Use this dry-cured ham recipe to preserve your homegrown pork.
If your family is like my own, you have an appreciation for foods both simply provided and fine in flavor. No other preserved food on our farmstead better exemplifies our values of thrift, conservation, and reverence for our work and land than aged ham. While we’re often too busy to engage in holiday decor in any season, our screened porch, festooned with the ornaments of home butchering and charcuterie throughout the winter, tells a story of this season of reservation, contraction, and retrospection.
Dry-cured hams aged in ambient conditions can be complex to execute, or simple to provide. We prefer the latter. Any internet search of how to dry age a ham will yield expensive, resource-intensive solutions that require climate-controlled chambers and pricey vacuum sealers, not to mention an attitude of culinary superiority. The alternative utilizes a handful of ingredients, a shady area for hanging, some mid-level knife skills, and basic math.
Preserving Ham Basics
The basic blocks of whole muscle dry-curing can apply the simple principles I’m sharing to other charcuterie projects.
These instructions assume you have kept the stomach of your pig and have scalded the hog, leaving the skin on the ham. If you are unable to do one or the other, it may still work. Clean cheesecloth dipped in molten lard and pasted around your ham like a cast can be a suitable stand-in for the skin and natural membrane approach.
I work with a ham that has been deboned. By making one long, angled incision alongside the leg bone and working to remove the bone (including the knee cap), the home charcutier will reduce the risk of “bone souring” and create a deep cavity that allows their cure to penetrate more evenly through the ham. Bone souring is when the internal bones inside the meat conduct thermal energy within the insulative flesh, developing condensation that prevents the ham from drying out well, and leading to spoilage.
The basics of preserving a ham, or any large muscle cut are as follows:
- Allow the ham to dry at a slowed but consistent rate. Quick-drying hams or sausage will harden on the outside first, trapping moisture inside.
- Provide an inhospitable environment to dangerous or undesirable bacteria and mold while encouraging good enzymes and microbes. The proper ratio of salt (including curing salt) is key to goals one and two.
- Keep the ham safe from sunlight, which can cause the fat to go rancid, and varmints, which can cause the ham to disappear either gradually or suddenly. We hang our hams well away from any climbable structure, in a shaded and screened north-facing porch.
- Deter insect pests and balance potentially “gamey” flavors with aromatic herbs and spices.
- Allow for generous airflow.
The key component for a general-purpose dry-cured ham is salt, cure #2, and sugar. Beyond these, the herbs and spices, or aromatics can be altered, but I recommend using this basic recipe as a starting point. I do my best to have both this cure and my bacon cure mixed and on hand prior to my first day of primal cutting on the hog. We refer to this cure as our “heavy cure” used for whole muscle cuts whereas we also mix a “light cure” for items that will be smoked relatively quickly. I use grams as my standard measurement for all charcuterie and sausage making. It is more accurate than standard and easier for basic percentage calculations.
Heavy Ham Cure | Dry-Cured Ham Recipe
Per 5 lbs (2.2 Kg) of Pork
- 12 Grams Cure #2
- 50 Grams Kosher Salt (it dissolves the best)
- 25 Grams Dark Brown Sugar
- 4 large cloves of garlic, minced
- 40 grams of coarse black pepper (yes, it’s a lot)
- 10 grams of fresh juniper berries, crushed
- 4 large bay leaves, crumbled
- 4 grams of nutmeg
- A nice handful of fresh thyme
Dry-Cured Ham Supplies:
- Deboning knife
- Clean cooler
- Stomach casing
- Butcher twine
- Upholstery needle
- Strong cotton thread, such as from a feed sack
- Wood chunks for smoking, such as apple, honey locust, cherry
I have altered the aromatics in the past to include seasonings such as spicebush, wild bergamot, and spruce needle tips. A good handful of rosemary can be beneficial if adapting this cure for goat or sheep hams.
How to Dry Cure a Ham
With very clean hands, weigh the deboned ham and calculate the amount of cure you will need. This number can be an educated approximation, as some of it may not penetrate. Thoroughly rub the cure into every exposed surface until it is largely absorbed.
The wetter portions not covered in hard pig skin will tend to retain more cure. The salted and herbed ham is then placed in a cooler outside, kept somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees, (mid-late November here where I live) more or less, for the next 10 to 14 days.
After the initial curing, the ham should appear firm, deeply tinted, and smell nice and tasty, not sour or spoiled. I have never had a ham go “off” this early in the process. It can now be tied, cased, and hung. If your deboning cut is rather deep or dramatic and the ham is floppy, it may serve the process well to take some strong butcher twine and fix some tight loops up and down the ham. Ideally, it will fit tightly within our stomach casing, excluding exposed surfaces and air pockets.
Stuffing and Tying the Ham
Stuffing the deboned ham, tied or loose, can be a challenge. The stomach is a casing that is thick in some places, and rather thin in others. You may end up tearing the casing in a few places, or cutting it in others. Most of the time, the ham will fit in it tightly but completely, and other times it may stick out the top a bit. An extra bladder could be used to overlap the spot, or it can be left as is.
I use an upholstery needle and the strong, cotton thread from a feed sack to stitch the stomach shut along the incision as best as I can, and then weave together a very simple grid or net of butcher twine around the entire cut, providing a reinforced loop at the top for hanging.
The salted, cased, and tied ham is ready to hang. We use a small, shady lean-to shed on the north face of a building with plenty of airflow. There will be days when it is frozen solid, and days that it weeps tears of cured lard. I check on my hams now and then and even weigh them on occasion. I like to see them lose between 25 and 35 percent of their weight during hanging, but if we transition into a particularly warm spring or late winter days (consistently in the 60s) I err on the side of safety and take the hams down before they hit that goal.
Over time, the casing will shrink and dry, and the net of twine will slacken on the shrinking ham. Upon taking the ham down (usually around March if I’ve put it up in November/December) I will gently smoke it over coals and chunks of apple, honey locust, or cherry wood until the fat runs yellow and the casing becomes a glossy burgundy red. I’d prefer to under-smoke a ham rather than over-smoke it. The ham can be raised to an internal temperature of 155ºF in an oven after you’ve applied your chosen amount of woodsmoke.
Enjoy Your Dry-Cured Ham
Between the skin and the casing, your ham now has a very tough rind that should be removed prior to eating. Dogs love this treat, and the remaining ham, without a bone, is easy to slice and can generously provide sandwich fixings during the early, hungry parts of spring. Having little access to refrigeration on our farmstead, our smoked ham keeps well in the root cellar or the back of a cool room or cupboard for a couple of weeks, more than enough time to get it eaten up.
About the Author
Benjamin Bramble is something of an orchardist, turkey herder, hog drover, manure manager and traditional skills nerd. He has been living a radically simple life for over a decade. He eats well, and keeps all his other standards low. You can keep up to date with his projects and musings at https://benjaminbramble.substack.com.