The Thanksgiving Ham: Curing and Hanging

by Talley and Beryl

in Methods,Pork

For the past 20 days or so, we’ve been working on a little edible experiment that will culminate on Thanksgiving day. This year, we’re bringing a classic home-cured, smoked, boiled, and roasted ham to our family gathering, to supplement the turkey of course. We’ve done some research (with most of our information coming from that unique champion of the smallholding, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) and we’re curing a 7 pound hunk of fresh ham that came with the half pig we got from our neighbors. We wanted to share a little of the process with you before the big day.

fresh ham and beerWe’ve been asked a couple times about the word “ham”, so just to clarify: ham is simply the thigh of a pig. The name does not necessarily imply a process. While it is almost always seen cured in some way, especially here in America, it can also be cooked without curing, where it is usually referred to as a “fresh ham”. There are two main kinds of cures: dry cures and wet cures. For dry curing, the ham is heavily salted with a dry curing mixture, yielding hams like Prosciutto or the famous Spanish Jamón. Wet curing is the process of immersing the ham in a salt solution with flavorings. America largely inherited it’s wet-cured ham tradition from 17th and 18th century practice in Britain and France. However, I can only assume that the neon-pink, chemical-laden monstrosities labeled “ham” in American supermarkets these days bear little resemblance to the traditional wet-cured hams for which they are named. That was part of the inspiration for undertaking this project: a desire to taste a little of the past.

fresh ham with wiltshire cure

Pretty pink ham, meet dark brown cure

We decided to go with a classic Wiltshire cure that uses beer, molasses, juniper, and pepper for flavoring in addition to copious amounts of salt.  We did chose to include a curing salt that contained sodium nitrite, which is supposed to preserve color, prevent botulism, and preserve flavor. The necessity of this seems to be getting a lot of discussion recently, and I won’t go into it here.  I chose to follow the wisdom of Whittingstall, Michael Ruhlman, Harold McGee, and Armandino Batali.  The finished cure was incredibly potent smelling–it actually smelled of salt, and I know that’s not really possible–and it looked like black death.

wiltshire cureWe actually had difficulty getting all of the salt called for into solution. Whittingstall’s Wiltshire brine calls for 3 pounds of salt for 3 quarts of beer. I tell ya, we boiled and boiled that brine, and even added a little more beer than called for. In the end, however, I just settled for the layer of salt settling at the bottom, figuring the solution was supersaturated, and slightly fearing the outcome! You can kind of see the thin layer of salt that formed on the surface of the brine as it cooled.

wiltshire cureThe ham was first brined in a classic brine of water and salt before being submerged in the Wiltshire cure in a bucket in our refrigerator for about 2 weeks.

ham in basic brine The change in color that the cure cured hambestowed on the pork was incredible. It went in looking like a normal reddish pink cut of pork, and came out looking like cooked beef! The molasses clearly played a large role in staining the exterior, and the salt had firmed the ham significantly.

cured hamAfter the brine, the ham is hung for about a day to dry out the exterior as much as possible before the smoking step. As I understand it, this helps the smoke to adhere to the ham. I tied the ham in kitchen twine and hung it on the back porch of our houseboat. I gather that, while the weather is reasonably cold (and the bugs are gone), you can hang a cured ham like this for weeks or even months. That was, after all, the original point of curing: to preserve your meat for later consumption.

hanging hamhanging ham

Next step: smoking the ham.

Get the recipe and read about the finished ham: Thanksgiving Ham.

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{ 2 trackbacks }

Houseboat Eats: Smoking the Thanksgiving Ham
November 25, 2009 at 10:02 am
Houseboat Eats: Thanksgiving Ham
November 28, 2009 at 5:57 pm

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Zach November 24, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Damn! I really want to taste that ham!


dawn November 25, 2009 at 3:50 am

Sounds awesome, where is the recipe from, anxious to hear about the smoking part, thanks for a great website.


Talley November 25, 2009 at 7:37 am

The recipe is mainly from The River Cottage Cookbook. I’ll post the whole recipe in the final post.


Nigel November 27, 2009 at 6:14 pm

Wow, that looks grand! Well done, I’m going to give it a try.


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