Last year, I bought a giant ham at Whole Foods after a quest for pork shank turned into something much, much bigger. We ate that fourteen pound beast many different ways – roasted, of course, but then recycled into a quick ragù, sliced for a brothy noodle soup, as enchiladas with pickled onion and chipotles, and in other modes not chronicled here.
Recently, I found myself standing in front of the meat counter at the 14th & P Whole Foods picking up a well-marbled prime rib roast when the butcher asked me if I wanted anything else. While he’d been wrapping the beef in brown paper, my eye had wandered to a giant ham over to the left, on the pork end of the case. I’ll hand it to Whole Foods – occasionally, mostly at the holidays, they get a fairly impressive pork display going. They were showing off perfectly tied crown rib roasts as well, which you never see anymore, and are straight out of the Mad Men era of entertaining. The ham probably would’ve caught my eye under any circumstances, but this was a particularly beautiful specimen because – unlike any other pork I’ve ever seen at Whole Foods – it retained a thick layer of creamy white fat AND the skin. The skin! I have complained bitterly about the propensity of Whole Foods to go trimming-crazy when it comes to pork – they slice away every last remnant of fat from the surface, leaving none of what makes pork so delicious and rich. And you never see the skin at Whole Foods. I gestured toward the giant ham.
The butcher’s eyes lit up. You could tell that he was tired of dealing with a clientele accustomed to cryovac’ed pork tenderloin and boneless chicken breasts. He actually put it on a square of butcher’s paper and hurried it around the counter so I could have a closer look. The skin was creamy, not blotchy, and the fat was bright. The meat was dusky pink, virtually the color of prosciutto. He had two hams as it turned out – the giant, longish-legged specimen that looked like a whole country ham before the curing, and a stubbier, more oblong ham that was about the shape of a hard-boiled egg sliced the long way. I hesitated, weighing the virtues. The meat on the oblong ham looked slightly nicer and the fat and skin encased the ham completely. The giant ham, with its leggy, clublike aspect, would have been great for curing, but it probably wouldn’t fit in my drying box, and the skin and fat had been trimmed away on one side. “My husband’s going to kill me,” I told the butcher as I considered. “I told him I was going to try to clear out some space in the refrigerator but I just keep buying product.”
“It takes a special lady to bring home this kind of meat,” he said.
In the end, I chose the oblong ham for its superior meat and greater supply of skin and fat. My husband was pleased, recalling the feast from last year.
Cooking is a learning process always. Every day in the kitchen is an opportunity for improvement and a chance to use what worked before, and reconsider what didn’t. Last year, I roasted the ham at 325F, and it was good, although the interior closer to the bone wasn’t as tender as it should have been. We ate the exterior of the ham and I returned the rest to the oven for a later roasting. I imagine that, had I contined to roast the entire beast in one shot, it would have been somewhat dry. This time, I considered the cut of meat somewhat more carefully. The ham is a tough, well-exercised cut with a lot of connective tissue, much like the shoulder or the butt. Picture the pig as you would a human on all fours – the shoulder/butt end is the deltoids and rhomboids; the ham is the glutes and biceps femoralis. Big muscles, long fibers. And the particular ham I bought was sheathed thickly in fat and skin, like the belly. So I treated it as I would treat those cuts.
Because of its thick skin and ample fat, I elected to cure and air-dry it as I have done with pork belly. I scored the skin through the fat, and rubbed a mixture of salt and sugar into the deep cuts. Uncovered, the ham rested in the refrigerator for a couple of days, the better to dehydrate the fat and skin. Each day, I dried the liquid that the salt leached from the fat with a paper towel. After a few days, I roasted the meat on a rack – first in a blisteringly hot oven to melt the fat and crisp the skin, and then in a very low oven to break down the collagen. The meat rested for nearly an hour out of the oven.
The result, after seven hours, was extraordinary. I intended to slice through the ham perpendicular to the bone, but the moment the knife penetrated the crisp skin, the meat fell apart, cleaving into moist chunks. Two days later, cold from the refrigerator, the long-fibered chunks of pinkish meat were tender and unctuous.
Whole fresh ham isn’t all that easy to come by, but is worth seeking. Your best bet is a butcher – not the butcher’s department in the supermarket, unless yours takes special orders. Italian meat markets are the most likely to carry the whole fresh ham.
One more thing, in the interest of full disclosure. Years of breeding to produce “the other white meat” and assiduous packaging have led many to believe that pork smells more or less like chicken breast. Well, it doesn’t. Especially not whole ham. Remember that discussion we had a few weeks ago about barnyardiness, and the compound responsible for that quality? If you buy a whole ham, be prepared to visit the barnyard, especially when you first bring home the ham. To mitigate the aroma, I recommend rinsing the ham when you first remove the packaging, and then drying it well before scoring the skin and applying the salt cure. Don’t worry – it won’t stink up the refrigerator. In fact, as it dries, you won’t smell it at all. Once you roast the meat, the smell will emerge during the initial hot phase – use rosemary to avoid problems, as its own pungency masks the skatole surprisingly well.
1 9 lb fresh ham
leaves from 8-10 branches thyme, minced
1/4 c kosher salt
2 tbsp sugar
8 cloves garlic confit, smashed to a paste
Several branches rosemary
Combine the salt and sugar.
Score the skin on the ham in a diamond pattern in 1″ intervals, being careful not to cut through to the meat. Use an extremely sharp knife and lead with the tip of the knife, or the heel, and be very careful. Rub the salt and sugar mixture in the cuts and on the surface of the meat and skin. Place in the smallest pan that leaves all the skin exposed (a 1/4 steam tray is good) and refrigerate, uncovered, for two to three days. Every day, dry the liquid that accumulates in the cuts with a paper towel.
Remove the ham from refrigeration and rub the surface of the meat only with garlic confit paste and place the thyme branches on the garlic-rubbed ham (the paste will help the thyme adhere). Set on a v-rack in a roasting pan. Dry the cuts in the fat thoroughly with a paper towel. Place the ham in the oven. Place the rosemary branches on a sheet of foil and place on the floor of the oven. After 15 minutes, turn the ham 180 degrees. After 15 more minutes, turn the heat down to 185F/85C. Remove the ham from the oven and prick the fat with a fork wherever exposed to promote melting during the final roasting. Lay additional thyme branches on the surface of the skin and return to the oven.
Roast approximately 50 minutes per pound or until the meat is 165F/74C near the bone. For a 9 pound ham, it probably will take about seven hours. Remove and rest before slicing for about 45-60 minutes.
Roasting a giant ham with a jacket of fat will yield quite a bit of pork fat. This ham, for example, provided approximately a quart. Don’t throw it out! Because of its rich texture and clean, neutral taste, it makes great biscuits, pie crust, and is great for frying pretty much anything. In addition, it may surprise you to learn that pork fat is not primarily saturated fat. Although pork fat is approximately 40% saturated fat, the remainder is unsaturated fat, primarily monounsaturated fat. Because pork fat is low in polyunsaturated fat, it does not turn rancid quickly and has a relatively high smoke point of about 370F/177C.
To clarify the the fat, pour it off from the roasting pan and let it solidify. You should have two layers – one of solid fat, and another of meat jelly. Scrape off the jelly and reserve it for another use (it’s basically concentrated meat juices and is great for stock or bouillon).
Melt the remaining fat over low heat and then strain it through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into a sealable container. Label and date the lid with permanent marker. The fat will keep for up to a year in the freezer or several months under refrigeration.