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How to Smoke a Ham for the Holidays

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Are you ready for the holidays? It's a slippery slope after Halloween. First up, of course, is Thanksgiving. And we'll be your resource for that as we'll be posting a couple of options for turkey. (Spoiler alert: One speaks Italian.)

But what would be more traditional, more welcome than a house-cured, house-smoked ham to sustain the household through the coming days? The seasonality of food, a given for our ancestors, mandated that meat be preserved through a variety of methods. In colonial times, hogs were dispatched in the fall, and hams were cured in smokehouses.

Which brings us to the big kahuna: a whole ham (it starts with pork shoulder) you cure and smoke yourself. And just in time for the holidays.

The process is not overly complicated, but it does involve four classic techniques: brining; injecting; cold-smoking; and hot-smoking.

The brine gives the ham (technically, a "city ham" as opposed to a dry-cured "country ham"), a sweet, salty, umami flavor as well as its rosy color. Injecting with the barbecue equivalent of a hypodermic needle efficiently delivers the brine to the interior of the pork shoulder and accelerates the curing process. Cold-smoking drives wood smoke flavor deep into the meat. Hot-smoking cooks the ham to food-safe temperatures.

You may ask, "Why bother curing and smoking your own ham? Can't you buy ready-made hams?" The short answer? Doing it yourself is so gratifying. (I'll never forget my first time--I was inaugurating my brand-new smokehouse.) You'll produce a ham with incomparable flavor, a ham with soul. One you'll be so proud to serve to family and friends. A ham they'll never forget.

When you pull this big boy off your smoker--the exterior bronzed with smoke, the cured meat pink as a cherub, with smoke and salt flavors that won't quit--you'll feel a sense of pride money just can't buy.

Not only that, but you'll control the quality of the pork. My first choice is always heritage-breed pork from trustworthy purveyors--local, if you can find them.

The process of curing and smoking a ham takes about one week from start to finish. But there's little actual labor, and what there is--let's just say it's richly rewarded.

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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Project Smoke on public television. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.