American "country hams" are a dry-cured ham similar to those produced across Europe and Asia. Oddly, while consumers happily pay a fortune for imported prosciutto, jamon iberico or Jinhua ham, country hams are little regarded outside of their home territory in the South. The hams are carefully salted and then air-dried for a period of months, after which they may be kept without refrigeration for years. They may be smoked or unsmoked, as desired.
Pat the surface of the pork leg with paper towels to dry up any surface moisture. Use a sharp knife to carefully loosen the flesh from around the bone at the thick end of the leg, making an opening 1 to 2 inches deep.
Mix the salt, sugar and black pepper in a plastic bag or a bowl. Carefully rub the mixture over the entire surface of the pork leg, taking care to thoroughly cover the entire surface. Work the curing mixture into the open space you've cut between the bone and the flesh. This will help cure the thickest part of the leg.
Wrap the ham in a large pillowcase, or in brown paper and then a net bag. Hang in a cool, well-ventilated place that is safe from animals. This is best done during the winter months, when night temperatures will be at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If an empty refrigerator is available, this provides an ideally controlled environment.
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Cure the ham for 75 to 90 days, at approximately 2 1/2 to 3 days per pound of meat. Remove the ham from its wrappings. Some white mold on the surface is normal, and may be scraped away easily along with any residual curing mixture. Wiping the ham with a clean paper towel soaked in vinegar will remove any remaining mold.
Rub the cleaned ham with the coarsely ground black pepper. Cold-smoke the ham, if desired, for 12 hours. Country hams are not generally smoked, but this is a matter of personal taste.
Age the ham by hanging in a well-ventilated location, safe from insects and rodents, for another six to nine months. Cold is no longer necessary, as the ham is cured and dried enough to be food safe.
The longer the ham is aged, the more complex and concentrated its flavors will be.
A commercial curing product such as Prague Powder or Tinted Curing Mix may be added to the curing mixture to maintain the ham's color. Curing mix may be purchased from butchers' supply houses or online vendors, or small amounts may be available from a local butcher. Use as directed.
- "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Revised Second Edition"; Harold S. McGee, 2004
- University of Missouri Extension: Country Curing Hams
- Edible Memphis; "A Sure Cure"; Carol Penn-Romine; Summer 2007
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.