Friday, December 10, 2010

The Matter Of Wrap-Cooking A Country Ham

For my money the Observer's Kathleen Purvis is tops in the food-writing field.  If you read her story on the art of curing hams a few years back, you know that she has a reverence for doing things the right way -- both in her reporting and her appreciation for the many gifts of Southern cooking. 

But when Barnie K. Day sent me his piece on how to "wrap-cook" a country ham, I thought it was too good to keep under, um, wraps.  Barnie himself freely admits he stole it, so I'm passing it along with full credit to Barnie and to the man from whom he got the story, Robert Crumpton Sr., a government tobacco grader in Roxboro and later Oxford, who refined this process.

I should add that Barnie is a neighbor of mine in Patrick County, Va., up on Belcher Mountain in the Blue Ridge. Barnie's a Tar Heel boy who grew up in Person County, earned degrees at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke, and went on to be Patrick County manager, a Virginia state legislator and writer of terrific newspaper columns when he's not out tending to his farm up in the headwaters of the Dan River. Barnie theorizes, by the way, that this method of curing a ham might have something to do with the original "pig in a blanket."  Read on and see what you think.


This is the world’s best way to cook a country ham.  Guaranteed.  Period.  Scout’s honor.  Cross my heart and hope to die.  And it’s not original.  Of course, I stole it.  And, as luck would have it, it is also the easiest.  Often the case.  We overcomplicate a lot of things.  Cooking a ham is one of them.

Let’s start with the ham itself, and how it was cured. 

There are lots of run-of-the-mill brands, some of them old and famous but still run-of-the-mill, brands that owe their reputations more to glossy catalogues and clever and expensive marketing campaigns than they do to judge-by-eating juries. 

Many of these hams are cured “inside out,” needle-embalmed with nitrate injections.  They are not the best hams -- often more expensive -- but not the best.

Still, these hams eat okay -- unless you’ve eaten ham cured like your granddaddy cured it, ham cured the old way.

He cured his hams “outside in.”  He didn’t know about nitrate injections.  (And if he had, he wouldn’t have done it to his hams!)  He simply packed his fresh in plain salt for six to eight weeks, took them up, washed and dried them, maybe smoked them a little, maybe not, probably peppered them, hung them in cotton sacking in a cool place, out of reach of the dogs, and aged them for several months. 

A note here:  don’t be flummoxed by the term “sugar cured.”  Often salt is mixed with sugar, with pepper, with molasses, with honey -- all kinds of stuff -- and labeled some fancy “cure,” or another, but these things -- including smoke -- be it apple wood, hickory, whatever -- only flavor hams.  What cures, or preserves, a ham is the salt that it absorbs during the curing process. 

Buy whatever brand you want.  For my money, the best country ham in this part of the world, the one closest to what your granddaddy cured, is a Clifty Farm ham, processed for 60 years or so by the Murphey Family, in Paris, Tennessee.  They’re usually available, and reasonably priced, across Southside Virginia around Christmastime.  ($1.79 a pound at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville.)

Okay, now let’s cook that bad boy!

Unwrap the ham and wash it.  Yeah, they all have a little mold.  No big deal.  Really.  It would cause me some concern if it didn’t have mold on it.  Just palm it off with a little warm water.  Two minutes, tops. 

Put the ham in a pot that you have a top for.  I always have to cut the hock off so it will fit the pot I use.  They’ll cut the hock off for you at the grocery store.  If I have to tell you what that hock is good for, stop reading this and move on.  You got no business with a country ham.  Either that, or you’re a Yankee, and threw the ham out when you saw the mold.

Fill the pot with water until the ham is covered with 3-4 inches, put the top on, and bring it to a boil.

Now here is the trick to this:  As soon as it begins to boil, you take it off the stove.  That’s right.  Off the stove when it begins to boil.  Set it somewhere where it will be out of your way. 

Now we’re going to wrap that puppy up.  Pot and all.  You can use most anything -- towels, an old blanket, a quilt, a sleeping bag.  The patio lounge cushion works well.  That’s what I use.  The idea is to insulate the pot so that it holds the heat.

I put an inch or so of newspaper under the pot, the same amount on top, wrap the patio cushion around it, and tie the cushion in place with baling twine.  This doesn’t take five minutes.  Just make sure it’s insulated good.

When you get it wrapped, leave it alone.  Walk away from it.  Forget about it for 12 hours.  Just let it sit.

After 12 hours, remove the wrap, and take the ham out of the pot and put it on a baking pan.  Careful here—even after sitting 12 hours, the water will be too hot for you to put your hands in.

Trim the skin off, score a diamond pattern on the thin layer of encasing fat, rub into it a cup of white sugar, put the ham -- uncovered -- in the oven and bake it for 2 hours at 275 degrees.  And that’s it.  You’re done.  Let it cool before slicing. 

Merry Christmas.  And best to you and yourn

Barnie K. Day
Meadows of Dan, VA


Anonymous said...

This is the only way to cook a two-year-old country ham. 50 years ago we used a lard can -- they were water tight in those days. Oh, before you bake the ham for appearance, carefully slide the bone out and then tie the ham to keep the proper shape

oldncart said...

Ahort cut is to soak ham--after wiping mold with weak vinegar--for 24 hours. Thepu the thing in a roasting pan and bake it until done. You csn rub with spices if you choose. Not quite as tebder, but none was ever wasted!

Anonymous said...

All that sugar and all that salt can hardly be healthy.

bgault74 said...

Zanesfriend, no one is asking for you opinion on here about your health concerns. The fact is this is the best way to cook a country ham without having to waste energy and comes out great everytime! Soaking prior to cooking removes much of the unwanted salts.

Leisa♠ said...

I have used this method for two years, and I'll be returning for a third year. It is excellent.

Anonymous said...

I have used this recipe for several years. It is excellent!