We learned ham-making from our Zen master of backyard butchery, Dr. Ray McConnell, a former Rhode Island dentist and swamp Yankee who now owns Alewives & Ales
bed, breakfast & homebrewery in Damariscotta, Maine.
Doc McConnell learned his craft in the Bavarian breweries and smokehouses that passed for his hearth and home while an Army officer stationed in Bamberg, Germany
. The Bavarians do amazing things with pork and Doc absorbed everything they taught him and voraciously ate the results.
Back here in the States, he built a smokehouse and fills it each autumn with hams, bacons, salmon, beef tenderloin and anything else that can take a cure and some smoke.
(That's Kerry with some hams there, on the way to the smokehouse.)
This is his basic homemade ham recipe (it's the same cure we use in our smoky homemade bacons
). We butcher our own hogs most years. But if you search around, you can find fresh hams from local butchers. We usually do the work in October. The weather is cool enough (at least we were live up north) so we can butcher and cure outside, and then do the smoking on crisp November days. It also allows us to have our hams and bacons ready in time for the holiday season and cold-weather football.
Once you eat our hams, you'll never eat a storebought ham again. As our hams bake, they exude a black, salty ooze that adds incredible flavor and tastes like heaven. We even cut some of the larger hams into smoky ham steaks. You simply pull out a ham steak for a quick meal, or chop it up to add to your favorite jambalaya
, and you're read to go.
CHFF's smoky homemade hams:
- 2 fresh hams, up to 20 pounds each (or fresh ham shoulders)
- 5 gallons of water
- 5 pounds kosher salt
- 3 pounds brown sugar
- 15 ounces of Sausage Maker InstaCure No. 1 (3 ounces per gallon of cure), also called "pink salt"
Mix water, salt, sugar and InstaCure (or pink salt) very well in a very large crock until salt, sugar and Insta Cure are completely dissolved. The cure is ready when a small potato will just begin to float. If potato quickly sinks to the bottom, add some more salt.
Fill a meat pump
with cure and inject each ham dozens of times. You cannot over-inject the hams and the more brine you inject the better it will cure. You should actually see the meat expand as it fills with brine. When you think you've injected enough brine, inject some more.
When done, place your hams in the crock so that they are completely covered with the cure. (If needed, place some clean boards on top of the cure and weigh it down with some clean stones.) Store in a cool, dark place for three to four weeks and inspect every four or five days, skimming off any fat that rises to the top.
After three or four weeks, remove the hams, scrub the skin and meat gently with a clean, plastic scrub brush and then soak in plain water for 24 hours. Remove from the water and, using a large needle, thread a piece of high-quality butcher's string through the skin and narrow piece of meat on the shaft of the ham. Use this string to hang the ham and let it dry in a cool, dark place for 24 hours (a big, heavy nail stuck into a beam in your cellar is a perfectly good place to hang your hams). Double-string for heavier hams.
When the hams are dry, build a fire in a smokehouse or very large smoker, making sure to have plenty of wet wood available (either freshly cut wood, or wood that's been soaked for about an hour in water). Wet wood will create plenty of smoke. You'll need dozens of logs to complete the job. Place hams in the smoker, as far from the fire as possible.
You want a fairly steady stream of smoke at a very low temperature, no more than 110 degrees or so. This is cold smoking. (It's hard to keep such a low temperature in a small smoker, which is why it's helpful to have your own smokehouse or a very large smoker.) Smoke for two or three days, or until smoked to your liking. The hams will turn an attractive brownish red as they take on smoke.
Whole hams can be frozen for a year or more and baked at big gatherings. If you have an industrial meat slicer or had the good sense to befriend a butcher – maybe the guy who got you the large, fresh hams – you can slice a series of ham steaks off the end and use them as needed.