October 01, 2004
The Post & Courier
Charleston, South Carolina
By Nathalie Dupree,
author of eight cookbooks and
former director of Rich's Cooking School, Atlanta, Georgia
While slicing pieces of ham about to grace our holiday party table, I ponder the meaning of ham, whose different prices and names at the meat counter or in a catalog can be so confusing. I did some research to make it easier.
First, there are two kinds of ham, "country" and "city."
Country hams are delicious, dry hams, cured and aged with all moisture removed, usually by a dry-cure mixture of salt and other ingredients. They may require a "cultivated palate." If you aren't used to them, they may surprise you. Six months to a year is the traditional processing time for a country ham, but it may be less depending on the aging temperature.
We commonly think of country hams coming from Virginia, going back to the old days of Jamestown, the oldest settlement, when Powhatan Indians showed the settlers how to smoke venison. They adapted this technique to hogs that were kept on Hog Island in the James River just across from Jamestown. Because the hams contain so little water, bacteria can't multiply in them, and they are stored safely at room temperature.
S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, a small family-run ham producer in Surry, Virginia, on the shores of the James River, has been making quality country ham since 1926. They use no sodium nitrate. They produce and sell a long shank ham, a shorter shank dried and/or cooked, a honey ham, a cooked spiral-sliced ham and even a "petite" ham (really a boneless third of a whole ham).
If you do not want to cook a country ham, order one already cooked. Keep refrigerated until ready to use. Glaze and heat through, or just serve at room temperature with no further attention.
Cooking Country Ham
Both dry (uncooked) and cooked (cooked by the producer) country ham may arrive in a burlap bag inside a box. Be sure to check to see if refrigeration is required; it is for a cooked ham.
When a dried country ham arrives, it is somewhere between 10 and 20 pounds, including the bone. It can be kept safely for up to a year without diminishing quality by following the producer's guidelines. It is safe to eat even longer than that.
It can be a big job to cook one of these behemoth legs, with its natural spots of green mold and thick skin. In fact, the mold is harmless and is the signature of a country ham. The process of cooking a country ham is best done over a span of three days, expending a little bit of time each day. Using a cooler or refrigerator that will keep the ham at about 40 degrees, cover the clean ham with water. Change the water, preferably about every eight hours.
You may soak the ham one or two days, or even just overnight. Add ice if needed to keep the temperature low. This is done to reconstitute as well as to desalinate. When through soaking, discard the water and thoroughly scrub the ham with a stiff brush until the mold is removed.
A country ham needs to be cooked with moisture. That may be in the oven, on top of the stove or on the grill. For oven and stove-top cooking, cover the ham with liquid - I prefer something sweet, such as Coca Cola, pineapple juice, apple juice or 7-Up - and a lid or tight foil.
Simmer, don't boil, about 20 minutes a pound; or at 325 degrees in the oven. Internal meat temperature should register 148 degrees with a meat thermometer. While cooking, add liquid if it evaporates. Discard the liquid before slicing.
Taste it. If it's still too salty, you may change the liquid and cook a bit longer, taking care it does not get cooked to shreds.
Glaze and broil at this time with your favorite glaze (brown sugar and cloves work just fine). Or, if slicing ahead, you may omit the glaze. The glaze is for sweetness and presentation.
Because of the intensity of its flavor, country ham should be served shaved or in paper-thin slices.
About City Hams
City ham is a wet-cured ham, when sodium nitrate, salt and sugar are combined with water to form a brine, sometimes called a curing solution. For a commercial cure, this is injected or pumped into the ham, which is then washed and cooked. It may be smoked or not, or injected with a liquid smoke solution.
Brine-cured hams are the ones most commonly found in the grocery store. They can vary enormously in quality, taste and price.
Both city and country hams can be bone-in, partially boned or completely boned. I was always told that hams with the bone left in are more flavorful, but boneless are much easier to carve.
Cuts differ according to the bone. The top half of the ham is called the butt. It has more meat (and fat), is easier to carve and more expensive.The shank half is sweeter, harder to cut, has less meat (because it has more bone) and is less expensive.
Another bone-in ham is the spiral-cut. Precooked, it is cut around the bone with machinery that allows slicing in one continuous cut around the ham. It makes consistently even slices from one end to the other.
All of these can be glazed and reheated. City hams can be totally cooked (reaching 147 degrees and needing no further cooking) or partially cooked (heated to 137 degrees to the center). Partially cooked ham and leftovers should be heated to 160 degrees. Both partially cooked and totally cooked city hams can be glazed.