Sunday will be Easter and many of us will be cooking a ham for the Easter dinner table. I bought a maple-cured ham from Hogwash Farm (www.hogwashfarm.com) where their heritage breed Tamworth pigs thrive on pasture and organic grains without antibiotics or hormones. Unless you buy a ham direct from a farmer, you are more apt to have a factory-farmed pig as this is what’s available in the supermarket, for the most part.
A ham, if not labeled “fresh,” is the cured and sometimes smoked rear leg of the pig. The curing process may be one where the pig leg is rubbed with salt and/or salt, sugar and other ingredients and left for a period of time to allow the moisture to be leached out while the salt cure penetrates the ham muscle, after which the ham is hung to dry for a period of time ranging from a few months to a year or more. These are dry-cured hams typified by Kentucky or Smithfield hams in this country, and Proscuitto di Parma in Italy and Jamon Serrano in Spain. They are usually eaten raw in thin slices sometimes with fruit like melon or figs.
Alternatively, the ham is immersed in a brine composed of water with salt, sugar and other flavoring agents, or more commonly, the brine is injected into the ham muscle. These hams are usually smoked over a flavorful wood such as hickory, apple or corn-cobs. Some hams have been injected with “liquid smoke” to provide a smoky flavor, so buyer beware. The smoking adds flavor to the ham, but is no longer used as a preservation method as in the past.
Supermarket hams come in a variety of choices, so read the label carefully. The USDA rules permit the use of the term “ham” to mean the hind leg of a pig containing no less than 20.5% protein and no added water. A “ham with natural juices” contains no less than 18.5% protein, while a “ham with water added” is at least 17% protein with no more than 10% water added. Lastly there is a “ham and water” product, which can contain any amount of water, but the label must specify the amount. Then there are tinned hams, usually pieces of ham that are “sectioned and formed,” and cooked in the tin. These hams are usually shelf stable without refrigeration for a year or more.
Commonly today you will find “spiral cut” hams where the ham has been pre-sliced around the shank bone for ease of serving. These hams run the danger of drying out while cooking, so cover closely in aluminum foil to prevent disappointment.
Hams that are “fully cooked” can be eaten without reheating, but most benefit from being placed in a slow oven until they reach between 130-140 degrees. Uncooked hams should reach 160 degrees before serving.
Americans like to glaze their hams, where the exterior is cut into cross hatched diamonds, studded with cloves, and rubbed with the family’s secret glaze, usually mustard, honey or maple sugar and perhaps some fruit juice like pineapple, or some bourbon. While we tend to bake our hams, braising them is an excellent preparation method.
Maple Braised Ham
1 (7- to 8-lb) fully cooked bone-in shank-end ham
6 cups water
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 cup granulated maple sugar or brown sugar
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 cup apple juice or pineapple juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (or 10 cloves stuck into ham)
2 cups raisins (10 oz)
Put ham cut side down in a large deep heavy pot (about 10 quarts) and add water and syrup.
Bring liquid to a boil, then reduce heat to low and gently simmer ham, covered, until tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Uncover and cool slightly.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
When ham is cool enough to handle, remove from pot, reserving cooking liquid, then cut off any rind and excess fat, leaving a thin layer. Transfer ham to a roasting pan.
Whisk together sugar, mustard, apple juice, and ground cloves, if using, in a bowl, then spoon over ham. Add raisins and 1 cup reserved cooking liquid to roasting pan and bake in middle of oven, basting occasionally, until ham is glazed and juices are bubbling, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.