How to cure ham: My “maiden voyage”

When I was a kid growing up in New York City, every Easter we’d head down to North Carolina. There, in Williamston, I fell in love with country ham on scratch biscuits with some butter on them, too. Here I’ll tell you how to cure ham — the simple way — and what I learned from this first-time experience a few days ago.

Watching Hattie

It was Hattie, a roundish woman with warm, rich dark skin, who worked for my two great aunts, Aunt Sally and Aunt Jane. Hattie made the biscuits. I knew this, but I don’t think I appreciated her home cooking until years later. I didn’t value cooking, and I didn’t see Hattie as more than someone who made Sally’s and Jane’s lives easier.

However, I did spend quite a bit of time in the kitchen with her. I’d lie on the floor as an aging labrador retriever named Joe-dog ate his meal. I even ate a piece of his dried food once. As many of you know, I’m a foodie. I loved Joe-dog and I loved the cooking in that white house with the wrap-around porch and the back porch with a cooler of full-on-sugary Coca-Colas and, I suppose, I loved Hattie. She had a caring if, I assume, burdened, spirit. This was when I was 4 or 5 years old; the late 1960s. Not an easy time for Hattie to be Hattie in white eastern North Carolina.

Eastern North Carolina was tobacco country, and everyone smoked as if their lives depended on it. Because it did. In eastern North Carolina you were either saved by salvation in Christ, or you were a sinner. I was not the former, and though I was equally unaware of either status at the time, eventually I would earn quite a few memories of being the latter.

Hattie was the one who cooked, along with Aunt Sally. So you could say I “watched” Hattie, and you wouldn’t be incorrect to say I absorbed her love of simple cooking. You also wouldn’t be incorrect to say that I watched a woman make a living in a tough time to be living then, and what I remember years later is her cooking and her grace toward this inquisitive white boy who, at the time, seemed to be as fond of ham biscuits as of dog food.

Just today, I was amused to read an Instagram post by a fellow foodie who somewhat acerbically joked about having to read family histories of great aunts — she actually did write that part about great aunts — before getting to the recipe.

The good news here is: there’s no recipe.

Just a story in which my great aunts play a role. A supporting role at that. The ham is center stage. As are the scratch biscuits I made a day after curing the meat — also a first-time experience.

1

The right salt

The “right salt” assumes you are even using salt to dry cure your ham. There are other methods that I won’t go into here that complicate a procedure that already has complicated variations. I wanted country ham that was both dry and salty and would sit nicely on a scratch biscuit with a generous amount of fresh unsalted butter. That being my aim, I decided it would be difficult — nay, impossible — to have that salty ham without salt. Call me crazy.

I used Morton Tender Quick.

2

A right-sized tub or tray

This step is really combined with Step 3 below, because you want to match the size of the meat with the tubs or trays with sides that you have at home. I got a cut of ham that was almost too big for any container I had. The tub I used was probably 8×8 inches (~20.5 cm square) with 3-inch sides.

I suppose you could cut the ham into two pieces and place them in a smaller container, but I wanted a single piece both for aesthetics and for practicality.

I didn’t use a lid, by the way; not sure if that is recommended. The site I checked didn’t specify whether to cover it or not while curing.

Later in the steps, you’ll see that the cured meat should hang in a cool place or refrigerator so that air can circulate, so I took that to mean that the salt itself didn’t need to be covered.

3

The right ham

As basic as this might sound — and I’m talking to the real beginner here, like I was — make sure your ham is both not sliced already and also that it’s cooked. There are certain methods of cooking ham once it’s cured, but I wanted much quicker results. So I consulted another website outlining various ways of curing and also how to avoid important failures, like having the meat spoil while you’re curing it.

If you are more of an intermediate at this rather than a beginner, check out this website HERE.

I went to our local grocery store, H-E-B, the smaller one on S. Sidney Baker, and finally found a ham that met the two criteria above: not sliced and already cooked. This piece of ham would make a nice experiment. It was also relatively thin, perhaps 2.5 inches (6.35cm), so the curing process would be quicker.

I’d ordered the salt off Amazon, because though H-E-B had various similar salts, it didn’t have what I thought was the correct salt for this kind of curing.

With the salt, the ham and the proper-sized tub, I was ready to start.

4

The process

You might not believe the process is this simple:

  • Cover the bottom of your tub with salt, perhaps a finger-width deep.
  • Take the ham out of the package
  • Place the ham in the salt
  • Cover the ham with salt completely, probably a finger-width over the top
  • Put ham in fridge
  • Wait 24 hours before removing

That’s it!

At least, that’s what I did.

You can watch the video of the big reveal above or HERE — grace please; I am awful at taking videos and selfies — to see the result and how nice and dry the meat came out.

5

How to store your meat

Once again, there are different methods of storing your meat — avoiding spoilage is paramount — but all I did simply was to bore a hole through the thinnest area of the ham and run a twist-tie through the hole. Then I hung it from the grill in a mini-fridge in my office at home.

Enjoy!

The process itself of curing this ham was easy and gave me the outcome I’d hoped for. I made scratch biscuits from a recipe I found on MomOnTimeout.com HERE. Even the biscuits were relatively easy to make, and I’m no baker. Further, all my measuring spoons were in the dishwasher at the time. Aside from the flour, for which I had a measuring cup, I had to eyeball the sugar, salt, cream of tartar and baking powder. The biscuits still came out excellent, so you know the recipe is good if it accommodates beginner mistakes like this.

If you still have questions, please feel free to email me at howard (at) biscuitaisle.com.

And please join my mailing list to join a community of enthusiastic home cooks!

Cheers.

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