Gather 'round children and I'll tell you the Tale of the Great Christmas Ham! It's a little hazy, but it all started two weeks ago, with a little green nuclear mole named Russell...
Ok, obscure reference to a beloved children's classic aside, the short of it is that this year I set out to make the ham for Christmas dinner. It's a bit of a tradition that my dad loves a Honeybaked Ham with Christmas and generally, the rest of us could take it or leave it. It's always kind of dry, and well, meh. So I figured I'd take a crack at it. The goals of the experiment were:
- Cure, Smoke, and Glaze a fresh ham from scratch
- In just over a week
- Ideally, having it be as good or better than commercial ham and
- Ideally, cheaper too
Ideally I'd have arranged a ham that was much older and with a history of past frolicking from one of my meat guys at the Farmer's Market. And I probably will next year. But for this year, time and budget constraints meant grocery store. Time really was of the essence, I had eight days to cure it before dinner time. Figuring a half day per pound, that meant I had to get on it fast. So Ballard Market it was, as they actually have butchers on hand who can cut things to order, and the pork there is usually pretty decent. But problems arose when what to my wandering eyes did appear but a whole case stocked with only picnic hams. Nothing against picnics (the lower part of the front-leg ham) but they are not for this application. So I talked to the butcher, who said they'd be in the next morning. Next day I'm back. Meat Dept was stiffed on the hams by the packing company. Ugh. Next day I'm back, finally, a whole leg of my own! It was 25lbs, while this would have been awesome (and probably difficult to fit on my smoker!) I didn't have time to cure it and frankly, didn't need that much. So I had them cut it in half and ended up with a nice 13lb shank ham. Quick! Home! To the brine!
The basic recipe Ruhlman gives is a gallon of water, 350 grams of kosher salt, 360 grams dark brown sugar, and 42 grams pink salt (sodium nitrite). Stir all the salt in and boom: brine. I subbed in canning salt for the kosher, it's fine grains dissolve more easily in cold liquids. This is also a good place to note the use of weights in the recipe above, rather than cups. There's a lot more salt in a cup and a half of pickling salt than there is in the same volume of kosher.
Because I was down to the wire on time for curing it, I decided to get out my Cajun Marinade Injector needle and pump some of the brine all over. I figured this would help insure that the thicker parts were cured given the minimum cure time. And it presented me with the first in a related line of recurring problems. The skin.
Skin On or Skin Off
In poking around books, the Net and reading at the Virtual Weber Bullet, I couldn't get a clear consensus for skin-on or skin-off. Ruhlman says skin on, no mention of trimming before or after, and leaves it at that with no explanation why. But in the past, the skin on things like my bacon has always ended up like football leather after the curing and smoking. Not great eats, though good for soup. On the other hand, other people seem to trim it off as a matter of course, and again, never really explain why.
So I figured I'd try it with it on and see what happened. My thought was that it would provide a buffer layer, one that might help keep the moisture in the ham, preventing dry edges. Or maybe some people really like to eat it. Or maybe it has other tasty uses that Ruhlman didn't mention. So I left it on.
Which made injecting the cure very, very difficult. The injector was designed for turkeys and the thick skin was too much for it. So I compromised. Got out a box knife, and made a diamond pattern of slits all around the ham, just through the skin, not the meat. Then I injected at the intersections. Once that was done, the whole thing went into a Turkey Brining Bag (3 gallons?) with the brine. Then the bag went in a 4 gallon pot for structural support and flood prevention. I weighted it down with a plate so the ham would stay submerged, and flipped it a couple times over the next six days.
First step in smoking it was forming the pellicle. This is the tacky outer layer that develops on cured foods when you let them air dry a while, and it is vital to getting a good smoke adhesion. So on the morning of the 23rd I took the ham out of the bag, washed it off and dried it with some paper towels, and stuck it in the fridge on a wire rack. It spent the day there, air drying in the fridge, for a total of about 14 hours.
Twas the Night Before the Night Before Christmas
About 8:00 at night on the 23rd I lit my WSM, Minion method. In BBQ laymen's terms: Filled the charcoal basket with unlit Kingsford briquettes and mixed around my smoke wood: one good handful each of Hickory, Alder and Maple. Lit 24 briquettes and when they were going put them in the middle of the pile, put the smoker together, poured a half gallon of cold water in the pan, and placed the ham on the lower grate. Pretty quickly it was around 225 degrees, vents all open about 25%, they mostly stayed there or were closed for the duration.
At 10:30 I glazed the ham with a coating of Ruhlman's glaze: a mix of 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar, 3/4 cup dijon mustard, and 1 T minced garlic. Honestly, I later ended up trimming almost all of it off. This did make the skin tastier, but didn't add much to the ham. Probably won't do it next time.
About 11:00 I went to bed, setting my alarm clock to wake me up at 1:00 AM to check it. At 4:00 AM my cat went berserk, (as she is wont to do), and woke us up. Or more accurately, woke Meredith up as I am largely cat-proof. A hazy "Did you check the ham?" resulted in a "Murrrmurrrr...What? OH CRAP, THE HAM!" moment. Yeah, I'd set the alarm for 1:00 PM. (I blame Winter Ale!) Ran outside, where it was 28 degrees out, in my bathrobe, and... ham was fine. Holding 235-ish. Man I love my smoker, 5 hours of not checking and it held temp like a champ. Poured another 2 quarts in the pan, which had gone nearly dry. I should have put a gallon in at the get-go. Oh well, no harm no foul.
After that adrenaline rush I didn't really go back to sleep, and began to check the meat temp about 6:00 AM. By 7:00 it was done, 150 degrees. Tented it and let carryover take it to 155. Looked and smelled amazing!
Service with a lot of Smiles
Christmas Eve dinner was at my Parent's house, so we loaded up the ham, glaze, some stuffing I'd made, Glogg, Dog, Presents, etc., and went over. Plan was to heat the ham in the oven and glaze it with the rest of the glaze. Here's where the skin again presented a challenge. Now it was smoked? Trim it and reheat like a store-bought ham? Keep skin on? After some consultation we decided to trim the skin, trim the fat, diamond hatch it, glaze and serve.
So I got to work with a sharp paring knife and before long had trimmed a 1 1/4 lbs of smoked rind and 1 1/2 pounds of fat off. You had better believe I saved them though, I was sure they'd be delicious in some future project. (And they were.)
I spread the glaze around with a large brush and then for kicks, hit it with a blowtorch. The trick was to get it to caramelize fast enough that it stuck instead of running off, but not so hot that it burned. This actually worked surprisingly well. I then tried dry brown sugar. Instant charcoal. Don't do that. Really the only failure in this whole thing was my glazing, I need to work on that one for next year. On a commercial scale, it's a skill and an art that takes a lot of practice to get right.
Finally I poured the rest of the glaze on, popped it in the oven at 275 until warm and finished it under the broiler just till the top glaze got a bit bubbly.
Sliced it for service. Lovely color, smelled and looked great, cut easily but not falling apart, nothing burnt or over-dry. A whole line of excited dinner guests were waiting... Wish there was a better photo.
So how did it meet the goals mentioned earlier? In terms of taste: outstanding. Several people said it was the best ham they'd ever had, and I would have to agree. Even people that "hated" ham were going back for seconds. It was the moistness that did it, some parts were like a tenderloin. It was awesome.
I'm no professional here, but based on my knowledge of the industry practices here's what I think happened. We all know time is money. And this took me a week to make. Commerical hams are injected all over, hundreds of times, by tiny needles and pumped with a cure solution, as well as other preservatives and flavorings. This does two things for the company. First it shortens the curing time to a day or two, meaning less storage space, faster turn around, etc. Secondly, this commercial method pumps the ham full of liquids that increase its weight, meaning more $ when it's later sold by the pound.
But there is a problem. Normally a cure would leech water out of the meat during the curing process, and ironically this makes it more moist later on. (For a great article on why click here.) But when the quick cured commercial meat then gets cooked or reheated, the holes and harsh cure squeezes the liquid out of the meat as the fibres contract, meaning dryer ham and the sortof "Meh, ham" reaction most people seem to have at Christmas. It was certainly clear that among our panel of tasters, the juiciness of the homemade ham was what everyone loved most.
So that's it on the taste. Way, way better than commercial ham. Everyone loved it. And I've been enjoying delicious Ham and Eggs for breakfast for a week now.
In terms of time, it was a close-run thing but the timing is pretty much right on. Six days to cure the ham, 12 hours to dry it, 10 1/2 hours to smoke it, then trim and reheat before dinner. Doing an overnight smoke did make me a bit tired by dinnertime. But it could have been the eggnog too...
Cost? The ham was $20, so counting in charcoal, spices etc lets say $25. Sweet! Though next year sourcing a better, older, more humane ham will no doubt be twice that or more. The time it took isn't factored in, it's a hobby and this was a load of fun on top of being delicious. But if you're really busy, maybe a commercial ham is more your style. But you can still throw it on the smoker though! Some of the recipes on TVWB look pretty good.
Will I do it again? Looks like we have a Christmas tradition in the making...
And the scraps of skin and fat? The post will be up shortly.
Update: the follow up post is up. Smoked Cotechino!