March 12, 2018

How to Cook a Whole Country Ham

A country ham is known best for its salty taste. I've only ever met people who either love or hate a salty ham. I've also met folks who think they like a salty ham until they've tried a real country ham. If you've had one, you know what I'm talking about.

Seasonal holidays like Easter and Christmas always mean the slow, simmering smells of a salty country ham slowly cooking away in the oven. While it's only about twice a year I go all out and cook an entire ham — the method I use is simpler than you might think, one I've tweaked over the years and have absolutely fallen in love with. My family looks forward to these meals every year and I'm excited to share the recipe here for what perhaps may become a new tradition in your home.

  • Whole uncooked country ham (we're fans of the 15-17 lb Broadbent hams)
  • 1-1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark molasses

    That's right — only three ingredients! One of the things I like most about the process of cooking a whole ham is the ability to plan ahead. You can buy the ham and store it until ready for use and even cook it up to a week ahead of time. Simply hang it in a cool dark place until you're ready to get cooking.

    Tip: A 15 lb ham will yield enough for a large crowd, or a family gathering with plenty of leftovers for making eggs & ham, ham biscuits or ham salad (<---- just a few of our favorites).

    The day before you plan to cook, remove the ham from its bag and rinse all over with warm water, scrubbing any areas with build up or mold (if any). Place the ham in a sink or vessel large enough to completely cover the whole thing with tap water and let it soak for a minimum of 12-15 hours depending on how salty you like the final result. The longer the ham soaks, the less salty it will be. We're from the south, so the saltier the better.

    Once soaked, remove the ham from water and pat it dry, then preheat the oven to 325°.

    Cut the hock about 4-5 inches off the end of the ham using a meat saw, like one of these. Doing so will help the ham better fit into a roasting pan and this lesser eaten (directly on the ham, that is) part of the ham is perfect for flavoring soups and stews — just toss it in a freezer bag and store until inspiration strikes on a cold day.

    Lay the ham inside a large lidded roasting pan with a rack in the bottom, then add water to fill the base of the pan without letting it touch the ham. I use the pan my great-grandmother, and later my mom, used to roast meat in and love thinking about the all the meals and memories we shared every time I pull this big guy out from the cellar. If you don't have a roasting pan, one like this is a great starter piece.

    Cover and bake in the oven, estimating 15-20 minutes of cook time per pound. So for a 15 lb ham, check right around the 4-hour mark.

    The ham will create some juice on its own, but if you notice water evaporating from the pan you can add more while it cooks. At the halfway mark, rotate the ham 180° in the oven. At about the 3-hour mark, that magical moment when your house fills with the wonderful smoky scent of cooked ham occurs. Relish in it the rest of the day.

    Remove the ham from the oven once fully cooked and allow it to rest, cooling for about 20-25 minutes on a foil-lined baking sheet. At this stage, I love to reserve the ham drippings and stock from the roasting pan for use in other dishes. This saves well in freezer-safe containers.

    Once cooled to the touch, trim the fat from around the ham. I like to leave a good bit of fat on, so trim to your personal liking.

    Now we're ready to coat the ham with a little sweetness to counterbalance the salt. Mix the brown sugar and molasses together — this is going to act as a rub. I loved the chance to use the sorghum molasses we picked up during our road trip to Kinston this past autumn. Somehow it felt even more country than usual.

    Things are about to get messy, but it's worth it. Apply a good coating of this rub along the top and down the sides of the ham. Don't worry about looks or full coverage at this point, because the sugar and molasses will melt once in the oven.

    Return the coated ham to a 400° oven and keep an eye on it for 10-12 minutes, rotating halfway through. The melted sugar and molasses will have made a nice glaze that gives the final ham slices a sweet crust.

    Allow the ham to cool completely, then slice and serve or wrap in aluminum foil and store in the refrigerator until you are ready to slice.

    What about you — is ham a part of your holidays? Do you prefer salty or sweet? I'd love to know your favorite recipes and if you give this one a try if you like it too.

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