What is it?
A country ham is the hind leg of a pig, cured in salt, brown sugar, and seasonings, often (but not always) smoked, then left to age in a dry environment for months. During that time, the meat loses up to a quarter of its weight from evaporated moisture, resulting in a rosy ham that’s super-concentrated, buttery, slightly gamey, and very salty.
Country ham has more in common with Italian prosciutto than with city ham, the pink supermarket staple familiar to most Americans. City ham is cured with brine instead of dry salt–a totally different process, resulting in a totally different product.
Country ham is the original American ham, dating back to the days of the Virginia colonies. Ham curing was undertaken to preserve pork over long periods. Pigs were slaughtered in the winter when the cold would help preserve the meat as it cured. The hams were then hung to age throughout the summer months—warm weather is thought to deepen their flavor. (It also causes mold growth, but the mold is totally harmless.)
Don’t have it?
Substitute another dry-cured ham, such as prosciutto or speck.
How to choose:
Different producers make very different hams, based on their seasoning, aging times, and climates. Here are a few mail-order sources we like. These and most purveyors sell boneless and bone-in whole hams as well as smaller amounts, both uncooked and cooked, which is slightly milder and more tender.
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams Smoky and fatty, these hickory-smoked hams from Tennessee are aged nine months or longer with salt, brown sugar, and pepper. The pepper makes their ham less moldy than some. A robust ham, it’s great on a biscuit.
S. Wallace Edwards & Sons A nutty and luscious fatty flavor is the hallmark of this producer’s top-of-the-line Surryano Virginia ham, which comes from well-marbled Berkshire pigs. The ham is cured in salt and spices, smoked, and aged for more than a year. Sweet and rosy-pink, it’s right at home on a charcuterie platter.
WayCo Ham Company This North Carolina family company cures its hams in brown sugar, salt, and seasonings, and ages them for a shorter period than most. WayCo offers smoked and unsmoked hams, both of which are mild, not too salty all-purpose hams.
Newsom’s Country Ham These hickory-smoked Kentucky hams boast an all-natural, nitrite- and nitrate-free cure of salt and brown sugar. Aging for around a year creates a mellow ham with a distinctly ruby color that lends itself well to baking.
How to prep:
In the southern United States, the traditional preparation of a whole country ham for the dinner table is a days-long production. It requires scrubbing the innocuous mold off, soaking the ham in cold water for a day or two, simmering on the stovetop for several hours, and finally baking it with a glaze. Such a ham is thinly carved and paired on the plate with a piquant relish or chutney to offset the salt for holiday meals, or tucked into buttermilk biscuits for festive cocktail hours.
But these days, many cooks are taking a cue from European ways with prosciutto; either serving it uncooked and sliced paper-thin to appreciate its intense saltiness, minerality, and creamy fat, or using it in place of bacon or pancetta in egg or pasta dishes.
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