Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Beautiful Holiday Ham

Here is a very special holiday installment of Prolefood, complete with a new process.

Holidays are such wonderful times of friends, family, and of course food.  I actually think that the holidays, especially around the winter solstice, tend to be a time where people actually cook things together, and from some modicum of scratch.  It may be the last holdout in a culture which prizes quick, fast, and easy (how many cookbooks have that in the title these days?)*.  So, in the spirit of cooking together I give you a process for a delicious, hand-crafted, smoked ham - entirely too late for any of you to use it for the holidays (sorry...), but maybe next year?  Or at some random point during this year?

On the Transmutation of Ham

Hams come in so many different shapes and sizes and varieties.  Smoked, brined, cured, fresh, bone-in, boneless, etc.  However, most of what you can purchase in the store has one thing in common, industrial-scale processing.  So, from the start, I will say that this process is rather involved, and won't save you any money.  Not a cent.  You can go out and buy a smoked ham from your grocer for a buck a pound or so.  So why would you want to take this on?

First, because you can source all your ingredients, including the pig; Second, you can control how much or little salt you have in your ham; Third, it is the most delicious, wonderful thing you will ever eat and you will seriously question ever having purchased a crappy supermarket ham in the first place.  So here it is, a ham transmuted from the leaden heft of a pig's rear leg to the aery gold of smoked ham.  I will do this in three steps, like the ancient alchemists.

Step 1: Brine
- 1 Fresh Ham from a happy pig (ask your butcher)**
- A brine, consisting of: 4L (~1 Gal) Water, 350g (~1.5C) Kosher Salt, 225g (~1C) Brown Sugar, 42g (1.5 oz) Pink Curing Salt (Sodium Nitrate), a pour of molasses and any a creative, but restrained bundle of herbs.
- A large, non-reactive brining container
So, to start with, a "ham" is really just the thigh leg of a rear leg of a pig with feet and hocks removed.  So, you can indeed buy these fresh at a reputable butcher (just ask for fresh ham, not cured or smoked).  The full ham will run around 2 lbs on a full sized pig, although you can probably find some heritage breeds like a guinea hog that would have a smaller one.  If the prospect of dealing with such a large piece of meat frightens you, either ask for a half ham or you can also use a cut known as the 'picnic shoulder,' although this won't be a ham, it will be a shoulder.

So, I would also suggest asking your butcher to remove the aitch-bone (pelvic bone) that runs through the ham***.  The ham might also have skin on it.  It is up to you whether you would like to leave it on or take it off.  On will make for a slightly more flavorful, jucier ham, albeit one that requires the removal of the skin prior to eating.  You can certainly debone & skin the ham yourself, I did because I love butchering, but you may find it difficult and/or dangerous especially if you have dull knives and an unskilled hand.  Your butcher should also be willing to tie your ham for you so that it doesn't flop around.  If you do this yourself, just get butcher's twine and tie it up so that it looks ham-like in shape, and not a flesh explosion.  The brine above will work for a 9-16 lb ham.  I did mine in half so that I had two 9 lb hams rather than a single monster.

You know the deal with the brine, put it all in a pot, heat it to boiling or until everything dissolves, then cool to room temperature first, followed by fridge temperature.  Once cool, place your ham in the brine, weighting it down if necessary so that it stays submerged and keep in the fridge or a cold place for 7-10 days.  At the end of the time you choose, dump out the brine and cover with fresh water for a day or so to lessen the fierceness of the salt brine.

Step 2: Smoking

Before smoking, take your ham out of the brine and let it sit in the fridge, uncovered on some kind of elevated rack (so that air gets on all surfaces) for a day or two.  This will make the exterior slightly tacky and far more accepting of the smoke's kiss.  

After sitting you can smoke your ham.  Smoking a large piece of meat like this takes some time and patience, as it will take from 6-8 hours depending on the size of your ham.  Get your smoking device up to 180-190º F and add some chips.  You'll also want to keep some moisture inside the cabinet, water, apple juice/cider, or red wine are all options.  Hot-smoke your ham for the allotted time, although a meat thermometer is also important here, as time is not as important as getting it to around 160º.  It will probably take 6-8 hours though. 

When done, get your now-beautiful ham out of the smoker, wrap in tinfoil, and place in a cooler for an hour and half, covered by a towel.  This will keep the juices in and finish the process for you.  After an hour and a half, take it out, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then tinfoil and place in your fridge for three or four days to let all the flavors really develop.

Step 3: Roasting and Glazing

Now, your ham is fully cured, and cooked and you could probably have a piece now if you would like, but half the beauty of the ham is the roasting and glazing.  As your ham is now cold, you'll need to roast it in a 350º oven for a few hours until it is back up to the 160º-ish mark.  

During the roasting, baste liberally with a glaze that should, at a minimum, contiain molasses, dry mustard, and some water or wine to thin it a bit.  Be creative, though remember to keep flavors in a generally restrained profile: oranges, apples, warm spices****, and full wines do the trick.  

Take it out, slice it, and serve it to your family - be amazed at the transmutation of pork.

*Every one by Rachel Ray.

** Be sure to bring something that can carry this chunk of meat. I slung mine over my shoulder, which I am sure looked quite strange as I walked down my residential street.  

*** If you keep the bone in, you'll need to inject brine all around it so that you don't end up with a botulism ham, which would kill your entire family and really wreck the holiday spirit.  So, just take the bone out and use it for soup or something.  Much easier.

**** Don't do that obnoxious thing where you stick cloves all over it.  It is annoying and tastes bad.  Also, don't serve it with pineapple, unless you live in Hawaii, in which case you have some justification for doing so.

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