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How to manage a big ham in three easy steps

March 21, 2011 2 comments

Do you like ham?  Really, really, good ham?  I’m guessing you do.

When’s the last time you made one?  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  Why is that?  Because they’re freakin’ huge, I’m guessing.  It takes all bloody day to cook one, and a small army to eat one.  Not to mention that, mainly because of their large size, they’re expensive.  And even if the thought of cooking the damn thing doesn’t intimidate you, the thought of wasting some expensive meat just might.  Am I right?  If you’re like most home cooks, I’ve hit at least one of your hot buttons with that list.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Because some time in the past, there was a great invention.  It’s called a knife.

Yes, believe it or not, you can cut that bad boy down.  Cook part of it (and I’ll teach you a quicker way to cook it than the all day bake your momma and grandma taught you.  Not blindingly fast, mind you, but you can be eating ham in two hours).  Freeze the rest to cook another day.  Yes, I know that momma never cut her ham down before cooking.  Grandma would find it unthinkable.  And because momma and grandma didn’t do it, it probably hasn’t occurred to you.  That’s where I come in.  I started this blog to teach people how to tackle real food that is viewed as difficult.  Unruly.  And a big-ass ham fits that description.

The ham I’m about to tackle came from one of our Ossabaw hogs, grown by my good friend Bruce and his young son in Orange County, North Carolina.  This ham is a city-cured ham, meaning it’s processed with smoked and sugar, and not salted and cured as a country ham would be.  City cured hams require cooking.  This one was processed at Acre Station in Pinetown, North Carolina, and ultimately weighed in at just over 13 pounds.  We were feeding six people tonight, and I wanted leftovers for sandwiches, so I decided I was going to cook half this ham, and break the other half in two to freeze for later.  here’s the pictoral.

We start with a large ham. It was previously frozen. Yes, it can be re-frozen. "What about germs?", you ask. Don't do anything stupid and you'll be fine. Thaw it in the fridge, and as soon as it's thawed, deal with it (this guy was actually still slightly frozen in the center when I cut it up). When you deal with it, do so quickly, this shouldn't take more than about 10 minutes, seriously. Then rewrap what's gonna be refrozen, and freeze it. And clean your hands, your boards, your knives in advance. You'll be fine. And if you die, I'll admit I was wrong.

Step 1 - debone the ham. This is simple, really. Locate the bone at the top of the ham, and at the bottom. Find the smallest distance from edge to bone and make that your incision point. Cut along the bone, then make small cuts along the bone itself, working your way around the bone till it's free. Depending on your ham, you may have just a shank, or (as in this case) you may have part of the pelvic bone, too. Just find the bones with your kinfe and cut them free, keeping the cuts small and as close to the bone as possible. Save the bone for flavoring stocks and such (it can be refrozen, too).

Step 2 - cut the ham down into the pieces you want to cook or save. I've cut this ham in half lengthwise. I want to cook half now, and split the other half for later use. You can see I was starting to cook - my green stems are on the cutting board. I keep the stems from most greens and use them as you might use celery. They are cheaper, more flavorful, and last for months in the fridge once the leaves are stripped.

Step 2, continued - here's the other half, split in two. Each of these pieces was a hair over three pounds, perfect for a single, small family meal. I vacuumed sealed these right away and put them back into the deep freeze.

Step 3 - now cook the ham. momma and grandma did an all day slow bake, I know. Forget that. We're going to braise this bad boy, French-style. Saute some aromatic veg (onion, green stalks, etc., whatever you have) in some oil and butter till just soft (5 minutes). Add some herbs and spices - a bay leaf, half a dozen whole peppercorns, a couple whole cloves, and a few thyme braches are what I used tonight. Place the ham on top the veg. Add about 3 cups of white wine, and 3 cups of water, stock, or apple juice. Bring to a simmer. Cover and slide into a pre-heated 325F oven.

Step 3, continued. Set oven temp so that covered pan just simmers (probably 300-325F). Baste the ham (spoon some juice over it) every 20 minutes. Cook until internal temp is 160F, about 2 hours, maybe quicker depending on size (this guy was 6 lbs and took about 1 hr 50 min to get to temp. And yes, I need a bigger, better Dutch oven. If you are a cookware manufacturer, send me one and I'll make sure it shows up on lots of pictures on the internet.

Here's the finished ham. Delicious. Literally, it was 1 hour and 55 minutes from the time I took the wrapped ham from the fridge until I was eating ham off that plate. And the other two 3-pounders had already started to refreeze by that time. There is no excuse not to eat ham more often.

There, wasn’t that relatively quick and easy?  Don’t let large cuts intimidate you, they are just as good broken down and cooked in smaller portions.

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