Last November when I was trying to make a decision about the turkey we’d prepare for Thanksgiving, quite by accident, I saw a news segment about a local turkey farmer. In San Diego? I immediately researched to find that yes, we really did have someone who raised turkeys in Valley Center, just north of San Diego. Of course I jumped at the opportunity and ended up not only with an excellent organic turkey, but I was able to meet the farmer, Jack Ford of Taj Farms who delivered the bird to my kitchen. We had a great talk about how he started raising poultry and other animals on a farm that actually began as a hobby. But this isn’t about the turkey.
It’s about pork.
When Jack was discussing his farm with me, I learned he had a whole pig available for purchase. Yes. A whole pig. It had been lovingly raised for another family who had to back out of their purchase at the last minute. Bear in mind there are just two of us in this house, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity so called my best friend who, being the intelligent woman she is, also understands the value of amazing pork and asked if she’d split it with us. Surely, 150 lbs. couldn’t be that much to split, could it? Goodness.
Jack delivered it and honestly, it was much more pork than I imagined it would be. In fact it was much more than Jack thought it would be — 50 lbs. more. In anticipation of the pork’s arrival, I’d cleaned out the freezer in my kitchen and completely gutted the small freezer in the fridge in our garage, but I had no idea my split of an entire pig could amount to so much. Visions of bacon flavored everything began swirling in my mind as I looked at the mound of individually wrapped pieces of frozen meat covering most of the counter space in my kitchen. Perhaps I might purchase a porkie food truck and sell to the masses — or at least a few dozen pork lovers every now and then. Surely it would take forever to eat it all.
Beyond pulling a chair up to the table, grabbing a fork and knife, and donning a bib, where does one begin when faced with a 22 lb. fresh ham, a 10 lb. shoulder, two lovely loins with ribs attached, ham steaks, ham hocks, ends, neck bones, small ribs for barbeque, ham steaks, lots of bacon and country sausage — and half a head. Yes, I was indulged the head and will blame its yet to be determined destination on Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry cookbook. Oh, the true thrill planning gives me!
I started with the largest piece — the ham — more for a practical reason than anything else. I’d been forced to put it in the extra fridge because I was out of freezer space and since it was frozen solid, I knew I had a bit of time to decide what to do with it before it completely thawed. Jack suggested brining it and since I’ve been brining our turkeys for years and have also brined a bit of pork before, I decided to go that route.
I’d never prepared a fresh ham before, and from what I knew about a traditional ham, by most people’s standards today, this huge piece of meat wasn’t technically a ham. Or was it? Originally, the “ham” or hind leg of a pig was cured by salting, then smoking, so that it could be preserved through the winter months. That salty, smoky taste is what many think of as ham. What I had was a piece of raw pork just waiting for treatment. And once I’d decided upon what that treatment was, I knew I’d also have to figure out how to cook it because the guidelines for “cooking” a store-bought ham wouldn’t apply here. Often, the hams prepared and sold in the market are halved into either a butt — the upper portion — or the shank — the lower portion. We’ve all seen whole hams as well, but like the smaller cuts, they’re most often already wet cured with salt and nitrates — often injected directly into the meat for quick curing, then smoked. This process is what preserves the pink color of the raw meat which is associated with mass produced hams.
Who knew I’d find so many differing opinions about how to prepare it. Some preferred a simple roasting with preparation involving scoring the skin and fat layer, then nestling cloves of garlic in the cuts. Alas, my fresh ham did not have skin or fat. And there were many who felt that a fresh ham was absolutely no different than a shoulder, so why prepare it differently? A pork roast is a pork roast, right? When you consider that on any animal, each set of muscles is used differently, no, one piece isn’t like the other so needs to be prepared differently in order to make sure it turns out best. Tougher cuts of meat do well with braising, or cooking slowly in liquid, and others benefit from roasting whether on the grill or in the oven. Because a fresh ham is a fairly lean piece of meat, roasting is best. But at what temperature, and for how long? It seems there are a variety of preferences to that as well.
Because so many who have worked with fresh hams before have had the skin and fat attached, a high heat for some portion of the initial roasting time was recommended. I have done that with large cuts of beef before and thought the end product was excellent, but again, my fresh ham lacked both. I wondered whether it really mattered or not because ultimately the point of the high temperature is to get a good brown on the exterior of the meat, allowing all the interior fat to be sealed in as much as possible as it slowly breaks down during the roasting time.
My head full of all things fresh ham, I decided on Chef Ryan Farr’s “Chile-Brined Fresh Ham” recipe. When we visit San Francisco and stop by the Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building on Saturday, we love to visit 4505 Meats booth to order from their ever changing menu and love every bite, so how could I go wrong? Besides, he had me at “chile.”
Spicy meat? Oh, yeah
Chile-Brined Fresh Whole Ham Recipe
4 c. kosher salt
2 c. raw sugar
6 qt. cold water
1/2 c. black peppercorns, crushed
1/2 c. migonette pepper
1/3 c. dried red chilies, crushed
8 whole cloves
4 c. ice cubes
1 20-lb. bone-in fresh ham
2 c. poultry stock*
- Combine the salt and sugar with 2 quarts of the water in a large pan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally until dissolved.
- Remove from heat and add the peppercorns, migonette pepper, dried red chilies and cloves. Pour into a large kettle and add the rest of the water and ice. Stir occasionally until the ice completely melts. Allow to cool to room temperature.
- Place the fresh ham into a sturdy bag large enough to hold the ham and all the brine. Set it in a roasting pan for easy transport and stability. Pour the brine over the ham to completely cover. Twist and secure the bag. Place in the fridge and allow to brine for at least 30 hours.
- Remove the ham from the brine and remove the bits and pieces of brine spices. Place on a rack in a large roasting pan. Allow to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Roast the ham for 1 one hour, then reduce the heat to 300 degrees, pour a cup of water into the bottom of the roaster, and continue roasting until a thermometer inserted into the ham in the thickest area without touching a bone registers 150 degrees –about 20 minutes per pound.
- After removing the ham from the oven, allow it to sit covered with foil at least 30 minutes.
- Pour pour any juices collected in the roasting pan through a fine meshed strainer into a sauce pan making sure to skim off any fat. Add the poultry stock*, and heat over medium high until it reaches a boil. Remove from heat.
- Serve slices of the ham with the warm jus.
- Don’t be afraid of the spice in this — it’s quite mild. In fact, I think I’d double it next time. The original recipe calls for fresh Thai or serrano chilies, and they can get pretty warm, so who knows, but I always have lots of dried red chilies around. My friend grows them, and I can’t use them fast enough, so dry them and run them through the spice grinder when I want to spice something up. It’s an excuse for another experiment to see if the fresh ones are more spicy in a brine. I have plenty of pork available to find out, don’t I?
- *The original recipe calls for chicken broth, but I’d made fresh stock with the turkey carcass from Thanksgiving and froze it. I’ll get around to writing about it one of these days. Maybe. I’m so far behind on my writing it’s ridiculous.
- The outside of this ham crusted up very nicely even without the skin which was a nice surprise, but I’m still wondering about what the crispy skin might have been like. Next time.
- I used the migonette pepper because I had it on hand after my friend shared her stash with me and liked the idea of the coriander in it working well with the chilies.
- The flavor of fresh ham is nothing like a traditional ham — yet it isn’t the same as pork shoulder. The meat is quite tender, has a velvety texture, and is very moist. The jus is a very nice touch and adds a rich flavor to finish.
- Very little fat came from this ham — I was quite surprised.
- We didn’t put a dent in the quantity of meat this ham produced, but enjoyed a couple of meals with sliced ham, and after dividing it up into manageable packages, have shared some with my family, frozen quite a bit, have made soup, lentils, and beans with ham, and I’ve also used the meaty bones to make a large quantity of ham stock. Lots and lots of recipes coming which means I will have to post more often, right?
- This is been a tasty and informative experience so far. For future reference, I’d say a pig the size of the one we bought could easily be slit four ways unless someone has a big family.
- Don’t mistake pork shoulder for a leg of pork or fresh ham. I’ve eaten much more pork shoulder over the years, and the taste and texture are definitely different. Ham is very lean whereas the shoulder has quite a bit of fat inside it which is what makes it the perfect cut to roast very, very slowly at low temperatures.
- For other good discussions on roasting a whole fresh ham, check out the Chowhound discussion thread here and here. I enjoy reading the Chowhound threads because so many people chime in with their cultural and family experiences with food. Often, I’m able to decide whether I want to follow a recipe closely, or adapt it using a variety of adjustments based on what I’ve gathered. I highly recommend it if you’ve got the time.
- General information about pork — including recommended cooking temperatures — can be found here.
- Jack Ford can be reached at Taj Farms and I understand he’s been quite busy with new litters of cute pigs.
Fresh Ham Recipes Around the Web
Leite’s Culinaria — “Roasted Fresh Ham with a Maple-Spice Glaze”
Food52 — “New Year’s Day Fresh Ham”
Four String Farm — “Fresh Ham Roast Recipe”
Imperfect Happiness — “Roast Fresh Ham with a Side of Kale and Blackeye Peas”