November 16th, 2011
12:00 PM ET
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Country hams are terrifying. They’re dessicated, mold-ridden and possessed of a barnyard funk that could conceivably cause a soul to rethink their entire relationship with the animal kingdom.

They should not – for country ham is an American national treasure that rivals the finest porcine offerings of Italy, Spain and any other of the world’s ham-curing cultures. Here is what to do if you find one.

First of all - find one. If your living situation is not one where a heady waft of smokehouse and the squeal of pigs hang low in the air, and they're not hanging in sacks off repurposed coat racks in your local gas station or your city's Chinatown, you'll probably need to go online. If you have not made a ham reservation with Colonel Newsom's people (which you really ought to tend to as soon as possible), R.M. Felts makes a darned good rendition as does Broadbent's. This may not come cheaply, but consider it an investment in artisanship and farmers and America.

It'll likely show up in a muslin sack with a logo of some sort on it. Wash that and keep it around; it's a conversation piece and you can strain fresh cheese through it and amuse your guests.

Take out the ham and discard any paper in which it is swaddled. It will, as aforementioned, be slightly appalling. Rectify that as best you can by running it under cold water and scrubbing any visible mold from it with a wire brush. You might consider purchasing a dedicated ham brush if you find you have the space for it. I don't know your life or your ham needs.

Locate an extremely large pot or clean plastic bucket and place your bathed ham within. Place this vessel somewhere it will not be knocked into by dogs, children or the clumsy and begin to ferry cold water to it in pitchers. If you are exceptionally strong, you can do this step before you identify your final ham locale, but then you'll be toting a large, heavy container of ham water across your home. Again, I don't know your life.

In either case, you'll need to cover the ham entirely in water and place a lid on it. Some people, such as the husband of the Virginia Slim-smoking gas station cashier who sold me my maiden ham several years back, like to use Coca-Cola instead of water. That's their business.

No matter your liquid of choice, bid adieu to your ham go about your life. After a full day has passed, get the water out of the pot by any means necessary, rinse your ham and go through the whole rigamarole once more.

A 48 hour soak is sufficient for some people, but I like to have full use of all my finger joints and the amount of residual salt (that's what you're doing, by the way, with the water - getting the salt out) is a tad too much for me and I go for 36.

Once the ham is sufficiently soaked, give it a final rinse and stick it in a large pot on the stove and boil it with some bay leaves, a couple of tablespoons of mustard seeds, three cups of cider vinegar and enough water to cover the ham - or at least the part below the bone. Bring that to a boil, then let it simmer for two hours. This is how The Lee Bros. do it, and you should trust them

Then turn off the heat, carefully remove the ham, and wait for it to cool a bit. This is for your own personal comfort. When you feel you are able to address the ham without pain, slice off the skin, but not the fat. The fat is the best part.

Score said fat in a cross-hatch fashion so as to form precious fat diamonds, and demarcate each with the thrust of a single clove. Then encrust the whole megillah with a thick layer of brown sugar - some mustard if you're feeling frisky - and bake the whole thing in a 375° oven in a pan with a roasting rack for about 45 minutes, an hour, or until the sugar has glazed up all heavenly-like.

Remove your ham and admire it for the American marvel that it is. Do that for at least twenty minutes before you carve it into thin slices and serve it to people who you deem worthy.

It would be sufficient on its own, but biscuits are a customary accompaniment, and pickled peaches as well. You will not have time to pickle peaches between now and Thanksgiving and you surely should not have truck with any that are on the market currently. Either invest in a time machine, befriend a grandmother with a stash of jars, or opt for peach preserves. It's okay, if not ideal. You'll know better for next time.

In closing: ham. For America.

More Easter on Eatocracy:
Chilling with my Peeps - make Peeps ice cream at home
Everybunny loves beer
Hop on these Easter wines
Slovak soul food – Paska for Easter
The bitter truth behind the chocolate in your Easter basket
Easter candy overload!
Easter lamb: It's Greek to me
How to confront a country ham
Vintage egg cocktails for Easter afternoon and evening

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Charlotte

    I come from farm country in Southern Virginia, the home of wonderful country hams. I've never heard of anyone soaking a ham longer than overnight (I soak ours 8 hrs), and it needs to be cooked 22 mins. per lb. (whether baking or boiling). And if you don't own a smokehouse and raise the pigs yourself, Felts is the company that sells the best alternative.

    March 31, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  2. davidpur

    When I was a kid in the 50's I remember waking up to the smell of country ham, eggs and bisquits on Sunday mornings. The aroma was unmistakable. Now I go to the grocery and buy slices of name brand country ham and when I open the package it has a sour smell. When I cook it the same sour smell wafts up to my nose and when I eat it, it almost tastes as if it is bad. I'm not doing anything different than Mom did other than she bought a whole ham and sliced it as she needed it. Maybe its the packaging process and sitting in the package for so long that causes this. Losing my taste for country ham and I never thought that would happen.

    January 21, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  3. s-jan

    The mold on the rind (skin) is actually an important part of the ripening process of an authentic dry-cured ham that gives it unique flavor. If you ever eat an authentic country ham, you'll never want a brine-cured supermarket ham again. It's kind of like the difference between Camembert and Cheez-wiz

    November 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  4. Mr.Smith

    Jeez! Hams are not moldy or "dessicated, mold-ridden" nor do they possess a "barnyard funk". You make yourself look like a fool and you discredit your role.

    November 18, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • ZRS

      "Mold – Can often be found on country cured ham. Most of these are harmless but some molds can produce mycotoxins. Molds grow on hams during the long curing and drying process because the high salt and low temperatures do not inhibit these robust organisms. DO NOT DISCARD the ham. Wash it with hot water and scrub off the mold with a stiff vegetable brush."

      Have you never dealt with a real country ham? Lot of mold going on there. The above is from the USDA website.

      November 19, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  5. Ms. Grammar

    How do I confront a country ham? With a knife and fork. YUM!!!!

    November 17, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  6. watchful

    Congratulations. You've just rendered my grandmother's own recipe almost exactly. She was born over a hundred years ago and knew her way around a Smithfield ham. I agree with Collard Queen. It's mostly pepper–some mold–but it's got to go before you can proceed. My grandmother would soak the ham for 24 hours, discarding the water several times. She boiled (or rather simmered) it until you could slightly wiggle the center bone. Her glaze was just like yours. She had a metal enameled baby's bathtub, probably a relic of the Thirties, that was the perfect soaker-boiler. Her serving advice was very specific: Shave it ultra-thin, serve it as a side plate (with other meats), and accompany it with small, delicate homemade biscuits for maximum ham tastiness. And, yes, she made pickled peaches every summer, and they were often on the menu. She also made and served a green tomato pickle relish that was to die for. I've actually prepared all of these delectable things, but my kitchen is no longer equal to the task.

    November 17, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  7. Collard Queen

    IT IS NOT MOLD......IT IS PEPPER! Get yourself a genuine "Smithfield" Pepper Coated Ham. Then do all that stuff....still good. Or slice and make Red-Eye Gravy with coffee for breakfast.

    November 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      There is pepper, definitely, but often mold as well. Depends on the cure.

      November 16, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  8. MIke Gebert

    The old cookbook Charleston Receipts has a great country ham recipe where you make a kind of crust (somewhat like unsweetened gingerbread) and bake it inside that, which prevents it drying out, imparts spices from the crust... and looks cool as heck when you crack it open to slice. Here's some pics:

    November 16, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  9. booktopiareviews

    yum. Country Ham is an ART. C. Purvis @ the Charlotte Observer did a great series of articles about the ham. I'm glad I live somewhere I can buy slices and biscuit chunks of country ham, ready to eat. :-)

    November 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  10. jyee

    "for country ham is an American national treasure that rivals the finest porcine offerings of Italy, Spain and any other of the world’s ham-curing cultures"

    Perhaps our treasures are so underrated because we tend to ruin them? American country ham is cured, which means, you can avoid the whole double soaking and cooking and just slice it thin and eat it.

    November 16, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  11. Truth

    Every year, I go out of my way to find the best Kosher ham that I can, and serve it proudly.

    November 16, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • AleeD

      ROFLMAO! I'm sure it's tasty, too!

      November 16, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
      • Truth@AleeD

        Not many people get that one...:)

        November 16, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Hamm

      I serve my Kosher ham with cheese and bacon. You?

      November 16, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
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