Any meat can be preserved by salting, smoking or drying it, but pork is the champion of cured meats. In the forms of bacon, ham, and a staggering number of sausages and deli meats, pork accounts for many of the world's favorite cured products.Some of the most glorious are the dried hams, including Italian prosciutto, Spanish jamon and America's own country hams. Carving and deboning a large country ham takes time and practice, but it's within the abilities of any home cook.
Hams are cut from the hind quarters of a hog and include the hip and thigh portions of the leg as well as a small portion of the shank. Ordinary hams are soaked in brine, lightly smoked -- or even smoke-flavored -- and then sold while they're still relatively fresh. Country hams are cured in dry salt, rather than brine, and are hung in a cool place to dry slowly over a period of months. They're saltier than mainstream hams, but with a richer, concentrated flavor and a distinctively dense texture. They must be pre-soaked and simmered to remove the excess salt, then can be baked or fried.
Exposing the Bone
A whole country ham can be quite large, often over 20 pounds. For home cooks, deboning the ham and freezing it in sections is often the most practical way to use it. Begin at the broad end of the ham, where you'll find a portion of the hip joint called the "aitch" bone. Cut around the end of the bone, angling your knife tip in behind it until you find the hip socket. Cut through the tendons and remove the aitch bone. You'll see a natural seam where the leg's large muscles meet. Carefully follow that seam with your knife, separating the muscles all the way to the bone. Do the same at the shank end of the ham, so the full length of the bone is exposed.
Return to the thigh bone in the butt portion of the ham. Hold back the large muscle with one hand and free the meat from the thigh bone with long strokes of your knife. Repeat for the other muscle so the bone is laid bare. Reach underneath it with your knife tip, cutting away the bone as far as the knee joint. Cut carefully around the knee joint, then separate the muscles of the shank from their bone. Lift out the bone, severing any final pieces of tendon or cartilage. You can now portion the ham or tie it for roasting. The bone is filled with flavor, so save it for soupmaking.
A Few Tips
Deboning the ham while it's uncooked is more difficult because the meat is denser, but it leaves you with compact portions that are much easier to soak, simmer and bake. Soaking and simmering the ham takes large pots, but if you can manage it the precooked ham is easier to debone. An additional benefit is that your portions will be ready to use as soon as they're thawed, which speeds meal preparation. To carve your deboned portions, simply slice across the grain of the meat after it's heated.
- Garde Manger: The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen; Culinary Institute of America
- Virginia Cooperative Extension: Dry Curing Virginia-Style Ham
Fred Decker is a trained chef and prolific freelance writer. In previous careers, he sold insurance and mutual funds, and was a longtime retailer. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His articles have appeared on numerous home and garden sites including GoneOutdoors, TheNest and eHow.