Ham hocks can be found in a lot of savory dishes, but it's not often served on its own. That's because this cut of meat is from the joint on the trotter, or foot of the pig. It's tasty but tough and requires a lot of cooking to make it palatable on its own. This ingredient commonly gets used to enhance soups, stock, and pots of beans, where it adds a smoky, meaty, and rich essence.
What Are Ham Hocks?
The ham hock gets cut from the bottom part of the swine's leg and is also called the pork knuckle. It’s a thick, approximately 4-inch-long part of the leg that's encased with collagen, connective tissue, and a bit of meat, all surrounded by a thick layer of fat and skin. While hefty, ham hocks aren't prime cuts of meat and tend to cost less than more popular options such as bacon, chops, and loin. One reason for the price discrepancy is the lack of actual meat to gnaw on and the time it takes to cook since most of the ham hock is comprised of skin, bone, fat, and collagen.
Ham hock often gets cured with salt before getting smoked, a technique that lends a salty bacon-like flavor to the ingredient. Even without this process, the ham hock lends a rich porky flavor when cooked for a long time by stewing or braising. Ham hock is a popular ingredient in the American south. Commonly cooked with collards or pinto beans, the ham hocks add a smoky, meaty note that pairs well with these substantial foods. In Pennsylvania, ham hocks are the key ingredient in scrapple, a type of meatloaf popular with the Pennsylvania Dutch.
In some cultures—like Eastern Europe—the ham hock is boiled, roasted, or fried and presented whole. For example, Germany, where the dish schweinshaxe consists of roasted ham hock; or eisbein, which is pickled ham hock. Bavaria has similar dishes, and in Austria a caraway and garlic broth is used to boil ham hocks before they're roasted for a plate called stelze. Poland also has golonka, a type of barbecued ham hock.
Other places feature the whole ham hock too. Switzerland and Sweden both have famous dishes with the food, respectively dubbed wädli and fläsklägg med rotmos, the latter being a cured version served with mashed root vegetables and sweet mustard. Chinese cooking features ham hocks in a variety of ways from fried, braised, roasted, to stewed, and gets served whole, sliced, or chopped.
How To Cook Ham Hocks
The best way to cook ham hocks is low and slow. A slow cooker is a great tool for this since it allows the meat to cook in its own juices and become tender and pliable. That way the pork can be shredded or minced and used in soups, quiche, on top of a salad, or any way you like. Braising also can bring about the same results, though it's a more hands-on approach.
To prepare ham hock whole, barbecuing and roasting are the best options. Boiled also works for this cut, which helps the meat become malleable and succulent. Marinating or brining can also tenderize the meat. To get crispy skin and render some of the pork fat, roasting proves best.
What Do Ham Hocks Taste Like?
Ham hocks have a rich, smoky, and porky taste similar to bacon that helps add a distinct flavor to beans, soups, and vegetables. This ingredient can easily add a meaty essence to any dish, and even if the actual pig knuckle isn't consumed the flavor remains in whatever it's cooked with.
Ham Hocks vs. Bacon
Both ham hocks and bacon can be used to enhance a dish with smoky, porky flavors that add richness to just about anything they are mixed with. But unlike bacon, ham hocks have less rendered fat and more collagen, a direct result of the ingredient having a bone. Because these two items can be used almost interchangeably when it involves soups, stews, braised vegetables, or casseroles, ham hocks tend to get overlooked. Often ham hocks prove cheaper and add less fat to the dish, so in some cases it may be the better option.
Ham Hock Recipes
Whether using ham hocks as a main dish or mixed into a soup or pot of beans, this smoky, umami-rich food is a great addition to many recipes. Use ham hocks to enhance greens, serve it glazed with honey and beer, or cook low and slow to get every meaty morsel off the bones.
Where to Buy Ham Hocks
Any good butcher will have ham hocks on the menu, and many well-stocked grocery stores also carry the pig knuckles. Look for fresh or frozen ham hocks in the meat department, though don't be surprised if the ingredient is out of stock. Though it's not a popular cut of meat, it's also not especially rare to find. You can always call a local butcher and reserve ahead of time or buy when you see one and freeze until ready to use.
Storing Ham Hocks
Like any cured meat, this ingredient should be kept cool and dry, preferably in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks or so. Fresh ham hocks need to be kept cold and used within a week or else stored in the freezer until ready to be cook with. This ingredient maintains flavor well and freezing doesn't affect it too much. Once cooked, the ham hock will remain usable in the refrigerator for about a week and longer in the freezer.
Nutrition and Benefits
Ham hocks have a lot of fat which is not unusual for a pork product, especially one made up mostly of collagen and skin. But while the fat remains high, there's a good portion of protein too. Those are the main nutritional aspects of this food, though it's also a good source of collagen, an ingredient thought to promote healthy skin, aid in gaining muscle, and help relieve joint pain.