Thanksgiving Ham

by Talley and Beryl

in Main Course,Methods,Pork

For the past month, we’ve been working on this Thanksgiving ham. We cured the ham, hung it, smoked it, soaked it, boiled it, roasted it, and served it. Now, after all that, it’s kind of hard to know how to measure success. Having never experienced anything but standard, store-bought ham before, we weren’t exactly sure what a traditional ham was “supposed” to taste like. We were not necessarily aiming to produce the best tasting ham anyone had ever had, but we were hoping to authentically reproduce the taste of a bygone practice. We were prepared for disappointment, but were hoping for an edible and uniquely flavored piece of meat.

Thanksgiving HamI’m happy to report that the experiment was a success, though there was room for improvement. The ham was a touch on the dry side and it was definitely a bit salty. Overall though, it was absolutely worth the effort. The taste to effort ratio wasn’t exactly through the roof, though it was a crap-load of fun, and it was a hell of a learning process. There were a few folks at thanksgiving dinner who had experienced classic artisanal hams before and said that ours bore a strong resemblance, which was encouraging. Compared to a store-bought ham, ours was much less “juicy” and had more of a pulled-pork feel with a good, complex flavor reminiscent of jerky. The sweet and bitter flavor of the molasses in the cure did come through in the crust, and the glaze of brown sugar and mustard added some depth as well. The parsley béchamel sauce that it was served with was (intentionally) under-seasoned and did a good job tempering the saltiness of the ham.

Thanksgiving Ham I suspect that some of the dryness was a result of the ham having to brave a two hour trip between the boiling and the roasting stage. Usually, it would just get glazed and roasted directly after the boiling, so perhaps it got a little dehydrated in transit. fresh hamAlso, being a middle cut, my ham lacked a good layer of fat all around the ham and that may have contributed to drying in the oven. On the other hand, it is possible that this is just how a home-cured ham compares to the preserved, chemical-laden hams in the supermarket. I would love to hear from anyone who has tried anything similar: how did your ham compare? Regarding the saltiness: it was at a low enough level to taste great in the first couple bites, but high enough to desiccate the mouth after a while. For the Thanksgiving meal, it worked great along side the other fantastic sides brought by the family. But for a main dish served alone, I think it’d be a bit much. I think the salt could be tempered in the future by a shorter brine, a longer pre-soak, and more changes of water during the boiling. We used some ham the next day for crusty, hot ham sandwiches made with coarse mustard, Havarti cheese and leftover figs–the uniquely flavored ham came through and in a sandwich, the salt was a lot easier to take.

Thanksgiving HamLastly, the “glaze” turned out to be more of a “crust”. I may have needed to water down the mustard and sugar mixture that I slathered on before the roasting. But, by the time it was all sliced up and topped with spiced figs and parsley sauce… it just didn’t matter. It was just fun to finally get to try this thing that we’d been working on for so long and have it be tasty, and it was great to get to share it with so many people!

Here is the complete recipe I followed, based on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fantastic River Cottage Cookbook, with my comments on various parts of the process in italics. If you are interested in traditional preparations such as this, his books are a perfect place to start. The amounts indicated should work for a half of a leg, or a small boned out leg. My ham was about 7 pounds before curing. Increase the volume as necessary to cover your ham.

Home-Cured Ham with Sweet Mustard Glaze,
Spiced Figs, and Parsley Sauce

Adapted From The River Cottage Cookbook

UPDATE: After receiving a couple of very helpful comments below, I looked around quite a bit and found that there is general consensus that the salt ratios published in the River Cottage Cookbook are too high. I have modified the following Wiltshire cure from the published ratio of 4 pounds of salt per gallon of water to the more reasonable 2½ pounds of salt per gallon.

Ideally, your ham should spend a few hours in the basic brine before going into the Wiltshire brine.

Basic Brine

  • 3¾ pounds salt
  • 1½ oz saltpeter (optional)
  • 1½ gallons water

Bring the brine ingredients to a hard boil for about 10 minutes, skimming off any froth. Allow the brine to cool fully and place it into a large non-metallic container (such as plastic or glass). Add your meat to the brine. The meat should be chilled when you place it into the brine (37˚F to 39˚F). Allow the leg to brine in the basic brine for a few hours before transferring it to the Wiltshire cure.

Wiltshire Brine

  • 2 pounds salt (kosher or sea salt)
  • 1½ oz saltpeter (optional)
  • 3 quarts beer
  • 2 pounds molasses or treacle
  • 20 to 30 juniper berries
  • 2 Tbsp black peppercorns, crushed

Boil all the ingredients for the Wiltshire cure together and then allow it to cool fully to about 38˚F. Transfer to a large container, again it’s important that this container be non-metallic. After the meat has spent a few hours in the basic brine, transfer it to the Wiltshire cure and submerge it completely using a non-metallic weight, like a ceramic dish or something. Place into the refrigerator, or a very cool place, and brine the pork for about 1 day per pound. If you are going to boil the ham immediately (without hanging) you can cut down on the cure time. If you can’t fit the brine in your refrigerator, you can use frozen cold packs to keep the water cool without increasing the amount of water.
Our ham was 7 pounds before brining, and it spent 12 days in the brine: about 1¾ days for every pound. In order to reduce saltiness, I will probably reduce this amount of brining time in the future, especially when I will be cooking the ham so soon after brining.

Hang the ham:
After the allotted time, remove the ham from the cure and rinse it. Dry it well with a cotton cloth and put it into a cheesecloth bag, a string bag, an old cotton pillowcase, or tie it will as you would a pork roast with a loop for hanging. Hang it to dry in a cool well-ventilated place for 24 hours. In the colder months, outside is fine as long as there are no bugs around to pester your meat.

Smoke the ham:
To smoke the ham, hang it high above a hardwood fire or place it inside your smoker and smoke it either continuously for a day, or intermittently for 5 to 7 days. Ideally, the air temperature around the ham should not exceed 105˚F, and lower is better. For tips on “cold” smoking in a vertical water smoker, read our post on smoking the ham. In the winter months, a finished smoked ham (with maximum cure time) can hang in a ventilated area for a up to four months, or refrigerated for 6 months.

Soak the ham:
36 to 48 hours before you want to cook the ham, put the ham into a large bucket of cold water and allow to soak in a cool place. Change the water every 12 hours to help remove salt from the ham. We soaked ours for 36 hours, and will probably increase that to 48 hours next time

Cook the ham:

  • Cured, smoked, and soaked ham
  • 1 onion
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, chopped
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
  • 3 or 4 bay leaves
  • 5 or 6 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 small bunch of parsley stalks
  • for the figs:
  • 1 lb dried figs
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • 6 cardamom pods
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 small dried chile
  • for the glaze:
  • 1 Tbsp English mustard
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup rum or whiskey
  • 15 to 20 cloves
  • for the parsley sauce:
  • 1 carrot
  • ½ onion or 1 shallot
  • 1 celery stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
  • about 3 cups parsley leaves, chopped
  • freshly ground pepper

The day has finally arrived! Rinse the soaked ham and place it into a large stock pot. Cover it with plenty of fresh cold water and bring to a boil. Once the water has come to a boil, reduce the heat until the water is just barely simmering and cover partially with a lid. If the water is unpalatably salty salty after about an hour of simmering, discard it and replace with fresh boiling water. Our water was quite salty even after the first change. I might actually check the water a second time after an additional hour and replace with fresh boiling water if still salty. Add the stock vegetables and the herbs and continue cooking at a very gentle simmer for a total of 4 or 5 hours.

While the ham is simmering, seperate the dried figs and rinse in cold water to remove any rice flour. Put in a heatproof bowl pour over just enough boiling water to barely cover. Cover the bowl with a plate and let it sit for 3 to 4 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Remove the ham from the pot and allow it to cool slightly. Place the mustard and sugar for the glaze in a small bowl and add just enough of the rum or whiskey to mix it to a thick paste. If your ham has skin, carefully cut it away to leave a layer of fat on the ham. Put the ham in a roasting pan and score the fat with a sharp knife into a diamond pattern, without cutting into the meat. Slosh the remaining alcohol over the fat and then spread the glaze mixture all over it in an even layer. Stud the fat with whole cloves at a regular interval. Place the ham in the oven and roast at 350˚ for 1 to 1.5 hours depending on size, until the glaze is a dark golden brown crust.

While the ham is baking, continue with the figs and make the parsley sauce:

For the parsley sauce, chop the vegetables and place them into a saucepan with the milk and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let sit for about an hour to infuse. Strain out the vegetables and the bay leaf. Melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour, cook for a couple minutes until golden. Whisk in the milk, about a half cup at a time, and whisk vigorously to get a nice smooth sauce. Let simmer gently for about 5 minutes, whisking, until thickened. You can thin it if necessary with a little more warm milk. Cover until ready to serve. Just before serving, finish the sauce by stirring in the chopped parsley and seasoning with black pepper. If your ham is not already salty enough, you can add a little salt to the sauce, but in our experience, the bland sauce complemented the salty ham perfectly.

For the spiced figs, strain the figs and place the water into a clean saucepan and add the sugar and the spices. Stir over medium heat to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer and reduce to a light syrup. Add the figs and poach gently in the syrup until tender. Remove the chile, cover, and reserve until serving. If the syrup is too thick, add a little warm water.

Carve the ham while piping hot from the oven and serve on warm plates with 2 or 3 of the figs, a spoonful of their syrup on the meat, and a generous pool of parsley sauce on the side. Enjoy!

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Connie November 29, 2009 at 9:32 am

I wish I could remember everything we did to make ham back in school; I revisited my ancient notes for comparisons, since you mentioned saltiness. The ratio we used for the brine was: 3 gallons water to 2 pounds of salt, 10 oz-1.5 pounds sweetener, 7 oz TCM (nitrite), the soaking time 20-24 days. (If you use a brine pump, which is a like a giant syringe, the time is only 6-7 days.) Hope that helps.

You guys deserve a standing ovation for this project, by the way, have thoroughly enjoyed reading about it.


Talley November 29, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Thanks Connie, this has been a really fun experiment, and it’s nice to know someone is reading them! Thanks for digging into your old notes… Looks like our brine was much saltier than your school formula, though the time was shorter. The fact that we couldn’t even dissolve all of the salt called for was unsettling too, and probably should have tipped us off. I’ll definitely reduce that next time around.


Lola November 29, 2009 at 9:50 am

I was one of the lucky people who got to enjoy this delicious ham at Thanksgiving Dinner. It was drop-dead amazing. Thank you for your enormous efforts, Beryl & Talley. This ham will be the highlight of the “2009 Thanksgiving Story.”


DocChuck November 29, 2009 at 11:57 am

A great adventure. Thanks for sharing it with us.


Talley November 30, 2009 at 8:30 am

Our pleasure, thanks for following along!


Melinda November 29, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Stumbled upon your beautiful blog recently and have been worried about your ham. Actually worried about whether it would turn out ok or not! Congratulations and thanks for the very informative and enjoyable series. I would love to give this a try.


Talley November 30, 2009 at 8:30 am

Thanks for your concern melinda 🙂 We would love to hear back from you if you ever give it a try.


Paul Gahan December 2, 2009 at 5:05 am

I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but over here in the UK it is generally reckoned that most of the River Cottage recipes for curing meat & fish are wrong. I read a comment from Ray, HFW’s butcher at River Cottage, that Hugh didn’t check the quantites with him before publication, & consequently they all specify far too much salt. You can remedy it by lengthening the pre-cooking soak and changing the water frequently, and obviusly using less salt next time! It’s still a brilliant book, & your ham looks delicious.


Talley December 2, 2009 at 8:34 am

I had not heard that! Thanks so much for commenting, that’s enlightening, and I don’t think I’d have ever heard that if you didn’t say something. This is why we blog!
As I mentioned in the text, I was rather suspicious about those quantities, and planned to change them next time. But with this news, I am much more confident, and I will go up and change the quantities in the post. Thanks Paul.


Joe December 2, 2009 at 5:41 pm

I think you’re way to modest. This looks awesome and I hoped to someday get a chance to taste a cured ham effort from you guys.


Sophia September 7, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Wow, great job here. Awesome picture too! You should really consider submitting this to Recipe4Living’s Tasty Thanksgiving Recipe Contest – – It looks delicious!


kalayo November 30, 2010 at 1:32 am

if the ham is still a bit salty or “unfinished” straight from the oven, leave it in the ref for a few days


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