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Curing, Drying and Smoking Ham

 

This is a tutorial based on the steps we took to fully prepare, cure and smoke two Hams for a traditional Polish Easter Dinner. For both Hams we used the 10lb. recipe found in Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing by Rytek Kutas (pg. 308). This recipe is similar to the Schinkenspeck, only that we are leaving out the belly (bacon). For each process we gave the approximate time it took us to do it, just like in the Sausage-Making Weekend. Now back to the Hams! The items we needed for the Hams are located on the Checklist Page for quick reference. Included is each step in our process, what we did and how we did it, the finished product was successfully delicious for us but, that doesn't mean you will feel the same way. The idea is not just to make delicious Ham without dishing out big bucks, the most important part is to share in the experience with family and friends, the Ham is just the ‘means’ to the shared-experience ‘end’. Enjoy!

Buy the Ham 20 MINS

We went to our trusted local meat market and asked for two boneless fresh Hams. Not many people buy fresh Hams so make sure to tell the person behind the counter that you plan on curing, and cooking it yourself, so there isn't any confusion on their part. We bought two, each weighing in around 10 pounds. This ended up costing us only about $50 (for two Hams), compare that to a smoked Ham behind the glass counter... Your Hams are likely to taste just like those and will cost you MUCH less.

 

 

Preparation 45 MINS

For this step we used: a Brining Bucket for each Ham (any cleaned food grade plastic or stainless steel pale is good), the Hams, a Compact Food Lug, a Meat Pump with Perforated Needle, ingredients in the recipe and water (Picture#1). The recipe we used defined exactly how much salt to use in the brine so there was no need for a Brine Tester (aka Salometer). The rest of the ingredients were INSTA CURE™ #1 , Dextrose, White Ground Pepper and Ground Juniper Berries (details at Checklist Page, Picture#2). Unfortunately for us we had whole juniper berries, so we placed them on a tray and laying a plastic bag on them, we hammered them into small crushed pieces. Added the amount of water to the bucket that the recipe called for and then added all the ingredients (Picture#3). Mix well for a few minutes to disperse ingredients thoroughly (Picture#4). The amount of the brine to be pumped into the Ham is 10% of the weight, so for our recipe it turned out to be about 4-5 full capacity loads from our meat pump (one Ham = ~10 lbs., 10% = 1.0 lb., 1 lb = 16 oz., Pump Capacity = 4oz., so 4 pumps of 4 oz.). Weight ounces are not equal to fluid ounces (Volume) but at this small scale the difference is negligible, so there is no need for concern. Temperature of Ham when pumping should be 38-40°F (refrigerate overnight if unsure). So, we loaded up the brine and gave 4 pumps into different areas of the Ham, try to pump into the tougher sections (this will help cure penetration later, Picture #5,6). We used a perforated needle for our pump, which distributes the brine much more efficiently through 12 holes instead of 1 like on most needles. If you are preparing a Ham that has not been deboned, make sure to pump around the bone. It is normal for there to be some loss of pumping brine due to injecting into less dense muscle, and ‘spillage’, this is alright. If you think you lost over 1/4 of the pumping brine through spillage, then pump a little more in, otherwise don’t overthink a dribble. When the pumping is done, put the Ham into the brine bucket which should have enough brine to entirely drown the Ham. Since we had two Hams we used two separate buckets, each with the same amount of brine. It is alright to place one Ham on top of another as long as the top one is also completely immersed in the brine, the limit is 3-4 Hams, at which point the bottom one will begin to lose much of its natural juices as well as the pumped cure. If stacking, rotate top-to-bottom and vice versa once a day.

 

 
Picture #1
The Table of PreCuring Supplies
Picture #2
Ingredients Labeled
 
Table of PreCuring Supplies

Ingredients Labeled

 
Picture #3
Pouring the Ingredients
Picture #4
Mixing the Ingredients
 
Beginning the Brine. Pouring in the Ingredients
Making a Brine, Mixing the Ingredients thoroughly.
 
Picture #5
Pumping the Cure
Picture #6
Pumping and Pumping
 

Pumping the Cure

Make Sure to get cure into the Tougher Spots too.
Pump Slowly and While Removing Needle.

 

Curing 5-7 DAYS

Some producers will use sodium erythorbate to speed up the curing process, for home use this should be discouraged as there are many factors that enable the commercial producers to be confident in a 2-3 day cure… and really, the extra couple days give your ingredients more time to get absorbed better anyway. Brining of the Ham should be done in a cooler where the temperature can stay relatively constant at 38-40°F the entire time. It's really 5-7 days of doing nothing more than leaving the Hams alone. Let the cure do its job and get into all muscle sections. If you want, you can check on the brine each day and stir it up a little, just make sure you put the top back on the container. The longer it stays in the brine, the saltier the finished product is bound to be, so for us we will be removing it on the 6th day. Take good notes and the next Hams you make will be even better!

 

 

Drying 12 HRS

We removed the Hams from the brine solution and immediately took them to the sink. With cold water, rinse off the excess salt that is on the Ham and using a hard bristled brush that has NEVER been used, brush thoroughly for a good 3-5 minutes (the surface tends to hold the salty brine a little too well). Don't even chance brushing the Ham with a used brush, it can be dangerous for you and anyone else eating. Rinse, Do Not Soak. After your done brushing, place the Ham into a Netting (Picture#8,9) or into Stockinette Bags that have been moistened with a solution of water and Vinegar (1:1), Peel-Ease (10:1, or spray lightly with just peel-ease) or Liquid Smoke (1-2 drops to 2 oz. water) this will make it much easier to remove the Ham from the stockinettes when its done smoking/cooking. Tie the net / bag onto the Stockinette Hook securely. Preheat your Smoker to 120°F. On the top brackets place the Dowel that will be the hanging off point for the Ham. Our 30 Lb. Capacity Smoker has a top-loading option, which made inserting the bulky Hams very easy. Just as in smoking Sausages, spacing is important, be sure the Hams (if doing multiple) are neither touching each other, the interior walls of the smoker nor the Diffuser or Drip Guard (if available). Don't forget to insert the Thermometer probes into the thickest/dense part of the Ham and one into the smoker. The dampers should be wide open for the entirety of the drying process. We put ours into the Smoker at 8:00pm. The temperature set at 120°F, we checked often for 2 hours to make sure the temp was steady and when it was, we checked on it once an hour. Leaving a Smoker alone for an extended amount of time is potentially dangerous, there are fatty meats that could drip onto an already smoking sawdust or red hot heating element, use caution. Aside from the potential for danger, it could ruin your Hams! Check Often. We took turns checking on it through the night; the next morning was Sunday so nobody had to work (plan well). The Drying Process was completed successfully. Your experience may be different depending on the meat, outside humidity and temperatures…etc. So it may take your ham, 6 or 8 hours, simply check to see if it is ‘tacky’ to touch and not wet, at this moment you can start smoking.

Smoking 8 HRS

About 8:30am. It’s been 12+ hours since putting the Hams in the smoker for drying. It’s time to start smoking. Dampers half-way open. Set the temp. to 130°F and add a full pan of dampened Sawdust. One smoke application lasted a little over 2 hours for us, at which point we substituted the pan with another prepped one and increased the temperature setting to 140°F (wear an oven mitt when removing the pan). On the third application (our last) we increased the temperature to 150°F. When the smoke stopped it was around 4:00pm, about 8 Hours from the beginning of the smoking process. So, we removed the ash encrusted pan and bumped the temperature to 165°F. Internal temperature of the Hams were 130°F and we want it in the 145 - 150°F mark. If you have a manual smoke diffuser as in TSM’s older smoker models, leave it over the heating element throughout the process. By itself, the heating element would produce too much heat and it would concentrate in the center, burning the meat directly above it. It’s perfectly normal for the smoke to be thick at times then seemingly stop. It momentarily stops when the heating element is no longer needed to bring up the internal temperature but, when it starts dropping towards the minimum thermostat setting it will turn back on and produce smoke again. If the heating element were always ON during smoking it would be uncontrollably hot in the smoker and the sawdust would completely scorch in 20 minutes; the ON/OFF toggling of the heating element creates a balance with the median as the set temperature.

 

 
Picture #7
Hams Cured, Ready for Wash
Picture #8
Insert into Netting
 
Done Curing, Wash Under Sink With Clean Brush
Tie Netting onto Stockinette Hook Securely
 
Picture #9
Hanging off Dowel by Hook
Picture #10
Drying Phase Finished

Don't want too much slack. Hams or Net shouldn't touch Diffuser or walls.

At end of 12 HR drying cycle, first Smoke application.
Picture #11
Smoking Hams2
Picture #12
Smoking Hams
Second Smoke, Looking Great!
Third & Last Smoke

Initial Cooking 7 HRS

Now that the smoking process is over, its time to bring up the Internal Temperature of the Ham. Close the dampers and leave the temperature between 165 - 170°F. Be careful not to let it go beyond 170°F (increased risk of fat melting and dripping out, and the loss of juices will make a less succulent finished Ham (and nobody wants that!). When the temperature steadied at around 167°F, a perfect temperature, we kept it there for a few hours. When we started smoking, the Internal Ham temperature was increasing approximately 3°F every hour, then 1°F and then STOPPED. It hit the slow-cooking ‘plateau’, this meant it was going to take a couple hours to make headway and this was a problem for us since the internal temperature was so close (140°F ) to where we wanted it (145°F). Luckily whole muscle meat will continue to cook on the counter so once it reached 143°F we removed the Hams and shut down "the Machine" that has been running for 24 hours straight. They looked and smelled amazing, but we had to wait 2 more days before we could eat them for Easter Dinner. Of course while we waited for last couple degrees to come around we took a couple slices off the side to taste the sweet victory after that marathon!

 

Easter Sunday

The time has finally arrived, the suspense has been building since we started the process a week ago. The dinner table is being prepped for the feast, aside from the Hams we have 2 Easter Babkas (similar to a pound cake), Pan-Fried Polish Sausage, White Barszcz with chunks of Sausage, Beet and Horseradish Salads, Deviled Eggs, Rye Bread, 2 types of Pierogi; one with cheese and potato, the other with Sauerkraut. The table decoratively adorned with Tulips, Lilacs, Pussywillows, "the nice tablecloth", and strong drink. To soften the crust a little we have the Hams sitting in pots filled with water mixed with Bay Leaves and Whole Allspice on the stove, the flame on medium. In two hours the Hams were ready and so were we. The family starts arriving and the first Ham is placed in the center of the table, of course nobody had eaten a thing all day (why waste the stomach real-estate?), and we dig in. The Ham was the talk of the table and once it was getting to its end, the second one was brought out to the delight of everyone. It was a wonderful traditional Polish Easter Sunday dinner, filled with family, laughter and great food. Regretfully we didn't get pictures of the family gathering or the beautifully prepared dinner table, we did however take pictures of the Hams after they were finished cooking, how delicious does that look? The Hams were a hit so we brought what was left into work the next day (Smingus Dyngus!) and everyone loved them. The process was long but, just like at a nice restaurant; the longer you wait, the greater the reward. It was well worth the work and wait, it was fun, and we gained a new family tradition of making our own Hams instead of spending an arm and a leg on a mass produced one. We aren't going to make Ham for any little occasion or if we get a hankering for a Ham sandwich. It's for special occasions, like holidays that give you some time to plan and prepare for the endeavor, like an Easter, Christmas or Thanksgiving.

Picture #13
Hams Finished!
Picture #14
Hams Looking Good
Hams Finished!

The White Pepper & Juniper Berries, Delicious Combo for this Ham.

Picture #15
Beauty
Picture #16
Lookin' Good
   
Picture #17
Close Top View
Looks Great, Tasted Better.

The Preparation, Curing, Drying, Smoking and Cooking of the Hams is a very interesting experience. The next time we are going to make Ham will likely be Christmas, every experience is a learning process that will be very helpful when the next time comes around. We hope this tutorial was helpful, if you decide on making Hams in the future, be sure to figure in the amount of time it may take. I would recommend you start the Curing / Brining process at the start of the week so that the actual time-consuming Drying and Smoking is saved for the weekend, just bear in mind the 2nd half of the process will take time and patience, and most importantly Have Fun!

 

Rookie Sausage Maker,
-Mac

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