These claims can be dangerously misleading, as those hams don’t need cooking, and Country Hams do. The cure allows it to be stored safely at room temperature, but doesn’t make it safe to eat without cooking. As well, European air-dried hams often lose up to 50% of their moisture, yet somehow stay moister than Country Ham.
Country Ham can be very salty, and has a more pronounced flavour than standard American hams, which are wet-cured. It is usually sold in a cloth bag.
Smithfield, Virginia is a centre of production. It is also produced in Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee.
By law, the salt content must be at least 4 %, and a minimum of 18% of the weight must be lost during curing (often more is.)
Ideally, in creating a Country Ham, the fresh ham you start will weigh only up to 24 pounds (11 kg), as anything larger than that may make it difficult for the cure to penetrate to the centre.
The ham is first rubbed with salt. Some people mix the salt with sugar; most add saltpetre to the mix. The ham is then cured for 40 days in a room that is 38 F (3 C), then moved to a room that is 80 F (26 C) with 60% humidity, for a minimum of 25 days. Sometimes it is smoked as well.
Good ones are aged at least 90 days in total, some even 120 to 150 days.
Fans swear by Red Eye Gravy made in a pan that Country Ham has just been fried in.
Country Ham must be cooked.
It must first be soaked to leach excess salt out of it. Soaking also rehydrates it, because the ham can be like salty leather.
Soak in water in the fridge overnight. Some people like to soak them for 2 to 3 days, rinsing the ham and changing the water every 12 hours. Scrub excess salt and any mould off using a brush.
Discard the soaking water
Many people like to simmer it first in a fresh batch of water before proceeding further, to help cook it thoroughly (simmer until temperature is 160 F / 71 C), and to leach more salt out. Simmering time is about 20 minutes a pound. They, they bake it, or fry it in slices.
Others just bake it after soaking. Bake in a 250 F (120 C) oven for about 20 minutes a pound, until internal temperature reaches 160 F (71 C.)
You can buy it now already soaked and cooked.
When you bring it home from the store, store it in a cool place, but not the fridge.
A National Country Ham Association (NCHA) was formed in 1992.
Literature & Lore
“WANTED: Country Hams, Butter and Eggs, for which the highest market price will be paid. THOS. RUTHERFORD. Bank Street. Nearly opposite Academy of Music.”
— Advertisement in The Daily Index. Petersburg, Virginia. Tuesday, 24 September 1872. page 6.
“There is a boiled ham, cut from a country hog, country butchered, country cured, and country cooked. In comparison, Westphalia and Smithfield are two baskets of dry hickory chips on the way to Tophet to be burned. Some of these days we intend to disclose how it came that the Ohio valley country ham got its excellence. A slice of it must be fed with both hands to a hungry man.”
— An August Dinner. In “The Washington Post”. Washington, DC. 17 August 1910. Page 6.
“At the conclusion of the game a delicious luncheon was served consisting of country ham, tomatoes with mayonnaise, beaten biscuits, sandwiches, pickles and fruit frappe.”
— In the “Society Column”. Middlesboro, Kentucky. Thousandsticks Newspaper. 1 August 1912. Page 5.
“OH, YOU COUNTRY HAM
Oh, for a slice of the good ham
That mother used to make,
That was so red and smelled so sweet
When she cut off a steak!
It wasn’t painted with shellac
Nor cured with benzoate.
It vwasn’t fixed with nasty dope
To kill or nauseate.
It hung upon the rafters
Above the fragrant wood.
Where mother smoked it just the way
She only understood.
Oh, when I smelled that country ham
Upon the morning air
And knew fresh eggs and ham were fried
And ready down the stair
No need to pull me out of bed.
For, hungry as a bear,
I hustled on my cambric shirt
And sprinted down the stair!
Why, when I got mumps In the neck
Or stumped my toe I’d yell.
‘Here, mother, slap on some ham fat!’
And, presto, it was well!
— C. M. Barnitz. “Poultry Notes” column. The Gettysburg Times. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 2 August 1910. Page 4.