Country cured hams offer a unique, smoked flavor. This traditional curing technique was created by early American colonists who salted hams and let them cure in seasonal temperature changes and has continued as an artisanal preparation in the Southern United States.
Country-cured hams are cured with a mixture of salt, sodium nitrate (saltpeter) or nitrite, and sometimes sugar and other spices, and then hardwood smoked. The nitrate or nitrite not only protects against botulinum bacteria but also gives the ham its deep rosy pink color. Sugar is a tenderizer, and depending on where the ham is made, additional spices are added, contributing various flavors. (In Missouri, for example, the seasoning includes brown sugar, making the ham less salty than versions from other states.)
Curing and Aging Process
Each state in the South may have its own method and practice of curing country ham, but the process is similar in the steps to follow. Once the hams are covered with the salt-sugar mixture, they are left to age for a month or so to up to 3 years. (Virginia hams cure 1 to 1 1/2 days per pound of ham.) Once cured, the hams need to be soaked in water and the brine washed off; this allows the smoke to penetrate the meat. Then the ham is stored in a 50 to 60 F environment for 2 weeks to evenly distribute the cure; the meat will shrink a bit at this point.
Most recipes call for smoking the ham, which requires a low temperature of about 90 F and some hardwood such as hickory, apple, oak, and cherry. Alternatively, some country hams are coated with another mixture, this one heavy on the black pepper.
Similar to aging cheese, the country hams go through a process where they are left for anywhere from 1 1/2 to 6 months in a warm, dry environment. This allows the ham to develop its signature flavor.
Country ham requires special planning. Whether you are cooking a whole or half country ham, it is important to wash the ham of the salt coating, and then soak in water and place in the refrigerator for 4 to 12 hours. After this process is done, cover the country ham with water and boil it for 20 to 25 minutes per pound. Then, drain the pot, glaze the ham, and cook it in the oven until it's golden brown. The ham can be cooked at about 400 F for 15 minutes total.
Cured ham is technically one which has not been cooked yet. It will keep in the fridge for 5 to 7 days or until the “use-by” date listed. If not cooked by that time, you can freeze it for about 3 to 4 months. After it is cooked, cured hams will keep in the refrigerator for roughly 3 to 5 days or frozen for up to 2 months before going bad. Country ham that has already been cooked, cut, and sliced thin will keep for around a month in the refrigerator; following this time, it can be frozen up to another month.
Mold and Cured Ham
Country hams develop an unattractive layer of mold during the long curing and drying process due to the high salt and low temperatures. This is normal and an indication of proper aging, much like fine cheeses. However, the mold resulting from the aging must be removed before the meat is cooked. It is not safe to consume the mold itself, but the ham is perfectly fine to eat.
Mostly harmless molds are found on country cured ham but some molds can produce mycotoxins. Regardless, the ham does not need to be discarded and is perfectly fine to eat. Make sure to wash it with hot water and scrub off the mold with a stiff vegetable brush prior to smoking or cooking.