From M., 3 August 2010 – going whole hog.
Q: Hi. My wonderful husband just bought an entire pig, butchered. I think that the offal, or whatever you’d call all the most challenging and unusual parts, have been ground into sausage, which the butcher flavored for us. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with a lot of the pieces, though, including fresh ham. Can you suggest a reasonably easy and tasty way to cure fresh ham at home without special equipment like a smoker?
A: Hi, and thanks for your question! Wow, the whole pig. I’m jealous. I’d love to pick up a whole pig (bigger than a suckling pig for once) but we’re always short on freezer space.
So, fresh ham. The question is whether you want to roast the whole ham, as you normally would any pork roast, or whether you want to cure it. If you’re interested in roasting, try this recipe, which I posted some months ago. I like my pork somewhat pink at the bone but if you don’t like it that pink, increase your roasting time to 25 minutes/pound and go to 165F at the bone. For a fifteen pound ham, you’re going to be roasting for about 6-7 hours, followed by an hour rest. Perfect if you want to eat at 7pm on a Sunday – start it at 11am – noon and take it out at six.
Now, if you want to cure the ham, you’re going to need a fair amount of refrigerator space because you need a large, foodsafe container (like a pail that you only use for food), large enough to hold the ham completely submerged in brine. What is brine? Brine is a salt solution, which also may contain other sugar and herbs or spices (such as bay leaf, thyme, black peppercorn, and allspice). For your brine, you want to use about 1 lb each of salt and sugar per 4 litres (about a gallon) of water.
To maintain a pink color and extend the edible life of the ham, you also need to use pink salt (also known as Prague Powder), which is a mixture of 93.75% table salt (sodium chloride) and 6.25% sodium nitrite. To cure meat that will be dry cured, such as prosciutto or country ham, you must use pink salt in the amount of .25% of the weight of the meat to be cured. But because this is a water-based brine, you’re wet-curing the ham, and the pink salt really just helps preserve the color of the ham, so it isn’t an unappetizing grey. It extends the edibility as well, but not that much. You’ll be using about 2 2/3 tbsp pink salt per 4 litres of water. Pink salt – or, more accurately, the nitrites in pink salt – inhibit the growth of bacteria, including those that cause botulism. Although nitrites do get a certain amount of bad press concerning its possible health effects, you can minimize any risk by not exposing nitrite-cured meats to extremely high heat, such as by grilling.
Your ham will cure at about the rate of two pounds/day, so be prepared to lose some refrigerator space for a week! Once your ham is cured, remove it from the brine, rinse it well, and cook it as you like – perhaps by roasting it as prescribed in the fresh ham recipe, or by slicing it about 1/2″ and frying the ham steaks. Whatever you do, enjoy it – it’s a real treat and something that most people no longer experience.
Fresh cured ham
You need to weigh the ham before beginning so you know how long to cure it. Make the brine in 2 litre increments – that may be enough for a small ham, but you may need 4 litres for a larger one.
Not sure where to find pink salt/Prague Powder? Never fear. The Spice House carries it, and they ship!
One last thing – you noted that you would like to prepare this ham without special equipment like a smoker. Obviously, the resulting ham will not be smoked. I haven’t tried this particular variant, but if you’re interested in giving a shot, you could substitute 1/4 of the salt with smoked salt, which may impart a mildly smoky taste to the ham. One caveat – it’s also possible that once the salt dissolves you will experience more of the acrid element of smoke than the smooth, woody richness. I have no idea, so proceed with caution.
12-15 pound fresh ham
2 litres cold water
1/2 pound (8 oz) light brown sugar – a little less than 1 cup
1/2 pound (8 oz) kosher salt – about 1 cup
a dozen black peppercorns
two or three whole cloves
about 4 whole allspice
Remove 2 c of the cold water from the 2 litres and bring it to a simmer, covered, with the salt, sugar, and spices. Simmer for 15 minutes. Add to the rest of the cold water in a large, clean, foodsafe container.
Add the ham to the brine. If the brine does not completely submerge the ham, prepare more brine, but keep the ham refrigerated. Cover with a heavy plate (or a plate weighted with a clean heavy can). Refrigerate for two days/pound of meat.
Remove the ham and blot dry. Discard the brine. Roast according to the fresh ham directions, or slice 1/2″ and fry. If not using immediately, you can wrap tightly in plastic wrap and freeze, but be sure to thaw it completely in the refrigerator before roasting.