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December 17, 2012

How to Brine and Smoke a Ham

I made a ham! And I mean... I made it from the beginning. I started out with bacon seeds, grew them in the dirt, harvested them, then brine cured and smoke a ham. That is local food, folks.

 All that is left of my ham masterpiece.

This was a great project but here's the thing - I didn't take one picture of the process! So we'll all just have to "imagine if you will"....and pretend there are all kinds of spectacular pix of how-to. I was a little squeamish about taking on a whole ham. Its a lot of meat and if something went wrong.. gosh. Its a huge risk. I wasn't sure if the end result would be as good as sending the ham to our local guy to be cured and smoked. He's a professional, right? I wasn't sure I had the right equipment or the right set up. Our smoker (Char-Broil Offset Smoker American Gourmet Deluxe Charcoal Grill) is pretty big but still. It was a lot of meat to go to waste if I did it wrong.

Check out the marbling on this ham. Amazing!

I got a tip on a molasses cured ham which can be found online here. Of course I consulted Ruhlman's Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, and I also checked out Homesick Texan's process here. Armed with all of this info I figured I could do it. But as I stood there at my butcher table with that whole back leg looking at me...all I could think of was a summer's worth of work, all that feed, and my last good nerve.....I got weak. So I only took off half of the ham for curing. I parted up the rest of the meat and put it in the freezer.

My plan was to use the molasses cure recipe from River Cottage, the process from Ruhlman and Homesick Texan, and then to smoke the ham. The process is fairly straightforward:

1. Brine the ham in a mix of sugar and salt and other stuff for the appointed period of time based on weight.
2. Dry it out.
3. Smoke it.

I got to work on the brine and cleaned out one of my 5 gallon food quality buckets. As my references all said... the half a ham kind of bobbed around in the brine so to keep it submerged I used a glass baking dish weighted with a canning jar full of water inside a ziplock bag. I put the jar of water in the bag in case it leaked. I needed to make sure the brine kept its intended portions and was not watered down.

Apparently you need to keep the brine at about 38*. Our meat fridge is much colder than that so I had to do some monkeying around with the settings. At a little over 7 pounds the ham should have brined for about 4 days.

But I forgot about it.

You heard me. My worst fear had come upon me. I ruined it. I totally panicked when I went down to get the bacons I had started on the same day - which were supposed to cure for about a week - and I saw that "done date" on the ham was several days before! I brined the ham too long! I stood there agog. I cursed my stupidity and lack of planning. I rent my garments and shook my fists. The whole summer of pig hating flashed before my eyes.  Dang.

So I did what anyone would do. I soaked the ham overnight in fresh water hoping to leach out some of that salt. Then I had to let the ham sit there for another over night to dry out. By the time I fired up the smoker I was afraid it was too late and that it would just be a big disaster.

On top of that, it was raining and 50* on the smoking day. But I couldn't wait one day longer. I had to get that ham smoked that day. Of course, I couldn't get the charcoal going. Or keep it going. It was a big disaster. So I just made a low fire with hardwood and hoped for the best. Normally when I smoke bacons I do it on a cold, preferably below freezing, day. This way I can just smoke them all day and let them cool in the freezing temps outside over night. But nooooooo everything was against me and the nite temperature was also 50* - much too warm to leave the ham out there. The "ruined" ham was unceremoniously brought inside and shoved into the meat fridge. I was sure it was ruined.

The next day I stood in the kitchen cursing the ruined ham. I was defeated by the ass end of a pig. I was mad. Real mad. I cooked a small slice of it in my fry pan just to see how badly it was ruined.

It wasn't ruined. It was delicious. It was sublime. It was not too salty. It was not too sweet. It was mildly smokey and flavorful and tender and amazing. It was The Best Ham Ever.

It was so good that I cooked the rest of it the next day. We ate that ham for days afterwards and still had some to freeze. As we speak the meaty ham bone is in the crock pot making bean soup superdelicious.

So now I'm totally sold on home curing and smoking ham. It worked despite my best efforts to ruin it.

I've got my eye on a couple of porkers and the next time we butcher I'm going ham-wild. I'm going to cure and smoke all of those hams myself. Boldly. Without reservation. It's gonna be a big ham fest. It's gonna be ham-tastic. It's gonna be a big ol' ham-amaggedon. I can't wait.

And next time there will be pictures. I promise.

Happy Monday everyone! Now fire up your smoker and make yourself a ham!