Country-cured ham is a preserved meat made by smoking and aging a leg of pork. Traditional in the South, this ham is usually served at breakfast with biscuits. Sold ready to cook, it can be incorporated in an appealing array of appetizing recipes. All country hams are cured, but not all are smoked.
What Is Country-Cured Ham?
With a unique salty flavor, country-cured ham is an aged porcine product made nowadays with safe and updated techniques but inherited from the American colonists, who needed well-preserved foods that could withstand seasonal temperature changes and the lack of proper refrigeration. Artisanally made in the South, the legs are first cured with a mixture of salt and sodium nitrate (or nitrite) to protect against bacteria that can cause botulism, and sometimes sugar and other spices. Then most are hardwood smoked.
How Country-Cured Ham Is Made
Once covered with the salt, sugar, and spice mixture, the legs are left to age for a month to three years, then soaked to wash off the brine and smoked with hardwood, such as hickory, apple, oak, or cherry. However, some legs are left to age without going into the smoker. Most country-cured hams have a thick layer of mold that needs to be washed off before cooking and eating.
How to Cook Country-Cured Ham
Country-cured ham is usually sold vacuum-packed and presoaked, while others are sold as is in the net in which it was cured. In either case, the ham is still quite salty, and you absolutely need to wash and soak it for one to two days, keeping it cold and changing the water every 12 hours. Finally, boil the ham for 20 to 25 minutes in clean water. Country cured ham develops an unattractive layer of mold during the long curing and drying process due to the high salt content 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.
In short, the ham is "cooked" by the aging and curing process, so you could eat it after soaking and cleaning, but most people and most recipes call for frying, baking, sautéeing, grilling, or pan-frying it. No matter your recipe, be sure that the ham reaches an inner temperature of 160 F.
What Does Country-Cured Ham Taste Like?
Smoky, dry, and particularly salty, country-cured ham has a punch. Its intense flavor comes from a slow aging process, and it's easy to tell the difference between commercially manufactured cuts and this delicious old-style treat. Because the meat is aged, it isn't plump, and it has a bite to it.
Country-Cured Ham vs. City Ham
City hams are wet cured and already cooked, whereas country hams are dry cured, sometimes smoked, and are sold ready to cook.
What differentiates the different types of country ham is the mixture of seasoning that's used to age the legs, the aging time, whether it's later smoked or not. Also, the type of wood used in the smoker gives the ham a particular flavor, so even though all country-cured ham is made under similar conditions, what's used in the aging and smoking processes affects the final flavor. Some producers use more sugar in the rub, obtaining a milder and sweeter flavor, while others use salt and large amounts of black pepper.
Country-Cured Ham Recipes
Biscuits, gravy, sauces, soups, stews, and hot and cold pasta dishes are just a few of the preparations you can make with country-cured ham. Regardless of your choice, always salt the food at the end, as the ham itself can be very salty even after soaking and cooking. Bake it and serve it with potatoes and vegetables, cube it for split pea soup, pan-fry some slices and serve it with gravy, or make a ham steak with brown sugar.
If you're attempting to make your own cured ham, and since curing meat requires such a specific process, we recommend consulting with an expert before rolling up your sleeves, as these complex processes at home need a lot of knowledge of food safety.
Where to Buy Country-Cured Ham
Meat markets, upscale supermarkets, gourmet stores, and some online retailers carry great-quality country-cured ham. Check the label because not all ham that is sold in nets, or vacuum sealed and ready to cook, is country-cured ham.
Storing Country-Cured Ham
Cured ham is technically one that has not been cooked yet. It will keep in the fridge for five to seven days or until the “use-by” date listed. If not cooked by that time, you can freeze it for about three to four months.
After it's cooked, cured ham will keep in the refrigerator for roughly three to five days or frozen for up to two months. Country-cured ham that has already been cooked, cut, and sliced thin will keep for around a month in the refrigerator; after that, it can be frozen for up to another month.
Nutrition and Benefits of Country-Cured Ham
There's a lot in a 2-ounce serving of country-cured ham: protein, fat, cholesterol, and sodium, but not a significant amount of vitamins or essential minerals. Consume in moderation if you have cholesterol or high blood pressure issues.
Lee S, Lee H, Kim S, et al. Microbiological safety of processed meat products formulated with low nitrite concentration - A review. Asian-australas J Anim Sci. 2018;31(8): 1073-1077. doi:10.5713/ajas.17.0675
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Processing Procedures: Dried Meats. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/shared/PDF/FSRE_SS_6DriedMeatsProcessing.pdf?redirecthttp=true. Published May 11, 2005.