Guest Post – How to Cure a Ham by My Friend Mike

I blame this guest poster for getting me into charcuterie in the first place, and into smoking meat.  If there was a master smoker certification (and maybe there is) he would have credentials.  This is despite a meat curer’s handicap of being the only meat eater in a household of vegetarians so while I’ve been trying to get Mike to get 1/2 pig I realize it just doesn’t make sense for him and many others to buy meat in that quantity.  He did, however, kind-heartedly agree to smoke our ham.  That totally saved me since I was maxxed out with fridge and freezer space curing everything else.  I asked him to do a post on how to cure ham since so many of you have expressed interest in doing it yourself this fall so here is Mike’s post.

How to Cure and Smoke a Ham

I’ve enjoyed smoking and curing meats for a while now, but had never attempted a ham.  When Annette recently offered me the opportunity to share a high quality hog’s leg, it sounded like a great opportunity to try something new.  As it turned out, making your own ham is a very simple process that anyone can try, and the results were excellent.  As simple as the process was, I did manage to learn a thing or two along the way that will make it even easier next time.  For this ham I used the “American-Style Brown-Sugar-Glazed Holiday Ham” recipe from Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (p. 93).

First off, the ham was huge — 20 pounds.  It required a 5-gallon bucket to fit, and 2.5 gallons of brine.  The size made working with it a bit unwieldy.  I’d go with something smaller next time, if I have a choice. This took up a lot of fridge space, so if you only have one fridge make sure your significant other is aware of what you’re up to ahead of time.

Another thing to consider is how to get the ham fully submerged in the brine – it’s gonna want to float to the top for the first few days or so.  My bucket had a lid, which helped a lot.  I put a pie plate on top of the ham and used a small plastic container as a wedge between the lid and the plate, forcing the ham to the bottom.  The plate listed a bit and took on some brine, but it never slid off the top of the ham and it remained submerged without adjustment for the full 8.5 days.  Wrapping the plate tightly with plastic wrap might have stopped it from listing.  I also tried using the pie plate and a weight, but the plate would tilt and slide off the ham, allowing the ham to float to the top.

Here’s a picture with my lid/plastic container/pie plate setup.  It seemed a little sketchy but worked:

Next, I was so focused on getting the brine together and getting the ham in it (which was done on a weeknight after the kids went to bed, and required a trip to Cash & Carry for the bucket) that I neglected to really trim off all the fat and carve out the aitch-bone.  The ham came to me with the skin removed and a lot of the fat trimmed off, so I didn’t bother trimming it further.  After it was done brining I realized that it needed further trimming and cut off about 2 pounds of fat (and also got a couple glandular-looking bits that you definitely don’t want in there).  Unfortunately, I again forgot the aitch-bone.  Next time I’ll trim it before brining and definitely get the aitch bone out, because carving the finished product was a pain with it in there, and I think the brine would’ve penetrated the interior of the ham a little better without it.

Here’s a fuzzy picture of the little gland bits, which I found at the smaller end (top when serving, bottom while still on the pig) of the ham near the bone:

Next, I brined the ham for 8.5 days, and then rested it in the fridge (uncovered) for 24 hours before smoking.  The rest period is important to allow the salt to redistribute more evenly throughout the ham and to develop a pellicle to aid in smoke absorption.  However, the recipe calls for half a day in the brine per pound, so it should have been in there for 10 full days.  I shortened the brine due to scheduling (I received the ham on a Thursday and smoked it on a Sunday) and because I was afraid of it coming out too salty.  It is definitely not too salty at all.  In addition, the brine didn’t penetrate fully so the color of the finished product varies from a pink ham look near the outside to a very pale color on the inside.  More brine time might have corrected that, and removing the aitch-bone might have helped too.  In the future I might try injecting if I get another ham that size.

I use a Weber Smokey Mountain charcoal smoker.  It has always worked well for me and I’d recommend it to anyone.  Weber recently released a new version with some updates, and also a larger 22.5-inch size.  If you plan to smoke large cuts of meat, the larger smoker is probably the way to go.  For this cook I put a large clay saucer, like you’d use under a clay flowerpot, in the water pan and covered both with foil.  I didn’t think this cut of meat would require any additional moisture, and it was very juicy at the end.  For charcoal I used Trader Joe’s house brand of briquettes, which is repackaged Rancher charcoal from The Original Charcoal Company.  I’m a big fan of this charcoal because it is made of only hard wood and natural binders.  I’ve found it provides more consistent temps for longer cooks than lump (which I often use for high-temp grilling) and is easy to work with.  For smoke wood I used six fist-sized chunks of dry maple.  Maple gives a less aggressive smoke flavor than hickory and provides an excellent aroma and taste.  I always use the “Minion Method” to start my smoker, and did so here with about 20 lit briquettes.  I should’ve used about 30 lit briquettes due to the weather, which was around 55 degrees, windy and rainy.

I took the ham out of the fridge an hour before smoking to allow it to warm up a bit.  When it went in the smoker the internal temp was only 39 degrees Fahrenheit, so that wasn’t so helpful.  Weather conditions made the cook a little tricky, and it took a few hours for the cooker to get to my target temp of 220 degrees Fahrenheit.  After that I allowed it to drift as high as 250.  I pulled the ham out after 7.5 hours when the internal temp hit the mid 150s.  Another half-hour or hour might have helped render off a little more of the internal fat and connective tissue, but the ham turned out so juicy I’m not sure I’d be willing to risk drying it out.

Here’s a pic of the ham in the smoker at the beginning of the cook.  The interior diameter of my smoker is 18.5 inches, and the ham just barely fit:

Another thing I would do differently next time involves the glaze.  I mixed the glaze according to the recipe and applied it to the ham a couple hours before it finished smoking.  The glaze is fine, but I’ll only do that again if I plan to carve and serve it right out of the smoker.  My plan for this one was to split it with Annette and carve up and freeze most of the remainder, so the glaze really just made a tasty mess.

Here’s a picture of the ham when I removed it to apply the glaze.  It would really be delicious just like this, and the smell was amazing:

Here’s a picture with the glaze on:

After glazing the ham went back in the smoker for about two more hours.  When it was done I applied another coat of glaze.  Overall, I think it turned out great.  The flavor is very good, it’s super juicy and I’m pleased with it.  If you’re looking for a holiday ham, I think this is a good recipe.  Brining the ham is as simple as mixing a few ingredients and having the time and space for the meat and the container.  Smoking is equally simple.  The ingredients are pretty standard, other than pink salt, which can be found at Butcher & Packer.  I think next time I need ham (and it’s going to be a while) I might try this recipe with a picnic shoulder, which would be a lot more manageable, size-wise.

Here is a picture of the finished product, prior to carving:

Here’s a picture of a some slices, it’s bright pink near the outside and more the color of regular roasted pork near the interior:

The Recipe from Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

The Brine

1 gallon water

1 1/2 cups kosher salt

2 packed cups dark brown sugar

8 teaspoons pink salt (if using -  not necessary for safety sake though, it’s only to improve flavor & color)

1 12 to 15 pound ham, aitch bone removed (ours was closer to 20 pounds)

The Glaze

1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar

3/4 cup dijon mustard

1 tablespoon minced garlic

6 Responses to Guest Post – How to Cure a Ham by My Friend Mike

  1. This is such a great step-by-step post! We’re looking into getting a pig from Bruce. Tyler wants to take the class and learn how to butch his own pig. Is that what you did or did you have someone in your group that knew how to butcher? We got the charcuterie book you recommended from the library. This is a book we want to own! Our smoked pheasant came out so good. I can’t wait to try some of the recipes with pork!

  2. Hi Brittney, one of my friends had done this before but I had not. I’m assuming anyone who has made it this far down in a ham curing post is not meat squeamish but if you are stop reading NOW.

    Once we had cut the skin around the ankles we peeled it back (using sharp knives, not easy like a rabbit) all the way down the pig. At the neck we used a saw to cut off the head. The removal of the innards was a little tricky but once that was done we sawed down the middle to separate the pig into halves which we then sent up to Silvana to have them cut into primal cuts. Next time I will pay Silvana the $60 to come do the farm kill for me and then I may just take it from there. It was something like 53 cents/# for them to butcher but there weren’t too many more cuts to do at that point. We did all the hard work (and poorly I might add since we failed to get all the lard for soap making or leaf lard for baking).

    The Herb Farm has a lunch and butcher/charcuterie class this month for a surprising price so you may want to check into that but the nice thing about Bruce’s class is you get the pig to take home.

    Where did you get pheasant? I haven’t had one in years and boy are they tasty! But then so is the pork. :)

  3. Such a great post, thanks for the step by step. Annette–so amazing that you did all that. I appreciate the explicit comment. Might be a silly question, but how long does the ham stay? In the fridge?

  4. Mike – Excellent post!
    many thanks for the details and pics,

  5. Hi Julia, Mike did it! Or did you mean the part where I field dressed Chubby? It was definitely new territory for me to say the least. In high school I had a hard time dissecting my frog but I’ve come a long ways. ;p

    You know, I’m not sure how long a ham can hang out in the fridge once it’s been smoked. I’m assuming it lasts longer than uncured meat since that was why meat was cured historically but I try not to let meat hang out for longer than a week just to be safe. I think Mike said the brine process was 10 days in the fridge pre-smoking though. Hope that helps.

  6. You definitely need to inject a ham that size. It also cuts down on brine time. You would think Ruhlman’s book would explain that, but it’s the sort of thing you learn from trial and error. I’m brining a 16 pounder as we speak (this time injected all over and especially near the aitch bone) but won’t be smoking it.

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