Bon Appetit Magazine proclaimed country hams the “new artisanal food addiction in 2011,” and they sourced three out of five of their “Best country hams in America” from Kentucky emporiums. Many country hams arrive pre-cooked and ready to serve, but Tennessee’s Benton’s (number 5 on their list) arrives uncooked.
From the archives, here’s a method for how to prep an authentic, artisanal, dry-aged country ham for your Kentucky Christmas table.
The Life and Times of a Two-Year Old Country Ham
by RL Reeves Jr
In 2009, I ventured from my dad’s farm in rural Kentucky’s Red Brush area to Madisonville, Tennessee to visit Benton’s Country Hams, home of one of the most iconic cured meat purveyors in the United States, Alan Benton’s Country Hams.
We treat our hams from Benton’s with due diligence — storing them properly and making sure the people that we share them with are worthy of such a meaty honor.
This one was 14 months old at the time of purchase. The counter lady announced that she’d dug deep into the old stock to get as antique a one as they had in reserve.
As the scissors sliced through the paper wrapper, the most glorious, deep, funky aroma arose out of the packaging — a meat lover’s dream of musk, salt and smoke.
If you’re interested, here’s the three-day process of turning a brick-hard, 16 lb. aged country ham into one of the most delicious things a human will ever experience.
How to Breathe Life into a Cured Country Ham
Tuesday: It would take a .30-.30 to fire a round through my Benton Ham. It is hard as granite.
Wednesday: I procure a five-gallon plastic bucket to begin the process of bringing this beauty back to life. The aroma is beyond intense. I submerge the ham in cold water, then lock the doors to my spare room to keep my hound dog off the prize.
Thursday: Every twelve hours, I change the water. The hound is at my heels each time, carefully eyeballing what he figures to be rightfully his.
Friday: The final water change, and 12 hours later I’m looking around the house for a vessel big enough to begin the cooking process. I finally settle on my 12 quart gumbo pot, and even at that, the end of the shank is still a few inches out of the water.
Saturday: After slowly stove-top simmering it all night long, I pull the ham and put it in an enormous hotel pan half-filled with water and place it in the oven. Supper is at 8pm, so I hope 12 hours at 200 degrees ought to do it.
Every four hours, I flip the ham and note the progress of the cooking. At the eight-hour mark, the ham has visibly cooked and the shank is starting to show separation from the meat.
At the 10-hour mark (plus the 9 hours of simmering on the stovetop the night before), the ham appears to be nicely cooked. The skin has separated, the meat is a deeply burnished red, and the water in the hotel pan is a beautiful deep murk of color and aroma.
What does 30 months of aging and 19 hours of cooking get you?
The flavor is profound — rich, salty, and earthy. I can’t imagine how salty it would’ve been had I not reverse brined it for three days to leech out some of the sodium.
Cooking a country ham is a lot of work — soul-affirming, reward-based work that I would happily undertake again.
Kentucky native and Ace contributing food writer RL Reeves Jr blogs at scrumptiouschef.com. His forthcoming book is Eat Like a Turk in Istanbul.