There's a substantial difference between the pink, watery slices of deli sandwich ham and the rich flavors of a smoked ham you bake at home. A well-made smoked ham offers a complex range of sweet, salty and savory flavors and makes a festive meal for special occasions or a weekend family meal. The shank end of the ham is leaner than the butt end, making it a better choice if you're watching your fat consumption.
Hams are made by curing, and sometimes smoking, the hind leg of a hog. Whole hams are huge, ranging from 10 to 20 pounds and sometimes more. That's great if you're cooking for a family reunion, but for a normal meal, it's a bit much. Usually, hams are cut into a top or butt half, and a bottom or shank half. The butt half is meatier and gives larger slices, but the shank half has denser, firmer, leaner meat. It's also high in natural collagen, which gives it a rich and luscious texture even though it's lower in fat.
Commercially-raised pork seldom gets as tough as other meats, and ham's brining process also provides a degree of natural tenderization. Still, the shank end of the leg has more connective tissues than the butt end. If you bake the ham slowly, the collagen in those connective tissues dissolve into gelatin, which gives the ham a soft texture and rich flavor. Long cooking at low temperature is the key.
Prepare your ham by slashing the rind in several places, or scoring it the traditional way into diamond shapes. It protects your ham from drying out during cooking, so don't remove it until later. Adding some water to the roasting pan also helps. Use the rack if your roaster has one, otherwise coarsely chop some carrots and celery and use those as a cushion to keep your ham above the water. Cover the pan tightly with foil and place it in a preheated oven at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. The shank is food safe after its interior reaches 145 F, about 35 to 40 minutes per pound, but the collagen won't fully melt until it reaches 165 F or higher; that takes an extra five to 10 minutes per pound.
Sometimes, the small end of the ham shank is removed and sold separately as a smoked ham hock. The hock is the extreme version of the shank, with less meat and more connective tissue. It makes a single meal for a small family, when baked using the same method as a larger shank. It's also small enough to fit comfortably in a slow cooker, which gives you a perfectly tender meal when you get home at dinner time.
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- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: Ham and Food Safety
- What's Cooking America: How To Cook Perfect Ham -- Cooking Ham 101
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.