It sounds so simple in the story of my country ham journey.
“I cooked the ham the traditional way, soaking it in water overnight and simmering it in a big pot all day. Then I cut away the skin, scored the fat and baked it until it was sizzling.”
The reality wasn't so simple. Cooking that ham involved a late-night emergency run to a Wal-Mart for a bigger pot. I had to borrow a tape measure in the fabric department to check every pot until I found one that was wide enough.
Then, after the ham had simmered all day, it was too heavy to lift from the pot. It took two men – my husband and photographer Gary O'Brien – and my biggest meat forks to heft it to a cutting board.
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As ham curer Byron Jordan is fond of saying, “A pig isn't a 2-by-4.” Every one is different, and this ham was very different. It came from an old-breed pig called a Tamworth. In the final month of its life, it grew quickly, yielding a 37-pound haunch. By the time I cooked it, it was still 22 pounds of ham.
Try fitting that in your refrigerator the weekend before Thanksgiving.
The reason I went to the trouble was to find out whether a ham from an old breed pig would yield a country ham that was different from the other hams.
I can't say that it was. But it wasn't a fair test. Our ham cured only eight months before I cooked it. Most hams Jordan cures are smaller and hang longer. The ones that hung with mine won't be sold until next fall.
A country ham can age for a very long time, even for decades. Remember, hams were cured to begin with so people could keep meat in the days before refrigeration.
Aged ham gets drier and saltier, but it also develops flavor notes and a mellow richness. It's like the difference between a young wine and an aged wine.
The Jordans' customers generally don't like very dry, very salty ham. What they want is the taste of the ham they know, a little salty and a little chewy, but not overwhelming.
The traditional way of preparing a country ham makes it less salty. It's also easier to cut. Otherwise, trimming an uncooked ham takes a meat saw. There used to be stores that would do it for a small fee, but those are getting harder to find.
If you do buy a whole country ham, it probably will be only be 15 to 18 pounds. The traditional cooking method, shared here, will solve a lot of problems.