Friday, April 3, 2009

Get Ready for Easter Ham Tutorial

It's almost Easter and for many people that means it's time for an Easter Ham.

Ham-The Frugal Cook's Best Friend
Ham can be one of the best grocery bargains around. It feeds a crowd - a 10 pound bone in shank ham can easily feed 20 people -- making it perfect for large gatherings and parties. But even if you make ham just for the family, leftovers can be used in an infinite numbers of ways. They also freeze well for later use. Check your supermarket flyers for sales as hams are regularly offered at bargain rates. Around Easter time, a lot of stores use ham as a "lost leader" the same way they do with turkeys at Thanksgiving. Sometimes you can even get a totally free ham.

Ham can be confusing to many cooks. It's no wonder. The term "ham" can mean so many different things. Fresh ham, smoked ham, country ham, city ham, cured ham, ham hocks, fully cooked, partially cooked and uncooked hams. Where do you begin? A lot of otherwise great cooks are so clueless when it comes to ham, they regularly give up and buy prepared hams (often spiral sliced and nearly always exorbitantly priced), instead of preparing their own. Little do they know, making ham at home is not difficult, and it certainly doesn't need to be expensive.

In this post, we'll take the mystery out of ham, so you'll never be intimidated by this delicious meat again. For the purpose of this article, we are referring to the typical types of American hams. We'll leave gourmet imported hams like Serrano, Prosciutto and Pancetta for another article.

Ham Facts and Terminology

Ham - In the general sense, ham refers to the cut of meat that is the entire back portion of the leg of the hog from the shank to the hip. Usually ham is cured and/or smoked. Whole hams usually weigh between 8 to 18 pounds. Hams are also sold by halves - either the butt end (meaty but somewhat difficult to carve) or the shank end.

Fresh Ham - the back leg portion of the hog that has not been cured or smoked.

City Ham - Refers to the mass produced hams most commonly found in American supermarkets. City hams have usually been cured by injecting with a brine, and usually (but not always) smoking.

Curing - Hams can be wet or dry cured to preserve them and give flavor. The amount of time spent curing and the methods used will depend on the producer and the type of finished product desired.

Wet Curing - Most hams in American markets are cured by injection, in which a sweet/salty brine is injected into the ham. Some hams are cured by immersing them in a brine.

Dry Curing - The process used to make Country Ham, it involves salting the ham's surface and hanging it to dry for several months to several years until the salt permeates the meat. This type of ham requires no refrigeration until after it is cooked, providing it is stored in a cool dry place. Preparing and cooking a country ham requires extra steps not necessary for commercially prepared brined hams. Click here for details on preparing a Country or Smithfield Ham.

Smoking - Most, but not all, hams will go through a smoking process after curing. The flavors imparted to the meat will depend on the type of wood used for smoking.

Aging - Most supermarket hams are not aged, but gourmet hams usually are allowed to age - some as much as 2 years -- in order to develop their flavors.

Fully Cooked Ham - Has been heated to an internal temperature of at least 148° F. These hams require no further cooking and can be served hot or cold. Although you technically do not need to cook this ham, doing so will improve the texture and flavor of the finished product.

Partially Cooked Ham - Has that has been heated to at least 137° F, which kills the trichina parasite. This type of ham must be cooked before serving.

Uncooked Ham - Needs to be thoroughly cooked before eating.

Canned Hams - May be a whole piece of boneless ham or may be formed from small pieces of meat held together with a gelatin mixture. Read the label carefully to know what you are getting.

Smithfield Ham or Country Ham -- All country hams are dry cured with salt. If all you've ever experienced are the supermarket varieties of ham, a country ham may be an acquired taste. They are definitely more salty! But underneath the salt you'll get flavor and subtleties that other hams just can't compare to.

Think of the word "Smithfield" on the label as you would an appellation on a wine label - the ham comes from the area of Smithfield, Virginia. Originally the hogs that made Smithfield hams were fed a diet of acorns, hickory nuts (guess there's a reason we always see hickory smoked ham) and peanuts. Most Smithfield hogs today dine on a whole grain diet. The dry cured hams are aged from 6 months to 2 years, resulting in a dark rich meat that requires no refrigeration until cooked (provided it's kept in a cool, dry place).

Preparing and cooking a Smithfield, or any dry cured country ham requires extra steps not necessary for commercially prepared brined hams. Our Smithfield Ham tutorial will show you what to do.

Ham Cooking Times and Temperatures
In general terms figure about 10 minutes per pound for baked ham (baked at about 325° F.).

Cook ham to an internal temperature of 135° - 140° F.

If you plan on glazing your ham, bake the ham, without glaze, to an internal temperature of 130° F; apply glaze and continue baking until done.

Ham Tips

  • A bone in ham will yield better flavor than a boneless ham.
  • Don't throw out the bone! After you've eaten as much meat as the family can handle (it doesn't hurt to leave a little on the bone) you've got the makings of a great pot of beans or soup.
  • As a general rule of thumb, ham produced for the mass market will be lightly smoked or not at all. The more expensive and "gourmet" the ham, the heavier the smoky flavor.
  • Add more smoky flavor to your "city" ham by cooking it in a covered grill (gas or charcoal) under medium indirect heat. Add some soaked wood chips to the indirect heat source for additional flavor and subtle variations - hickory works well.
  • Let It Rest! - Let baked ham rest for 20 to 30 minutes before carving. This step allows the ham to complete cooking (the temperature will rise another 3-5 degrees after leaving the oven) and gives the juices time to be re-absorbed into the meat.
Favorite Main Course Ham Recipes

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