Wet Curing A Ham
"The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep." W. C. Fields
If you cure and smoke a ham and serve it fresh it will taste better than the best commercial ham you've ever tasted.
There are three methods of curing, dry, wet, or injecting. Dry curing is how they make prosciutto. To dry cure, you mix up your salt and spice mix and coat the meat and hang it in a temperature and humidity controlled space. If you don't do everything right, the meat will spoil. Dry curing also dehydrates the meat. Wet curing is more even, thorough, reliable, and easy. You get the right distribution of salt all over with no "hot spots".
Remember, curing is different than brining. The salt concentrations are higher when you cure, you are using a special curing salt, and the meat is in the cure longer. So even though I prefer dry brining for something like a steak or chicken, for a ham or bacon or corned beef, I prefer wet curing.
Some important words of caution
Curing meat is not like any other recipe. It is not like brining a turkey or chicken for a few hours. There is no room for improvisation when it comes to the amount of water, salt, and Prague powder #1. Sanitation is crucial. If you have a larger piece of meat you must increase the quantities proportionally. For a smaller piece, do not alter the ingredients at all. But if you follow my instructions precisely, you have nothing to fear if you keep it chilled.
Before you get started, you must read my article on the basics of curing meats and my article on the science of salt for background. It explains why you need to ignore all the formulae you've read on the internet, on the curing salt packages, and follow a specific recipe and not try to invent one of your own or cross the streams and blend two recipes from two different sources. And finally, if the meat smells funny or the brine gets scummy, throw it our. Something went wrong. Don't take chances.
Makes. 1 whole ham
Takes. 7 days to cure
Special tools. You need a five gallon food grade bucket or bag to hold the meat and the cure. You can use something like a large stainless steel pot. Do not use an aluminum pot. It can react with the salt and create off flavors. If you only have an aluminum pot or if your bucket is not food grade, line it with a food grade plastic bag such as the Ziploc XL or five gallon food grade bucket liners. A very clean beer cooler will also work. You also need an injector. It can take up to a month for the cure to penetrate the meat and that's too long and the risk of spoilage is too high. But with an injector, you can get even penetration in a few days.
4 large onions, skinned, stemmed, and coarsely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
6 tablespoons pickling spices
Optional add-ins. These really aren't necessary. They do not penetrate much past the surface and if you use a glaze you'll never taste them.
About the Prague powder #1. Do not skip the Prague powder #1, do not make substitutions, do not increase or decrease the quantity. It adds vital protection against pathogenic microbes and without it you risk death. No kidding.
About the other salt. I prefer to use kosher salt because it has few additives. When curing meats, you cannot trust volumetric measurements of salt. You must weigh the salt. Click this link to read more about salts and why weight is the only way to go when it comes to curing meats.
1) If your ham had skin, remove it and the fat cap. You can use the skin to make cracklins. Skin and fat just impede the flow of salt into the meat.
2) Put 1 gallon of the water in a pot and add all the ingredients except the ham. You can skip the optional ingredients if you wish. Their impact on flavor is small, especially if you use a sweet glaze. Boil for 2 minutes or until the salts and sugar dissolve. This also pasteurizes the ingredients. Chill.
3) Get your 5 gallon bucket and clean the heck out of it first with soapy water. Rinse thoroughly with 1/4 ounce of bleach in a quart of water. Dry thoroughly. Then and add the remaining 2 gallons of cold clean water and the cure that you boiled. Stir.
4) When the diluted cure is chilled, inject the meat in multiple locations with the liquid part of the cure. Do not skip this step. Then wash the exterior thoroughly to remove as much bacteria as possible (don't use soap). Put the meat in the bucket and submerge it. Click here for more on injecting and injectors. If necessary, weight the meat down under a clean tupperware container filled with water. Put the bucket in the refrigerator and let the meat cure for about 7 days, give or take one. It must remain cold. It may get a little cloudy as the salt pulls protein liquids from the meat. But it should not smell funny or drevelop a scum.
5) Before smoking, rinse the surface really well since there will be a heavier concentration of salt there. If you wish, you can apply a salt free spice rub like my Meathead's Memphis Dust just before smoking. If you want to serve it immediately, smoke the ham at 325°F until it is 145°F in the deepest part of the center. This will take up to 5 hours depending on the meat's thickness. The reason we cook at 325°F is to prevent the stall which will happen at lower temperatures. During the last hour, paint it with a glaze. My favorite glazes are Chris Lilly's Spicy Apricot Glaze or Danny Gaulden's Brown Sugar Mustard Glaze. Make sure it doesn't burn. If you don't plan to use it all within a week, smoke it at 325°F until it is 165°F in the deepest part and it will be safe for up to two weeks in the fridge. You can glaze it in the last hour if you wish, but I wait until I am ready to cook and serve to glaze it. You can refrigerate it for up to two weeks. If you vacuum seal it it will keep longer. Cooking will take 6 hours or more depending on how thick the meat is. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or so, or frozen. You can cut slices and grill ham steaks, or just warm it in the oven.
This page was revised 4/18/2014
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