Virginia ham is considered a superb product because of its distinctive savory taste. For do-it-yourselfers who want to cure and age a ham that will recapture the delightful flavor certain rules must be follow. This recipe provides basic steps that can be applied to home curing or commercial operations.

A high-quality, cured ham requires that you start with the proper type of high quality fresh ham. Such fresh hams come from young, healthy, fast growing hogs with a desirable lean-to-fat ratio.

Hams for curing should have a long, thick cushion, a deep and wide butt face, minimal seam and external fat, as seen on the collar and alongside the butt face, and should weigh fewer than 24 pounds. A high-quality ham has a firm, bright-colored lean with at least a small amount of marbling (specks of fat in the lean) in the butt face.

parts of the ham

Virginia- style ham

Cure Application

The cure mix to use depends on personal preference. Salt alone is acceptable. However, most people prefer the dry sugar cure. For each 100 pounds of fresh meat, use:

8 pounds salt
2 pound sugar
2 ounces saltpeter or sodium nitrite (available at drugstores)

Mix these ingredients thoroughly and divide into two equal parts. Apply the first half on day No.1 and the second portion on day No.7 of curing period.

Rub the curing mixture into all lean surfaces of the ham. Cover the skin and fat but little will be absorbed through these surfaces. Take care to pack the exposed end of the shank with the curing mixture to prevent bone sour or spoilage. Care should also be taken to make sure plenty of the mixture is applied to the area around the aitchbone (pelvis).

After the cure is applied, hams can be placed on wooden shelves or in wooden bins. Meat will readily absorb flavors from the surroundings, so fragrant wood should be avoided. Plastic can be used, but it should be constructed so the water lost by the ham can be drained away from the meat.

Virginia-style ham should be cured for seven days per inch of cushion depth, or one and a half days per pound of ham. During the curing period, keep hams at a temperature of 36 to 40 oF.

When the curing period has passed, place the hams in a tub of clean, cold water for one hour. This will dissolve most of the surface curing mix and make the meat receptive to smoke. After soaking, scrub the ham with a stiff-bristle brush and allow it to dry.

After the cure is removed by washing, the cured product should be stored in a 50 to 60oF environment for approximately 14 days to permit the cure adjuncts to be distributed evenly throughout the ham.

Smoked Procedure

In southeastern Virginia, most hams are smoked to accelerate drying and to give added flavor. The Smith-field ham is smoked for a long time at a low temperature (lower than 90° F). Wood from hardwood species of trees (trees that shed their leaves in the fall) should be used to produce the smoke.

The fire should be a “cool,” smoldering type that produces dense smoke. Keep the temperature of the smoke-house below 90° F. Hang hams in a smokehouse so that they don’t touch each other. Hams should be smoked until they become chestnut brown in color, which may take one to three days.

Nonsmoked Procedure

In Southwest Virginia, the process is to rub 100 pounds of ham (after cure equalization) with the following thoroughly mixed ingredients:

2 pounds black pepper
1 quart molasses
1 pound brown sugar
1 ounce saltpeter
1 ounce cayenne pepper
Bag the hams

The aging period is the time when the characteristic flavor is developed. It may be compared to the aging of cheeses.

Age hams for 45 to 180 days at 75 to 95° F with a relative humidity of 55 to 65 percent. Use an exhaust fan controlled by a humidistat to limit mold growth and prevent excessive drying. Air circulation is needed — particularly during the first seven to 10 days of aging — to dry the ham surface. Approximately 8 to 12 percent of the initial weight will be lost.

Preparing the Ham

Virginia ham remains one of the favorite foods of Virginians and their guests. It can be prepared in a variety
of ways and served with endless combinations of foods that complement ham.

The traditional four-step method is:

• Wash ham with a stiff-bristled brush, removing as much of the salt as possible.

• Place the ham in a large container, cover with cold water, and allow it to stand 10 to 12 hours or overnight.

• Lift the ham from the water and place it in a deep kettle with the skin-side up and cover with fresh, cold water.

• Cover the kettle and heat to a boil but reduce heat as soon as the water boils. Simmer 20 to 25 minutes per pound until done.

Another method of cooking is to soak and scrub the ham and place it in a covered roaster, fat-side up. Then, pour 2 inches of water into the roaster and place it in a 325° F oven. Cook approximately 20 to 25 minutes per pound. Baste frequently. Cook to an internal temperature of 155° F, as indicated by a meat thermometer placed in the thickest position of the ham cushion. If you do not have a meat thermometer, test for doneness by moving the flat aitchbone (pelvis). It should move easily when the ham is done.

Lift the ham from the kettle and remove skin. Sprinkle with brown sugar and/or breadcrumbs and brown lightly in a 375° F oven or use one of the suggested glazes.

Orange glaze: Mix 1 cup brown sugar and the juice and grated rind of one orange; spread over fat surface. Bake until lightly browned in a 375° F oven. Garnish with orange slices.

Mustard glaze: Mix 1/4 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons prepared mustard, 2 tablespoons vinegar, and 1 tablespoon water. Spread over fat surface and bake as directed above.

Spice glaze: Use 1 cup brown sugar and 1 cup juice from spiced peaches or crab apples. Bake as directed above. Garnish with the whole pickled fruit.

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