Country ham is a culinary classic that is well appreciated by southerners, in particular, who have enjoyed the saltiness of this version of ham for centuries. Using salt to cure hams has dated back to the early times of the colonists in the Americas, when pioneering families would raise hogs to butcher. These families needed a method of preserving the ham so the bounty was devoured in full and without waste, as they lacked refrigeration for their foods. Salt is a terrific all-natural preservative, perfect for preserving ham, and is still in use today for the signature flavor that is imparted by the additive to the ham. The hogs are butchered in late fall, when the weather is turning cold enough that the temperature is steady at freezing. While the hog is still fresh from slaughter, salt is added to cure the meat. Then the chunks of ham are left in a smokehouse to fully seal in the flavors and preserve the ham indefinitely. Smoking the ham can take anywhere from a few months to over a year.
Even though the ham has been processed with salt, the meat is still uncooked and therefore will need to be cooked prior to devouring. However there is not need to refrigerate store bought country ham, as the salt will keep the meat preserved without refrigeration. A country ham only needs to rest at room temperature of approximately 75 degrees Fahrenheit. This is especially convenient when compared to “city hams,” or regular hams that are not preserved requiring refrigeration, or frozen which means a lengthy thawing process.
Preparation of a country ham for cooking:
Preparing a whole country ham hock or slab depends on the size. If the country ham has yet to be cut or packaged ready to cook, then there is a two step process required prior to cooking. First, wash the hunk of ham on the outside with warm water, scrubbing with a sponge or stiff brush so to remove the excess salt and mold from the ham. The mold is not harmful, and is consistent with the aging of cheeses. Second, the ham must be placed in the refrigerator for 48 hours in a large stock pot filled with cold water, covering the entire ham. This is done in order to remove the excess salt from inside the meat.
Cooking the country ham:
Cooking a country ham can either be done by frying or baking, depending on the size of the meat. Slices of country ham are wonderful as a breakfast or sandwich meat, and can be cooked quickly by frying in a skillet or frying pan. Whole hams are particular delights during holidays and feasts of many people.
When frying the country ham, slice the meat to a thickness of between ¼ and 3/8 inches. Cook slowly at medium low, flipping often. Do not leave the meat unattended to prevent overcooking. If the meat is lean, add vegetable oil to the skillet so the meat does not stick to the pan. Fried country ham can also be prepared by adding water and a lemon-lime cola to the skillet during the cooking process to add flavor and moisture.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the ham in a roasting pan with a mixture of water, brown sugar, and vinegar covering the bottom of the ham. Bake for 25 minutes per pound of ham, or until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the skin, excess fat, and return to the roasting pan. Mix together cloves, brown sugar, vinegar, and dried mustard, and rub all over the outside of the ham. Broil until the sugar melts. Remove from pan, and add pineapple slices, if preferred. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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