Monday, December 10, 2012

Cooked your holiday ham yet? No? Here's how!

Well, shoot, lookahere, it's barely two weeks before Christmas and I've been so busy trying to wind up work on a book that I plum forgot what ought to be a Christmastime tradition around these parts: A great recipe for the best ham you ever ate.

It's important, of course, this being the Southern Appalachians and all, and as Southerners we have a duty to eat good pork and support an industry that has given the free world Smithfield hams in Virginia and pit-cooked barbecue in North Carolina and even something they call BBQ in more Southern climes.   Plus, you're going to need some ham and some greens and some black-eyed peas on New Years Day, assuming you want to start 2013 off on a good foot.

My Dad considered himself one of the world's foremost experts in eating ham.  Not the raising of ham, or the curing or the cooking or anything else related to the fixing.  Nossir, he just liked to eat 'em.  The ones he especially liked he called "hammus alabammus" -- from the pet pig Salomey belonging to the Yokum family in Al Capp's sometimes hilarious comic strip, Li'l Abner.  Dad would rate how country a ham was by quarts.  "That was a three-quart ham we had tonight," he'd say, referring not to the volume of ham we'd just wolfed down, but on how many quarts of water he'd likely have to drink that evening to deal with the salt factor before he hit the rack.  The more quarts, the better he liked it, and don't mention any of this to his salt-obsessed doctor, who'd surely read him seven riot acts for consuming so much salt and revving up his heart rate to about the same pace as Ol' 97 when it came screaming down the line toward Danville.

But I digress. The thing about the ham we've learned to enjoy up here is not only how good it is, but how you can make a house party out of fixing it. Or not, as you see fit, but it's always good to have a little Irish whiskey around to sip on while dreaming of what that ham-in-the-works aroma really means.  It means you are about to do some fine eating.

This set of instructions first appeared online, I think, in a blog of The Charlotte Observer, but it has its roots in the Person County N.C. community of Roxboro.  My neighbor Barnie Day passed it on to me a few years back and has demonstrated several times in the past year that this thing works well every time. I can't improve on Barnie's writing or his cooking, so here it is, in his own words.  Enjoy:

This is the world’s best way to cook a country ham.  Guaranteed.  Period.  Scout’s honor.  Cross my heart and hope to die.  And it’s not original.  Of course, I stole it.  And, as luck would have it, it is also the easiest.  Often the case.  We overcomplicate a lot of things.  Cooking a ham is one of them.

Let’s start with the ham itself, and how it was cured. 

There are lots of run-of-the-mill brands, some of them old and famous but still run-of-the-mill, brands that owe their reputations more to glossy catalogues and clever and expensive marketing campaigns than they do to judge-by-eating juries. 

Many of these hams are cured “inside out,” needle-embalmed with nitrate injections.  They are not the best hams -- often more expensive -- but not the best.

Still, these hams eat okay -- unless you’ve eaten ham cured like your granddaddy cured it, ham cured the old way.

He cured his hams “outside in.”  He didn’t know about nitrate injections.  (And if he had, he wouldn’t have done it to his hams!)  He simply packed his fresh in plain salt for six to eight weeks, took them up, washed and dried them, maybe smoked them a little, maybe not, probably peppered them, hung them in cotton sacking in a cool place, out of reach of the dogs, and aged them for several months. 

A note here:  don’t be flummoxed by the term “sugar cured.”  Often salt is mixed with sugar, with pepper, with molasses, with honey -- all kinds of stuff -- and labeled some fancy “cure,” or another, but these things -- including smoke -- be it apple wood, hickory, whatever -- only flavor hams.  What cures, or preserves, a ham is the salt that it absorbs during the curing process. 

Buy whatever brand you want.  For my money, the best country ham in this part of the world, the one closest to what your granddaddy cured, is a Clifty Farm ham, processed for 60 years or so by the Murphey Family, in Paris, Tennessee.  They’re usually available, and reasonably priced, across Southside Virginia around Christmastime.  ($1.79 a pound at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville.)

[Also available, our scouts in the field have advised us, at Slaughter's in Floyd. And now, back to Barnie:)

Okay, now let’s cook that bad boy!

Unwrap the ham and wash it.  Yeah, they all have a little mold.  No big deal.  Really.  It would cause me some concern if it didn’t have mold on it.  Just palm it off with a little warm water.  Two minutes, tops. 

Put the ham in a pot that you have a top for.  I always have to cut the hock off so it will fit the pot I use.  They’ll cut the hock off for you at the grocery store.  If I have to tell you what that hock is good for, stop reading this and move on.  You got no business with a country ham.  Either that, or you’re a Yankee, and threw the ham out when you saw the mold.

Fill the pot with water until the ham is covered with 3-4 inches, put the top on, and bring it to a boil.

Now here is the trick to this:  As soon as it begins to boil, you take it off the stove.  That’s right.  Off the stove when it begins to boil.  Set it somewhere where it will be out of your way. 

Now we’re going to wrap that puppy up.  Pot and all.  You can use most anything -- towels, an old blanket, a quilt, a sleeping bag.  The patio lounge cushion works well.  That’s what I use.  The idea is to insulate the pot so that it holds the heat.

I put an inch or so of newspaper under the pot, the same amount on top, wrap the patio cushion around it, and tie the cushion in place with baling twine.  This doesn’t take five minutes.  Just make sure it’s insulated good.

When you get it wrapped, leave it alone.  Walk away from it.  Forget about it for 12 hours.  Just let it sit.

After 12 hours, remove the wrap, and take the ham out of the pot and put it on a baking pan.  Careful here—even after sitting 12 hours, the water will be too hot for you to put your hands in.

Trim the skin off, score a diamond pattern on the thin layer of encasing fat, rub into it a cup of white sugar, put the ham -- uncovered -- in the oven and bake it for 2 hours at 275 degrees.  And that’s it.  You’re done.  Let it cool before slicing. 

Merry Christmas.  And best to you and yourn.

Barnie K. Day
Meadows of Dan, VA


  1. ".....a Clifty Farm ham, processed for 60 years or so by the Murphey Family, in Paris, Tennessee."

    Golly but that seems like an awfully long cure!

  2. You might can get away with a Tennessee ham now that you've moved across the state line, but real Tar Heels eat North Carolina hams.