The Virtual Gormand 17: Double-Smoked Ham
Be it on Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter, ham represents a traditional holiday feast dish. Any decently sized ham will serve a lot of people at the holiday table without breaking the bank. Plus, ham usually tends to be on sale just before holidays.
The commercially processed hams that we enjoy today bear little resemblance to the hams of old. Of course, there are relatively few family farms that raise pigs for slaughter for those families’ own consumption, and then prepare the hams using recipes and techniques passed down from one generation to another. Today, the retail market for ham has multiplied many times from what it was in the past, and consumer demand for ham is a now year-round phenomenon.
Tastes have also changed. Nowadays, people are more conscious of the amount of salt they ingest. And the demands of the marketplace have caused what we know as ham to basically be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Our grandparents wouldn't recognize what we consume today as being ham, any more than we are likely to confuse Velveeta with real cheese.
Commercial hams are injected with a curing solution, and smoked in a low-smoke chamber for about a day before being packaged and shipped. The hams of yesteryear were packed in salt for a period, and then washed and smoked in a smokehouse for many days, allowing the smoky flavor (along with the salt) to preserve the meat for future use.
There is, however, a way that you can partially re-create the hams of yesteryear without feeling like you've just eaten a salt lick. That method involves ‘double-smoking’ a commercially-processed ham on the smoker, and allowing the smokiness to further permeate the meat and embolden its flavor.
The good news is that this isn't a difficult task to undertake.
A commercially-produced ham is already fully cured and fully cooked. You can eat it right out of the package, if you want. When you put a ham in the oven, you are merely reheating it for serving. Guess what? In the same amount of time it takes you to reheat a ham in the oven, you can give it twice the flavor – no matter what kind of ham you prefer.
A ham is technically the rear leg of the pig. Though sometimes sold whole (especially around the holidays), it’s more commonly cut into thirds – the shank portion, the butt portion and the center cut, which is used to produce ham ‘steaks’. The shank portion and the butt portion refer to which end of the leg they each come from. Furthermore, you can buy them as whole pieces or – as has become popular of late – spiral-sliced. Spiral slicing supposedly makes it easier to carve the ham and to control portions at the table. I'll admit that a spiral sliced ham makes for a neater sandwich from leftovers the next day. But that’s about the end of its appeal for me.
Unlike a whole portion of ham, the spiral-sliced variety tends to cook unevenly. The slices separate in the oven. And it is a particularly difficult sort of ham to glaze effectively. Not only that. The ham that is left behind after carving is much greater than with a whole portion cut. Besides, with a little bit of skill and knowledge, it really isn't any more difficult to carve a whole portion ham.
For this article, I am going to use a twelve pound spiral-sliced butt portion and a ten pound whole portion shank ham. This two-hammed approach will effectively illustrate the differences between the cuts (including portion variations), as well as demonstrate that the carving process for each isn't really much different.
There isn't a lot of preparation needed to get the hams ready for the smoker. The spiral-sliced will require a little more preparation, but not a lot. You will want to open the hams into separate aluminum steam pans to reserve all of the juices within the packaging. Don't forget to take the plastic disc off of the bone on the cut side. For the shank ham, place it face down in the pan. It’s ready for the smoker.
In order to alleviate separation of slices of the spiral-sliced ham on the smoker, it will be necessary to truss it up with some butcher’s twine. Lay the ham face down on your cutting board. Cut about 18" of twine, and position the twine across the center of the ham. Bring both ends of the twine up to the top of the bone, wrap one end over the other twice, and pull it tight. Then loop one end around the other and run the other end through the loop and tighten. This is known as a surgeon's knot. Rotate the ham 90 degrees and repeat the process, adding a simple slip knot in between the first and second steps. As you go around the ham, this slip knot will unite all of the strings and increase the stability of your truss. Repeat evenly around the ham until you have six strings trussing it, evenly spaced around the circumference of the meat. Then place the trussed ham face down in another aluminum steam tray. It is now ready for the smoker.
The next step is to tend to the fire. Typically, hams are heated in the oven at between 225 and 250 degrees until the internal temperature of the hams reaches about 130 degrees. We are going to do roughly the same thing on the smoker, but we’ll use wood chunks in our fire to add more smoke flavor to the meat. This requires some fire management.
I have a charcoal basket in my off-set smoker that allows me to stack a fire in different ways (for different results). With normal barbecue, I'd make a layer of wood chunks on the bottom, fill the basket with charcoal and throw a few more wood chunks on top of the pile. Doing so would make the fire spike up to about 325-350 degrees, and then decline from there over the next 3-4 hours. But here, I want a smaller and cooler fire. So I'm going to layer the chunks and charcoal, and only fill the basket about half-full. I'm also going to close the vent almost all of the way while leaving the smokestack wide open. Less oxygen coming in will make for a smaller fire without choking it.
We don't have to worry about the grates being clean, as our product is in aluminum steam trays. Light your fire with the weed burner I have mentioned numerous times before, getting one spot in the center lit and flaming. This takes less than five minutes. Once that’s accomplished, close the door on your cooking chamber, leaving the firebox lid open until the fire is burning with very little smoke and open flames. This takes about ten minutes. Close the firebox lid, and let the fire settle in while monitoring the grill grate temperature and making adjustments to the bottom vent as needed. When the fire holds steady at about 250-275 degrees, it is time to add the meat. Don't worry if your fire isn't pegged at 250 at the beginning. The temperature will drop a bit when you add the cold meat to the pit.
Remote probe alarms come in handy, as you can monitor the temperature of the smoking meat without opening up the cooking chamber and letting the ambient heat out. If you don't have remote probe thermometers, don't worry. The major difference is that it will take the hams a bit longer to cook, as the firebox has to bring the cooking chamber back up to temp every time you lift the lid. If you like, you can add a candy glaze to the hams when they get to about 100 degrees. Take each ham off of the fire and brush it liberally with oil to help the coating stick. Mix together:
2 cups brown sugar
Mix the coating well with your fingers, and pack it onto the sides of the ham before returning the ham to the smoker. You will find there are places where the coating simply will not stick to the meat. Don't worry about it. A liquid glaze is likely to run off into the pan anyway, so you're going to come out ahead regardless.
In my experience, it takes only 3-4 hours to get the hams fully smoked and up to temperature. And it can be done with a single basket of charcoal and wood chunks. When the internal temperature of the meat registers between 125-130 degrees, it is time to pull the hams off of the smoker. Let them rest for at least 20 minutes to let the juices redistribute throughout the meat. If you are worried about the meat cooling off, tent it with a piece of aluminum foil to keep the heat from escaping.
Whether it is a butt or shank portion, spiral-sliced or whole, the technique for carving a ham is differentiated only by where you hold the carving fork and where you insert it into the meat. For a whole portion cut, set the ham on its side, exposing the cut face. Insert the carving fork about halfway up the length of the meat, and locate where the muscles join. This should be easy to see. Cut along at this point with your carving knife until you reach the bone. Follow around the bone until you reach the boundary between the muscles on the other side, and then cut back out to the surface. Rotate the ham and repeat the process on the other side. When you finish, you should have three separate and distinct pieces of ham muscle. Slice these across the grain in whatever thickness you desire. Personally, I like nice 1/2 inch slices to serve at the table.
For spiral sliced hams, the technique is identical, except that you insert the fork through the face of the ham to keep the slices from falling apart as you carve the meat. Serve with your favorite holiday side dishes. Pictured on the plate below are the shank ham slices along with mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole and marinated asparagus.
Place your ham bones in a deep stock pot, cover them with water, and set on medium-low heat to simmer overnight. At this time, take a small bag of either great northern or kidney beans, pour them into a bowl, and cover them with water two inches above the beans. Add 2 teaspoons of salt to the bowl. This soaking will brine the beans, and help them keep their texture when they cook the next day.
In New Orleans, red beans and rice is a traditional Monday dish. To this day, many of the neighborhood restaurants still serve red beans and rice as their Monday specials. Monday was traditionally laundry day, and a pot of red beans made from the leftover bone from the Sunday dinner ham was a dish that could be prepared without a lot of attention (while the laundry was attended to). While widely considered to be a Cajun dish, in reality it is more of a Creole (the difference between the two being chiefly city-dwellers as opposed to country folks) dish that has been adopted in the Cajun community. The line is further blurred by the traditional Cajun dish of white beans, which is prepared in almost exactly the same way. After choosing which type of bean you want to use, you need to prepare:
2 large onions, diced
This should form roughly a 3:2:1 ratio of onion to bell pepper to celery. Sauté them in a Dutch oven with a little oil until the onions are translucent. Then add three cloves of minced garlic and sauté until fragrant. Add the drained beans, and the stock and meat off of the hambone that you simmered overnight and picked the bones earlier. Add 4 tablespoons of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce, 2 tablespoons of dried thyme, stir and cover. Simmer this on medium heat, stirring occasionally until the beans have absorbed the liquid and have formed a thick gravy. My personal test as to when they are ready is to cook them until they start to stick to the bottom of the pan. But you may find a better way of predicting doneness. Serve over rice with hot sauce on the table, so each person can adjust the heat to their own taste.
Another great way to use leftover ham (after you've become thoroughly tired of ham sandwiches) is a simple casserole. This particular casserole can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. In a large mixing bowl, combine:
1 bag of frozen hash browns (tater tots may be substituted if you like)
Stir all the ingredients until completely combined, and then pour into either a 9x13 or 10x15 Pyrex dish (depending on how thick or thin you want the casserole). Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and begun to brown on top. Serve.
No matter what cut or style of ham you prefer, double-smoking it will bring out a new level of flavor. You can add to the hickory smoke from the factory with more hickory, or experiment with apple, cherry, pecan or other fruit or nut woods to create even more complex smoke flavors in the ham.