Baking a Country Ham for the First Time

Joshua and I have thought a lot about ham this week. It started on Tuesday. Actually, we’ve been thinking about ham a lot since we got our dry cured hams back from Bentons a couple of weeks ago. While we had the processor slice the hams that we gave to some friends, our own two hams have been hanging in the kitchen.

Yep, that’s a pig butt hanging from my kitchen ceiling. An actual pig butt – not a Boston butt which comes from the pig’s shoulder. I’m not in charge of naming these things!

Dry cured ham is shelf stable. It could hang like that for a year with no trouble. Eventually, the quality of the meat would fade, but it would never be a health risk to eat.

In any case, on Tuesday, we decided to get ready to cook one up.

The first obstacle with dry cured ham is that it is extremely salty. It’s the saltiness that’s keeping it from rotting. So in order to make it tasty, you first have to soak it. If you buy a country ham at the store, the package may say, “Soak overnight”, but the internet assured us that overnight was not nearly enough. Three days seemed to be a more common recommendation, and everywhere said that even after 3 days it would still be pretty salty.

To prepare it for soaking, first Joshua cut off the hock:

I froze the hock for tossing into ham and beans later on. The next step was to give the ham a good scrub.

The reason for scrubbing is that during the curing process (which took 4 months for our hams) mold builds up on the outside of the ham. This is to be expected and not a problem at all, but it’s got to be scrubbed off at this point.

Next up, the ham went down into a cooler for soaking.

This ham is about 20 pounds of meat, so a cooler was the only container big enough to hold it! Some people use a bathtub, but since the ham needs to be submerged, a bathtub would be overkill on the amount of water you’d be changing out.

The water should be changed a few times a day. As the water changes happened, I noticed some changes in the meat, too. The ham/water started out smelling like salty smoke. We didn’t get the hams smoked, but they still smelled a bit smoky. As the days went on, though, it started to smell more like just meat. One day that purplish color that you can see in the photo above appeared, too, which I thought was odd, but presumably normal.

We were going to wait until Saturday to cook the ham, but we jumped the gun a tiny bit and got started Friday night.

First, it had to be cut in half:

We didn’t have a pan big enough to cook the whole thing, so it was going to have to go half and half.

There are lots of suggestions online for what to use as the cooking liquid when baking a ham, but we didn’t have most of them on hand. What we did have was a can of pineapple juice, so that’s what we used. Between the juice and some water, we got the liquid level to a couple of inches from the top of the pan.

We debated about whether to cover the pan in foil, and ended up going with yes:

While that half was in the oven, we decided to test out the half that wasn’t baking. Joshua sliced off a few pieces:

And we fried them up:

When we first got the hams, we tried some fried slices from the other two hams that the processor had sliced up. We didn’t know about having to soak country hams at that time, and WOW was it salty. So trying this one out would give us a comparison after three days of soaking. It was noticeably better, but still really, really salty. We’re going to let that second half soak for a couple more days!

We baked the first half at 350 for 10 minutes then dropped the temperature to 250 and let it cook until it got an internal temperature of about 140 degrees. I don’t remember how long that took… a little over two hours would be my guess.

Looking all brown coming out of the oven:

But still pink and juicy on the inside:

We ate a couple of big pieces, which were pretty darn salty. Then we tried some thin slices, which actually tasted better. Joshua made a sandwich, and with the bread and condiments to cut the salt, it almost tasted like “store bought” ham.

Joshua sliced the whole thing up, and we’ll probably freeze individual packs of a few slices. The little stack you see to the right in this picture is some odd-size pieces that I’ll add to the future ham and beans.

For now, the slices are just in our refrigerator. One upside to all that salt is that there’s not much risk to the ham going bad!

Joshua wants to try boiling the next half, and after that we have a whole other ham to do, so we might try some different methods. Joshua says he’s happy with the dry cure process.

I’m interested to learn about wet curing for next year and to see what that does to the taste and the saltiness. What we’ve got right now is clearly meat of a fine quality, but I don’t love the taste. Since we have 40 pounds of it, I really wish I loved the taste! I’m looking forward to trying new things with the ham and seeing what happens.

Either way, we are still having an adventure with these pigs!