Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Ham! Where do I start??
It’s as if all of the butchers and hog farmers in the world got together and made a pact to confuse the general populace. First things first, “Ham” comes from a pig’s buttock (left or right). While a “Pork Butt” might sound like a ham, the Butt (or “Boston Butt”) is actually a pork shoulder. Confused yet? It gets better. If you cut the buttock out of a pig, it’s not called a “Ham” yet, it’s called a “Picnic.” Some call it a “picnic ham” or a “country ham” which is even more confusing. What you need to know is this; a “Picnic” does not become a “Ham” until it is brined, salt cured, and cooked (usually smoked). When you buy a ham from the store, if the label says “Ham,” then it’s already cooked and safe to eat. Technically, you could bring it home, cut it open, and eat it right away (but it won't taste very good, to say nothing of the rubbery texture).
Curing and smoking your own ham from scratch, starting with a raw Picnic is a chore and while I’ve done it, I don’t recommend it because it’s involved, messy, and it takes days or weeks to do it right. Therefore, I buy “Hams” and then cook them (ok, “re-heat” them, essentially) at home, adding flavor, etc.
Smoking a ham is one of the easiest things in the world to do. There is very little prep involved. You just score the skin (See picture) and put it in the smoker. Since its already cooked, the only temperature you’re shooting for is one that will kill any bacteria that may have survived the salt cure (doubtful) and one that will allow you to finish slicing and prepping before serving that still feels “mouth hot” when the fork brings it to the hole in your face. That's about 140 degrees or so. You will render out more fat too, but low and slow is the best way to reheat it while guaranteeing that it will stay juicy.
Things to avoid at the grocer:
-Spiral cut ham. This ham is not only cooked, but also sliced (For your convenience). Since it’s sliced, all of the moisture leaks right the hell out when you put it on your smoker or into your oven and it will dry out like nobody’s business. If your grandmother ever cooked one of these, she probably opened the oven and basted it every 20 minutes to keep it moist. No thanks.
-Partial cut or “half” ham. This will dry out for the same reason. The whole ham was cut in half (again, for your convenience) and it will dry out for the same reasons.
-Boneless ham. Since they had to open the picnic up to remove the bone (why? For your convenience...), what’s left is usually a processed (pressed) “loaf” of many smaller pieces of ham. This is actually nice if you want to keep it, cold, in your fridge to slice big thick disks off for breakfast frying, but not for Holiday presentation and certainly not to impress a houseful of carnivores at your next party.
So, what do you buy? “Whole, Bone-in Ham” Cook’s brand is my favorite. Our Walmart ALWAYS has some very nicely sized (12-14lb) Cook’s whole hams. During the holidays, they bring out the “big boys” (20-30lbs).
I smoke 5 or 6 “big boy” hams every year. Notice in the picture, I used a small paring knife to cut about ¼” through the skin in a lattice pattern. Then I smeared the whole thing with yellow mustard and a good dry rub (stay tuned to this blog for my dry-rub recipe). I jabbed in a quality temperature probe (keeping it away from the bone), put it onto the smoker (or over indirect heat on a grill at 225 degrees) and nature did the rest. I pull it off the heat when the internal temperature hits about 140 degrees.
Sauce. Why sauce? Well, since the darned thing was already cooked when you bought it, your smoker will only contribute "so much" additional flavor to the party. Once you start pulling the meat off of the bone in the center (and it should just pull away, by hand), you may want to flavor it even more with a sauce. Favorite sauces for ham usually include something to offset the salt cure like honey, pineapple, cherries, brown sugar, molasses, etc. For presentation, I usually slice and pull all of this apart and then pour over my ham sauce (also an up and coming article), then put the whole damn thing into the middle of the table where people can dig in!