Preparing Country Ham

Compliments of the The Country Ham Store

What is a Country Ham?

The dilemma facing pioneer cooks was how to keep freshly butchered meat from spoiling without refrigeration. Hogs were butchered in the late fall when the temperature was down around 33 degrees, and while the meat was fresh, it was salt cured. The next spring any leftovers would be smoked under a fire of green hickory, or peppered. Sausage was packed in the intestines of the hog, tied off and also hung in the smokehouse for curing. Salting, peppering, and smoking protected the meat from spoiling and from insects. Today it's that salt, pepper, and smoky flavor that we love in country ham, bacon, and sausage.

"COUNTRY HAM - uncooked, cured, dried, smoked-or-unsmoked meat products made from a single piece of meat from the hind leg of a hog or from a single piece of meat from a pork shoulder. Smithfield and country hams are not fully cooked but are dry cured to be safe stored at room temperature. They should be cooked before eating according to manufacturer's instructions. A ham labeled "Smithfield Ham" must be processed in the city of Smithfield, Virginia.

HICKORY-SMOKED HAM - a cured ham which has been smoked by hanging over burning hickory wood chips in a smokehouse. May not be labeled "hickory smoked" unless hickory wood has been used.

SUGAR CURED - a term that may appear on ham labels if cane or beet sugar is at least half the sweetening ingredients used and if the sugar is used in an amount sufficient to flavor and/or affect the appearance of the finished product. Most hams contain sugar in the curing mixture."

USDA Food safety page on ham. Contains information on types of ham as well as various cooking and safety concerns.

How to choose a country ham.

Southeastern states were the the primary curers of country ham - the falls came late enough for the hogs to mature, and smokehouses were a part of traditional colonial homesteading. All of the territories used salt to cure, some areas added sugar or pepper. Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia, became to be known as the principal country ham states. Virginia by state law declared a distinction for Smithfield cured hams and each cure master became known for his particular method for curing ham. Factors such as weather and the ingredients they used to cure, became the determing factor for their distinctive taste.

Like fine wine or brandy, country ham improves with age, and for the connoisseur, a ham lover will develop a taste for a more robust ham over time.

Without to much fuss or muss, you can cook a Clifty Farm ham to prefection every time. Tennessee cured Clifty Farm ham is lightly smoked and not too salty. For a saltier, full-flavored ham select a Genuine Smithfield smoked ham or the robustly smoked and peppered Joyner Red Eye ham from Old Virginia smokehouses. Phillips Brothers of Asheboro, North Carolina has sugar-cured hams that are either hickory smoked or unsmoked, and have won many awards for both. And finally for an old fashioned taste without nitrite or nitrate additives choose Kentucky's Finchville Farms unsmoked, sugar-cured ham.

Basic Cooking

You must fry or bake a country cured ham. It has not been cooked, but requires no refrigeration at room temperatures (75 degrees F.) until cut. With warm water wash and scrub the ham clean of excess salt and mold and soak in the refrigerator overnight.

To fry, slice the ham approximately 1/4to 3/8 inches thick and slowly cook and turn often. Don't overcook. If ham is unusually lean, add some lard or vegetable oil to the skillet. Some prefer to fry the center slices in water and carbonated beverage (we like 7 Up). Serve with biscuits and red eye gravy.

To boil or bake a whole ham or sections, simmer a completely immersed ham in water or a mixture of water and fruit juice (apple, orange, or peach) for about 25 minutes per pound, or bake in the oven at 250 degrees in a roasting pan, without boiling, in water or a mixture of water, brown sugar and vinegar for 25 minutes per pound of ham to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. Your ham is done when you can stick a knife into it with a little resistance and the meat begins to separate from the bone. Remove the skin and excess fat, return the ham to a roasting pan and add cloves and a rub of brown sugar, vinegar, and dried mustard and broil until sugar is melted. When browned as desired, add pineapples or baked apple slices, and serve at room temperature or warmer.

For more recipes visit our Recipe Section.

Storing and Slicing

Store in a brown paper bag or its original wrapping in a cool dry place. Do not wrap in plastic. Once the ham is cut you should wrap the pieces and refrigerate for immediate use, or freeze.

According to the USDA a whole, uncut, properly cured and stored Country Ham can be edible for one year. For best taste Clifty Farm recommends consumption of their hams within six months.

To slice, cut parallel to the aitchbone on a diagonal. Position the ham with the the flatter side down. The bulbous portion is the back of the leg. Slice down on a 45 degree angle from the back of the leg. The butt is best for baking and the center of the ham for frying. Use the shank portion for cubing and biscuit portions of meat. Smaller portions from the hock can be used for beans and vegetables.

Center Slices

You can also ask your local butcher or supermarket to slice your ham to your specifications, they'll usually do this as a courtesy to their regular customers, or charge about $5.

Expert Tips

Country salt cured ham, whether broiled, boiled, or fried retains its natural salty taste. Most people enjoy that in a fried piece between a biscuit, and some may temper it by flushing out some of the salt before frying or backing. Before baking a country ham we recommend soaking the ham from 4 to 12 hours, intermittently changing the water to take out some of the salt. Your taste for salt and the brand of ham you've chosen will determine the length of time to soak it. For more information particular to the brand of ham you're preparing, please visit our site at

To Purchase

The Country Ham Store -

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