Very few individuals that this writer encounters will have cooked, or want to cook, a Virginia country ham, or “salt ham” as they were called in very old rural communities. But when we encounter country ham properly done in a restaurant, or served by a home cook who knows what they’re doing, the results are just as good as any Italian prosciutto–but it seems that only the imports get the recognition!
Salt hams used to be a commonplace in Maryland and Virginia, as each winter when the weather was cold, and healthier for butchering, the meat was preserved with salt, usually a brine, although some would pack hams in a box of salt. The results–and some of the approaches–varied, but here’s one description below by historian and writer, C. F. Eckhardt:
A Marylander, Mr. T. E. Hamilton, who took several first prizes at fairs with his hams, did it somewhat differently. First he rubbed the hams with fine salt and let them sit for two days. He then made a brine of four gallons of water, eight pounds of coarse salt, two ounces of saltpeter, one and a fourth ounces of potash, and two pounds of brown sugar. This he poured over the hams and let them pickle for six weeks. After that he took them out, drained them, dried them, and smoked them. Having eaten Virginia smoked ham myself-though it’s been well over half a century-I can testify that the hams of Virginia and Maryland, which are very similar, are great. http://www.texasescapes.com/CFEckhardt/Preserving-Meat-on-the-Frontier.htm
Today salt hams can be available from many providers, but one well known Virginia (and North Carolina) source is Smithfield. http://www.smithfield.com
These hams are not inexpensive: a price check in grocery stores in the area showed prices in the range of $50-60 for a 15 pound ham. If you visit the website of Johnston Country Hams, http://www.countrycuredhams.com/, a Smithfield company, you’ll find a nice selection and several curing options. But if you just pick up a garden variety “county ham”–if one exists–in the grocery store, (we are still talking about $3.50 a pound) here’s the how-to, with a slight variation on how to get the salt out, provided by a Virginia country cook.
Unwrap the ham with care and scrub the outside gently but thoroughly to eliminate mold. Then soak the ham for at least 24 hours. After soaking, let the ham rest, while bringing a large pot of water to a gentle simmer–where you will see a bubble every now and then. The temperature should be around 200 degrees. For cooking time, 20 minutes per pound is the rule of thumb. A fifteen pound ham should be simmered for around five hours.
Now here’s the trick from that Virginia cook: almost all recipes for salt ham require that the ham be soaked for 24-36 hours before cooking, to get the salt out. However, the more frequently water is changed during the soaking process, the more salt will be removed. Four changes of water make a tremendous difference. The Virginia cook mentioned sometimes took a short cut by changing the water during the cooking process instead–two changes of water during the simmering process is a very effective way of getting the salt out.
Every good ham deserves a great glaze: after simmering is done, let the ham dry/rest for an hour in preparation for the glaze. Note: be careful not to overcook or the ham will have a stringy, dry texture.
To prepare the ham for glazing, remove the skin. As you cut off the skin, leave as much of the fat underneath as you can. Once skin is removed (it should remove very easily after the cooking process), take a sharp knife and score the fat on the top of the ham so that you see the classic diagonals shown in all the photos. Take a 1/4 cup of whole cloves and push the cloves into the squares,, one clove to each square, so that the ham is beautifully dressed.
Then for the glaze, mix 1/2 cup dark molasses with 1/3 cup dry mustard and 1/3 cup dark brown sugar. Gently brush this mixture onto the ham. Heat the oven to 425 degrees, and place the glazed ham in the oven for about 10-12 minutes. Remove and let rest/cool before serving.
Slice thinly to serve and enjoy a traditional Virginia holiday delicacy!