotic pressure imbalance, the water is forced out in an effort to correct the imbalance. This results in water loss during the curing process. Keep in mind, this all happens at the cellular level.
Note the water loss as a result of the osmosis process

Side note here, for you folks who like to cook….. the early stages of this process are identical to brining. In brining meats, such as pork and poultry, you’re essentially starting the curing process, but interrupting it shortly after it gets started. This causes some salt molecules to enter the meat, replacing the existing water. When the meat is then cooked, the salt molecules are drawn out and replaced by water (or steam, if you’re cooking in oil). There’s that old Osmotic Pressure again, only this time working in the other direction. This is why brined meats are so much more tasty, tender and juicy than their unbrined counterparts. In unbrined meats, the heat of the cooking process just forces the water molecules out of the meat fiber, resulting in tougher, drier meat.

Now, aren’t you glad we went down THAT rabbit hole…..?

Back on topic…..

During the curing process, you’ll need to add more cure to the meat, depending on the amount of osmosis that takes place. There’s no rule here… just know that you can’t oversalt the meat. It will take as much salt as it will take and no more. That’s a nice way of saying you can’t over cure the thing and screw it up. The only way you can mess this up is to UNDER cure it. That might get somebody killed. Seriously. Botulism is nothing to screw around with. I suggest you take time to read up on your nemesis, e.botulinum and get to learn his likes and dislikes. You’ll thank yourself later.

And besides that… if you kill someone with a bad ham, it will make Christmas and family reunions a bit awkward for years to come. Although I suppose that would depend on just who you kill, now wouldn't it?

A while back I mentioned injecting the cure. This is a rather modern innovation that you can use to your benefit.  Simply put, you take some of your cure and mix it with water. I did a 1:1 ratio. 1 cup cure to 1 cup water. No particular reason for that, it just seemed like a good mix. Then I took my handy dandy meat injector, and injected my brine solution directly into the meat until I hit the bone. I did this about three different places along the bone, and a couple spots in the shank end. I was taking no chances.
Note: This isn’t required, but it is cheap insurance.

Salt has been absorbed, but the pepper in the cure remains

Here are some pictures of the ham after a few days in the fridge, soaking up the cure. You can see a fair amount of water has worked its way out of the ham. You can drain this off, or leave it. It doesn’t matter which. If you leave it in the pan like I did, it will evaporate in the low humidity environment of the refrigerator.
Every few days, pull the ham and work the cure on it. Do this for a couple of weeks.

As you’ll note in the UofM instructions, the generally accepted guideline for curing time is 2 and ½ days per pound of meat. Anything longer is fine. Anything shorter, and you’d best start humming "Flirtin' With Disaster"

For my 10 pound ham, this meant curing 23 days minimum in the refrigerator. I made it easy. I started the cure the day before Thanksgiving, and I stopped the cure the day after Christmas. Right at 30 days. Maybe a little long, but that’s how it worked.

Here's a picture of the shank end. Notice how it's pulled back from the previous picture. The cure is working its way into the meat down along the bone, exactly like you want it to.

More cure applied
Once the cure was deemed complete, I pulled the ham from the pan and washed and dried it thoroughly. At this 
point, believe it or not, your ham is now shelf stable. That means no refrigeration needed. That said, it’s gonna be salty as all get out. To get that good country ham flavor, it needs to age.
This lets the enzymes in the meat work their magic by making subtle alterations to the meat structures, enhancing and sharpening the flavor, in the same way that aging a good cheddar will vastly improve it’s taste.

At this point, you need to make a critical decision that will forever affect the outcome of your ham.

To smoke or not to smoke….. that is the question….

Smoking your ham will give it a rich subtle flavor that is sure to please the palate, but it’s not a simple process. For starters, you just can’t fire up the smoker and throw this puppy in. It doesn’t work like that. This requires a COLD SMOKE. You’re not cooking this meat, you’re flavoring it. If you’ve not cold smoked, it’s a different process entirely. You don’t want to let your temps rise much above 80 or 90 degrees in the smoker. That means your fire has to be sufficiently removed from the smoker chamber to allow the smoke to cool down before it enters the chamber, thereby ensuring cool smoke instead of hot smoke.

The smoking traditionally served two purposes. First, it was a flavor enhancer. If you’ve ever had good smoked meat, you’re sitting there nodding your head right now, aren’t you? Aren’t you? The second purpose was for insect protection. Bugs don’t like smoke. They don’t like smoke flavor either. By applying a layer of smoke to the outside of the meat, the added a distasteful barrier to the meat to discourage any flies or bugs from trying to take up housekeeping in the meat. On a side note, some people did and still do generously rub ground black pepper to the outside of the meat, for the same reason.

I encourage you to learn to cold smoke. It’s worth knowing how to do.

For my little test case here, I opted to not smoke. And I’ll tell you why… since this was a first attempt, I wanted to be able to evaluate the final product with as few variables as possible. I’ve had smoked country ham many times in my life. I come from a long line of farmers and hillbillies, so I know my way around a country ham and redeye gravy with biscuits…. But I felt I needed to be able to assess how effective my cure was on it’s own merit without clouding the test with smoke.

So… since I was going to pass the smoke step by, I went to the wrap… literally….

Pulling a fairly long length of cheesecloth from my supply, I wrapped the ham up. In the wayback days, cotton flour sacks were often repurposed for this. And they didn’t know they were repurposing things… they were just being frugal and getting the most use out of what they had.

Much like curing meat, this too is a dying art…..

As part of my frugal (okay, cheap) nature, I decided to repurpose some of the plastic net bags from our Thanksgiving Turkeys. (Yes, I said turkeysplural)… I buy turkeys during the holidays at $.89/pound, then debone them and grind the meat. Or in a few cases, I keep the whole breast and grind up the dark meat. This gives me ground turkey for meatloaf and burgers, as well as whole turkey breast for roasting at MUCH less than off season market prices. Like I said… cheap.

I took one of the plastic nets and dropped the wrapped ham inside. A couple of zip ties later, I had a loop for hanging.

NEVER underestimate what a redneck can do with a few zipties….

Then off to the garage to hang. By this time, it was nearing the end of the year, and the temps in the garage were hovering in the high 30’s on a consistent basis. So I picked a well ventilated spot and let it hang.

So, fast forward to mid-February. Patience isn’t a strong point of mine, but I had done really well leaving this to hang. I pulled it down and unwrapped it to check. It was drying nicely without any bad odor. This was indeed an encouraging sign. 

The meat had definitely darkened. This was to be expected, as this is common when meat ages. While it may look unappealing in the picture, this is what I wanted to see.

There was a slight patch of dried salt on a portion of the ham, probably where I didn’t get it really dry, and it encouraged some of the salt to leach back out. The shank end had drawn up nicely, and there was absolutely NO odor anywhere on the meat. 

This matched up perfectly with all the research I’d done, so I was indeed encouraged. I wrapped it back up and put it back to hang.

 Now on to mid-April. It was a long two months, but I let it sit peacefully and age uninterrupted. 
When unwrapped, the ham hadn’t really changed much visually. Maybe a little darker in color, and certainly a little lighter in weight. When I weighed it on my digital scale, it weighed in at 7pounds, 3 ounces. So it was one ounce shy of having lost three pounds of water weight.

According to rules of thumb in dry curing, especially salami making, this was a VERY good sign. 30% loss of water is a good indicator of well cured meat.

Here’s the photos of the latest check.


Important note here… in this last picture you can see a slightly lighter area…. That’s because I sliced off a piece to taste… I’m patient, but I’m not Job… I have my limits.

So now you’re wondering how it tasted, aren’t you? 

You know it didn’t kill me because I wrote this blog post….

It was good. Obviously salty. Tangy and slightly sharp in flavor. Chewy without being tough. 
Put it on a Ritz cracker with a little slice of mozzarella, and you’d be all set. It was very reminiscent of a good prosciutto ham.

Several sources I’ve read conflict at this point. Some sources recommend that a country ham be eaten within a year of being cured. Others say you can let it go for two or more years. During my research, I viewed a video from a fellow in the Appalachains whose family makes country hams as a livelihood, and he mentioned they cure for two years before being ready for sale… so make of that what you will.

I’m going to let this guy go for about another 30-45 days, then I’m going to get it down and use it. Currently, I plan on doing a few tests. I’m going to shave some for an appetizer type use, maybe some shaved ham, pepperoncinis and mozzarella with a balsamic vinegar drizzle, 
Then I'll slice some for breakfast ham (and yes, with redeye gravy and biscuits. If I didn’t my grandpa’s ghost would haunt me).
The rest of it I’ll boil the old fashioned way.

Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to take the efforts of my research and work and hopefully put it into one place where you could get a good understanding of the principles and processes of dry curing a country ham.
I'm by no means an expert on the subject, but I'm a whole lot more comfortable with it that I was when I started.

If you’ve done this before, or when you do yours, I’d love to hear back from you in the comments.

As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see ya in the kitchen.