Ham I Am

Side Of Building

GUESTS: Crowd of 6 People

AB: And that is how a white turnip is magically converted into a red turnip.
CROWD: Boo. Boo. Boo.

AB: And that's the end of the show. Hey, you've been a really great audience. I'm going to take a little break but I'll be back in 20 minutes with more fantastic food magic. Food ... (sigh). Plebeians. I don't know.

A. B. 's
Fantastic Food Magic

    Oh, you don't believe that food's magic, huh? Okay. All right. Fine. Tell me this. How else but by magic could a plain, ordinary, pitcher of cow juice convert itself wonderfully and magically into a round of Camembert cheese? All right. That's mostly bacteria that does that. But ... Oh, oh, okay, okay, okay. I know. I know. I know. How about popcorn. Popcorn. How else but by the powers of magic could these tiny, little, little hard beads possibly convert themselves into giant piles of white fluffy goodness except by magic?

AB: [wipes away popcorn from lens] Sorry about that.

    (sighs)  All right, so that's mostly pressure from water vapor. All right. I, I ... Oh.
I know. I know. I know. I know. I know. I know. I know. Ham. How else but by magic could this common, lowly, every-day leg of pig convert itself into a rich, luscious, delicious, fragrant, wonderful, beautiful, fragrant, did I mention ridiculously, delicious ham.


    All right. So there's some osmosis, chemistry, smoke and time involved. But, hey, any time you can feed 20 people for a buck a head, I say that's magic. Besides, if you're willing to try out a few spells of your own, you'll find that ham is not only magic but it's good eats.

Side Of Building

    All right. I admit that there's nothing really magical about my favorite porcine preparation but, I will tell you that it'll help if you know the lay of the ham. Okay?  

    Up here, you've got the loin. All chops or a really good roast right there. Down here you've got the belly. That's where the bacon comes from. Up here, the shoulder or Boston Butt. That is the home of fine barbeque. Right below that you've got the picnic shoulder, also known as the picnic ham. It can be smoked and cured but do not ever confuse it with the 'true' ham which runs from the aitch bone up here all the way down to the shank. This stuff is real magic. [hides pig under cape] Where'd it go? I don't know.

Ham Fat Back Jowl
Pork Loin Shoulder
Spareribs Picnic
Flank Bacon Hock

Kroger: Alpharetta, GA - 3:09 pm

GUEST: Federal Agents 1, 2 & 3
            Grocery Shopper

    If you were to take this fresh or green ham home and cook it, you'd end up with a really great roast. But, it wouldn't taste any more like ham than  grape juice does fine burgundy. Now we can juice this analogy even further because this [ham] can be processed into nearly as many distinct final forms as this [grape juice]. In fact, even the federal government recognizes four distinct ham classifications.

FEDERAL AGENT #1: The United States Department of Agriculture recognizes four classifications of processed ham, each defined by its water-to-protein ratio. A ham containing at least 20.5 percent protein and no added water may bear the label, "ham."  A ham containing no less than 18.5 percent protein may be labeled "ham in natural juice."  Such hams are usually sold on the bone and may be fully or partially cooked for your convenience. If a ham contains up to 10 percent added water while maintaining at least 17 percent protein, it must be labeled as, "ham, water added."  Many ready-to-serve spiral sliced hams fall into this category. Hams labeled as "ham and water product" can legally contain more water than ham and are usually boned, reconstituted and molded or tumbled into a ham-like shape.

Not actual USDA agents

20% protein + no H2O = Ham

18.5% protein = Ham in natural juice

17% protein = 10% H2O =
Ham, water added

Ham & water product

AB: Ham like shape. You're kidding, right?
FA#1: [holds back FA#2 reaching for something in his coat pocket] If after a curing, smoking, burning and cooking a ham's weight exceeds its original green weight, it must be labeled according to the amount of water that has been added. And no, sir. We never kid.
AB: Okay. Okay. Settle down.

    These may all call themselves "ham", but the similarity really ends there. Now let me say that when I see a pig grow a leg shaped like this, I'll consider eating eating a ham that's shaped like this but not a minute before. Besides, most of the reconstituted hams have been speed pickled via injection with something that looks like this. Ew. Also, I'm kind of dubious about any ham lacking a skeletal component, okay? Now even if bones didn't add to the flavor of the ham and make terrific seasoning agents later on for soups, beans, greens and the like, I'd still be troubled by the question of once the bones are gone, what holds this together? Could it be erythor* ... I can't even say it.
    Now by far, the largest groups of market hams are referred to as 'city' hams. Now whether they are "water-added" or "in natural juice," these hams are partially cured in a sweet brine before being lightly smoked and cooked. But these are mild-mannered, crowd-pleasing hams which make up for their lack of depth with a user-friendly versatility.
    Now city hams usually come in one of two different halves. Now this is a shank end and here is a rump end right here. Now this looks like it might be easier to carve and therefore a better value, but there's a lot of connective tissue in there so I skip it and stick with the shank end.
    Country hams are a whole other food. First, they are rubbed or packed in a dry cure composed of salt, sodium nitrate, and sometimes sugar and pepper. After that they're hung, sometimes for months, sometimes with smoke, sometimes without. Now during that time, the salt pulls moisture out of the ham leaving it a bacterial desert not to mention a whole lot wider than when it started. The resulting flavors are amazingly complex. It's almost like a small batch bourbon. And the texture has been compared to fine aged cheddar.

Did you know the famed Presunto hams of Portugal,
Westphalia's Schinker hams, Serrano hams
of Spain and Italy's Prosciutto are all forms of country ham.

The Closet

    How is it that country hams can laugh in the face of refrigeration without ill effect? Because they're dehydrated, biological salt licks, hibernating mud skippers, mummies if you like.

The Kitchen

    And mummies just aren't known for their good looks. Of course if you've been packed in salt and hung up in a sack for a year or two, you'd probably need a long soak, too, and that is all that this needs. But, we've got this hock down here. Now I admit that makes a very respectable handle, but in the world of kitchen currency this has higher value elsewhere, i.e. a big old pot of collard greens. So, ask your butcher to take it off or take matters into you own hands. [saws it off]
    When you co..., ahh. There we go. Now, freeze that and use it later. As for this, well, it needs to soak but I don't have a pot this big. But I do have ...

In The Bushes

... a cooler. It's even got a little drain right here on the bottom for easy water changes. Now why would I want to give a ham a bath? Well, the same reason we brined that turkey in our Pulitzer winning episode, Romancing The Bird, only backwards. Imagine if you will, ...


    [voice over] ... that this night spot is our ham and it's packed with salt played by these dorky looking guys. Now we want that salt out of there but we're going to have to go in and get it and that means getting past this salt membrane which is kind of like a biological bouncer. Lucky for us he's got a weakness for balanced osmotic pressures so he'll happily let water, played by these lovely ladies, slide right on by. When they come out later on, they've got salt in tow. Of course, if we want to get more salt out, we'll have to send more water in.


cell membrane


In The Bushes

    Which is why I'll change this water twice a day for two days. That looks good. By the way, if you're going to do this outside, be sure to stash your cooler in the bushes else somebody's going to steal your ham and hock it. Never mind.

change H20 twice
a day for 2 days

The Kitchen - 2 days later

    What does our country ham have in common with Forrest Gump? It's going to drink about 13 Dr. Peppers. Well, maybe not 13 but certainly enough to come half to two-thirds up the side up this disposable aluminum roasting pan. Now you can use any flavorful liquid you like—apple juice, wine, cola, beer, whatever. I tend to think sweeter is better. And you know, the Doctor just brings a certain twang to the party. Of course if you had some sweet pickle juice on hand—[is handed a jar of pickle juice] sweet— you could bring that on, too.

3-4 Dr. Peppers will do

    Next we need a tent made from two pieces of wide aluminum foil crimped together down the middle. That's going to look kind of like something that fell off of Mir, okay? Now just crimp that on to the edges of the pan all the way around. Get a good seal but don't push down on the ham. We're not trying to wrap it. We're trying to tent it, give it an environment where the heat and moisture can circulate around. Yeah. Good seal. And into a 400 degree oven for half an hour.

    Now when that's up, drop the oven temperature to 325 and cook for another hour and a half. Then pull the whole thing out, take off the foil and flip the ham over so that the Doctor can get to work on the other side of the ham. Cover it back up, put it in and then insert the probe of your probe thermometer into the deepest part of the ham and set your target temperature to 140 degrees.

400° for 1/2 hour

325° for 1 1/2 hour


    Now if you don't have one of these, it doesn't mean you're a bad person. It just means that you're going to have to come back every half an hour and check the temperature by hand. How long is it going to take in the end? Well, that depends.

"Ham" is Old English for "bend". Until the 16th century it
exclusively denoted the part of the leg behind the knee.

The Kitchen

[Alton is reading,
"On Food And Cooking:
The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,"
by Harold McGee]

    [alarm is going off] (sighs)  Ah. We have ham. Now if all has gone well, we will have a dark, mahogany beauty. Ah. There. Thermometer out. The moment of truth. Ah. Ah. There we go. Mir won't be using that anymore. Now that looks great. You notice that the meat which used to be all the way up to the level of the bone has drawn up. So it's really plumped up and gotten juicy. In fact, [wiggles bone], yep. See how loose that bone is? That's what the old timers would use as kind of a pop-up thermometer.

    So this is more than ready go but it needs to kind of rest for about half an hour before we carve. And that's going to give us just enough time to bone up on porcine anatomy.


X-Ray Department

    Here is our ham. Here, of course, is the rump end. This is the shank end. Now this little critter right here is called the aitch bone and it is a very inconvenient bone to have to get around. It is connected the to leg bone. The leg bone is connected to the knees bone. The knee bone is connected to the shank bone. The shank bone is connected to ... well, would be connected to the foot bone only this little piggy didn't make it to the market with its trotters intact.

Aitch bone

    Now here's our strategy. We're going to harvest most of our slices from the bottom two thirds of the ham starting from the shank end and moving our way upwards. That way we will avoid the aitch bone and its blade confounding configuration.
    So here we have the knee and I'm just going to take a chunk off of the rump right above the knee cap. Now we've got kind of a nice platform to work. There. So I'm going to come back about an inch from the shank and take out a wedge. Now just follow this angle. Use it almost as a template for slicing all the way back to the dreaded aitch bone. Just remember whatever you do, country ham is strong juju so slice thinly.
    Now besides the traditional applications, my favorite of which is biscuits and ham, you can basically use this in any way that you would, say, prosciutto. You can wrap it around pieces of melon, you can toss it with some asparagus, maybe. What I usually do is carve the whole side like that at the table, serve up everybody and then go back in the kitchen and just lop off the rest of the big pieces of meat and just carve it up whenever. That'll leave you with the main piece of the rump at the end. You can pick that off and put it into, I don't know, soupings if you like. And then, of course, that leaves the bone. And the bone, of course, is a whole 'nuther matter.

The Kitchen

    I like to serve city hams at parties because people love them. They usually come in half portions and because, well, they're ... they're just pretty darn tasty as long as you take the time to tinker with them a little bit.


    Now unlike country hams, city hams have been cooked but not always to the same degree, okay? They've all been cooked to at least 137 degrees. Hot enough to kill the occasional microbial agent but not hot enough to be called cooked from a culinary standpoint.
    Now such hams are usually labeled, "partially cooked" or "needs cooking."  But most city hams have been fully cooked and can call themselves, "ready to eat" or "fully cooked" which isn't to say that they wouldn't profit from a long, slow, manipulated reheating process, which means a little geometrical surgery.
    We'll need our culinary scoring knife. Okay, it's a utility knife, mat knife. Got it at the local hardware store. Open it up to the second click, okay. Then you'll need a roasting pan with an old kitchen towel in the bottom. Nothing fancy but clean, all right? Deposit your drained ham thusly. Now we're to execute the diamond pattern that's adored by ham lovers everywhere. It goes like this. Start at the bottom of the ham and barely moving on the diagonal, slice upwards and move your way all the way around the ham. You don't have to get it exact. You don't have to be perfect about it. But do make sure that you've got the blade all the way in. What we're looking for here is uniformity of depth. What that's going to do is it's going to let a lot of excess fat out during the cooking process and we could definitely stand to get rid of some. And it's also going to open up kind of a portal to allow flavors in which we'll definitely take advantage of a little later.
    Now once you've worked your way all the way around like that, we're going to go the other direction. I just put the knife in the other hand and do the same cut but move upward the other way. And watch out for your finger. There. You can see that diamond shape already happening. That's going to open up even more in the oven. I really think the utility knife is the best tool for this job because it's really the only way to get a uniform cut. There we go.
    Now once again, we will need a piece of Mir space station. If you can not get a piece of space station, it's another double width of wide aluminum foil crimped together. And again, we're going to make a tent. You don't want to push it down on the ham. You just want to crimp it around the pan like this and make sure you get the handles. And go for as tight of a seal as you can. Because basically we want to keep heat and moisture in. There. Nothing really touching the ham so there won't be any sticking. Good.

    Now most packages that city hams come in suggest baking or reheating at 350 degrees. I think that's just a little too hot. I like to go with a slower roast: 250 for 3 to 4 hours or until the deep dark center of that meat reaches a 130 degrees. And when that happens, we're ready for the crust.

250° for 3 - 4 hours

130° at center

Originally smoke was applied to hams not because it tastes
good to humans, but because it tastes bad to flies.

The Kitchen

    The best ham crust that I have ever tasted was invented by my grandmother, Ma Mae, who also makes a passable batch of biscuits. Anyway, this thing is really delicious and for years I've been asking her, "can I please have that recipe."  And she kept saying, "oh, it's too hard for you."  And then finally, last year for Christmas no less, I get an envelope containing The Recipe for her ham crust. And I look at it. And I'm kind of feeling ripped off because there's only 4 ingredients: brown sugar, mustard, bourbon—which I always keep around in a spray bottle anyway—and the secret, she said, gingersnap cookies pulverized in a food processor.
    So I say to her, "four ingredients? What's the big deal."  She says, "well, it's the way they're put together."  I say, "well, how are they put together?"  She says, "next Christmas, dear."  So, I hope you like it because I gave up two whole years of plaid boxers for it. Oh, all the other hardware? A basting brush.
    Now let's see how our city cousin's doing here. Yeah, that's coming along very nicely. Now as you can see by looking down in the bottom of the pan, there's a good big of fat in the bottom of the pan and that ran out from all of these perforations that we made.
    Now this is actually rind. That's the actual pork skin. And it tastes pretty darn good if you treat it right, but crust doesn't stick to it real well so just go around and quickly pull it off. It's only going to take a little bit of effort.

    Okay, now we've got a nice platform for a glaze, okay? Meat all around. There's a little bit of fat but that's, that's good. We don't want things to be too dry. So, the first layer is a wet layer, the mustard. Just paint it on. I generally work from the bottom up. You don't have to get it super thick but you do kind of want to apply some pressure so that you really kind of get it in to all of those cracks.

Layer 1: brown mustard

    Layer two is a dry layer, brown sugar. The darker the better, okay? Brown sugar's got molasses in it and that's going to bring a lot of flavor to the party. Now this is kind of a two hand operation. Think sprinkle not push, okay? I'm just going to kind of sprinkle it on. Use one hand to kind of pat as it falls. You're going to get a little mustard on you, but you know what? That's okay.

Layer 2: dark brown sugar

    Now, odds are good that this is going to be wet enough to take on the next layer. But just in case, we're going to give it a little more flavor, bourbon. Just give it a light spritz.

Layer 3: bourbon

    The final layer? The secret. The gingersnap cookies. This is the thing she held out on me for so very long. Now basically we're going to repeat the same action we did with the brown sugar. This is just a sprinkling. I use two hands here ever so lightly. Now this layer we kind of want thick, okay? As thick as you can get it to take.

Layer 4: pulverized
ginger snaps

    There. It's beautiful. But, it needs to go back into the oven and the crust needs a little more heat to set. So, raise your temperature to 350 degrees. This is only going to take about an hour. We just want to get the meat up about another 10 degrees and set that crust.


that's 140° at center

    Which you can cut as thin or as thick as you like. I like to kind of cut it on the bias. I get a little bit more crust that way. Now once you and yours have finished picking this off, I sure hope you won't throw away the bone unless, of course, it's to throw it in that pot of soup-ings you've got going over there. As far as keeping hold of this thing, well truth is a set of vice grips does a pretty fine job.
    Oh, we hope that we have wet your appetite for the abracadabra that is the American ham. Whether you lean towards the city or the country, you should stick to some pretty clear rules.

    Only buy hams that are clearly labeled as just plain 'ham' or 'ham in natural juices', okay? And stay away from anything that's shaped more like an iMac computer than a hind leg of an animal. Same thing for boneless cuts. It's just not natural.

Ham       Ham in natural juices

    If you buy a country ham, make sure you buy it far enough ahead to give it a couple of days time to soak. And always remember to slash a city ham to let some of that fat out. Either way, ham's magical stuff as well as good eats. Mmm.

*Erythorbic Acid

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010