Cider Baked Virginia Country Ham

Country ham is one of the greatest American food products. I live in Virginia which is the home of many great country ham producers. The secret to delicious country ham is not only buying a good one, but in how it is prepared. Two great producers are S. Wallace Edwards and R.M. Felts, both located in southeastern Virginia.

Country ham is dry cured, smoked, and aged. The combination of a lot of salt and the aging process makes a country ham very salty, but that is the property needed to make it shelf stable. You can store one of these hams for a long time with no refrigeration. I particularly enjoy a ham that includes black pepper in the cure, but it’s not essential.

I have followed all kinds of recipes for country ham, some elaborate, requiring many steps over several days and some simple, just soak the ham and then bake it. I have come to really enjoy this cider baked recipe because it produces a fine result, because we typically have some homemade hard cider on hand, and because it is pretty simple. It’s adapted from a recipe I found from the California Culinary Academy.

To prepare the ham, the first step is to scrub it with a lot of cool water and a stiff brush. Country hams sometimes have spots of mold on them, but that is normal. It comes right off with a good scrubbing.

Next, I use a meat saw to cut off the hock. This gives me a hock to put in a pot of beans later, and it reduces the size of the ham so I can soak it in a smaller pot. Place the hock-less, cleaned ham in a large pot and cover it with cool water. Change the water every 6-8 hours for a minimum of 24 hours. This softens the ham and greatly reduces the salt content.

When you are ready to cook the ham, drain it one last time, give it a quick scrub with the stiff brush, and pat it dry. Place a long sheet of foil in a roast pan. Place the ham on the foil. Pour one quart of hard cider over the ham. You may use fresh apple cider if you prefer. I typically make a few batches of dry English-style hard cider each year, and I have the cider in small homebrew kegs. I think the hard cider produces a more pronounced flavor in the ham, and it accentuates the porky goodness.

 

Seal the foil around the ham, and put it in a 350F oven for 3-4 hours. It is not critical for the foil to be totally sealed, but it must hold the cider. If you poke a hole in the foil and the cider leaks out, you need to start over. Use heavy foil, and be careful not to poke holes in the bottom of the pouch.

After 3-4 hours, the smell of the ham will be driving you crazy with hunger. Remove the pan from the oven. Open the foil and allow the ham to cool until you can touch it. Get rid of the foil and place the ham on the bottom of the roasting pan. Whatever juice is there should be left.

Peel the skin off of the ham. Usually it comes right off in a few big pieces. Score the fat in a diamond pattern with a knife.

Gently warm ½ cup of bourbon (you may use other spirits as well if you prefer). Increase the oven to 400F. Put the ham back in the oven until the fat sizzles and gets crispy.

Remove the pan from the oven. Pour the whiskey over the ham. Carefully ignite the bourbon. It will make some serious flames, maybe three feet high. If you prefer your look to include eyebrows, stand back.

When the flames die (and be careful because the flames may be nearly invisible sometimes), coat the top fatty side of the ham with a glaze. The glaze can be as simple as just some dark brown sugar. I prefer to mix dark brown sugar with some honey, mustard, ground cloves, and a little black pepper.

 

Put the ham back in the oven until the glaze melts over the ham.

Country hams are usually between 12-18 pounds so chances are you won’t eat it all for dinner. It’s great served cold, sliced paper thin. I like to have it in a sandwich, on my eggs for breakfast, or just served alongside some pickles, homemade beer mustard, and spicy pear chutney. There are tons of recipes that call for country ham. I use some in my spaghetti carbonara, there’s a ham and oyster pie, all sorts of things.

Then when you’re almost done with the ham, make some stock with the bone and use it for a delicious bean soup.

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