I can still recall the first time I ate country ham. My grandmother handed me a small thin bite, bits of fat lingering, streaming through, and around it. Nan-Nan told me to carefully lay the small piece on my tongue before I beginning to chew and asked me to tell her what I tasted. The salty sweet was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I wasn't sure what to do with it. I didn't want to begin chewing just yet. The strong flavor shocked me but awakened my mouth. A lover of salty deliciousness from a young age, it was love at first bite. Little did my tiny taste buds know, that even after chewing the lush looming salt would linger a little longer, leaving me craving more. At the time, I had no idea how special a bite of country ham truly was, and I certainly was unaware of the time and love put into the regional delicacy.
Growing up in the country ham belt of America (Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia), it wasn't until leaving the area that I realized how little is known about this regional treat. But the world is hungry for it. Local and commercial farmers and families ship the delicious meat all over the world. Although many in the world are just awakening this delicious dry rubbed meat, to many folks around the Ohio River Valley there is only country ham. Other ham just isn't an option. The southern latitudes of our region give rise to winters cold enough to hang salted hams outdoors in a smokehouse after killing time in the fall, and long humid summers that build and develop flavors without depleting to much moisture from the ham.
But just because "country ham" is a utilized vocabulary word in our region, doesn't meat most folks around here understand or appreciate the time and love put into making each country ham.
There was a time when every family in Kentucky had their own secret spice blend. But as many have left the farm, so have traditions. Thankfully this isn't the case on the farm and home of Sharon and James "Junior" Sanders. Today's article is the first of a country ham series. Just as the process takes full cycle of the seasons, so will the series. The Sanders have been kind enough to invite me onto their farm and show me first hand their families process of curing the hams. And it is certainly a family affair at the Sanders.
My first visit out to the family farm began on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in early February. The family had finished the first process of the country ham adventure a few weeks before.
The beautiful family farm, located out route 11 in Mason County, embodies historic images of Kentucky. Surrounded by rolling hills, a historic home built in 1860, and several barns and sheds along the property. The Sanders youngest daughter, Jessica (Elie) had chauffeured me out to the farm that day. When we arrived she parked the car behind the house, about thirty feet from a small unassuming wooden shed. Little did I know, the treats, the small delicate building was holding.
"They are always put in the shed behind the house," explained Junior. The former homeowner had smoked hams in the same shed. It had been facilitating the way of delicious hams for at least 44 years.
Junior opened the old rickety wooden door to the shed and showed me the sleeping hams. With the help of his son James, Junior had rubbed and salted down each ham. Each ham weighs close to 26.5 pounds a piece. Junior said he had gotten his ham locally from Eddie Kearns at Kearn Food Distributing. Kearns had received the hams from Seaboard farms. Junior raved about the quality of the meat he purchased from Kearns, adding that not only were the hams local and natural.
As country hams have become an industry to the commercial world in of itself, a lot of shortcuts have been taken. Along with those shortcuts the animals are now given a lot of shots and additives that they certainly weren't given in the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents. The shots help the ham to retain moisture, a quality you don't want when aging the meat.
"Each ham will loose about six pounds of moisture," said Junior pointing to the large hams. The smokehouse was filled with 26 ham, but totaled 32 this year for the Sanders family. The remaining six were sitting in the back garage of daughter Jessica and her husband Chris (Elie), who were attempting their first round of country hamming.
"This is our first try at carrying on a family tradition," said Jessica, who had recently shipped some of the family treat to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. "I cooked it Monday and shipped it Tuesday."
"Hopefully they will carry on with it," said Junior about his children."We always eat it on holidays and Derby. We've carried our ham all over the country. Nobody's rejected it yet."
Both Sharon and Junior grew up on Kentucky farms. Growing up they killed their own hogs on the farm and utilized the delicious homegrown meat.
"I can't remember how long I've been doing this," said Junior, who was taught the art of country ham from his family.
The only similarity between southern country ham and the stuff in the deli case is that they both come from a pig. To southerners and pork devotees, country ham is legendary: an exquisite dry-cured artisanal meat of rosy-hued perfection. This is a tradition worth the time.
"I don't know if he has an exact recipe," said Sharon. "I like to eat country ham, but it has always been a hobby for him."
Junior said they began the first stage of the process on a perfect day at around 50 degrees outside. The temperature can't be freezing or below.
The family uses a rub of married top-flo granulated salt and light brown sugar. After rubbing down, pepper is shaken on top. His father used just salt and pepper, but just as times have changed, a few special signature touches have been added by the family.
"Don't pack on the salt," advised Junior about the process and temperature."Use what will stay on it. Fifteen minutes after salting, they water bubble and take the salt. You have to do this before the meat freezes. You don't want the meat to freeze before it absorbs the salt. If it takes the salt, then it won't freeze."
The salt is also essential to competing with bacteria to be the first to get to the bone. As long as the salt wins, the ham is cured.
Each ham was different and beautiful. Some had shapes of salt clinging in thick grooves, and others had different shades of creamy fat and red meat peaking through.
"I look at them everyday," said Junior. "Very seldom do we ever loose one."
With a year or more of aging, a country ham doesn’t even need to be cooked – it can be sliced and served as such like prosciutto – that’s when the best of the beautiful flavors or country ham come out – notes of tobacco, hickory, or even sassafras, as seen with those few producers who smoke with a combination of woods . Each aging barn or smokehouse has its own native bacteria that give different subtleties of flavor. The aging during the ‘summer sweats’ as they’re called, contribute the most of the flavor. The younger hams under a year, are the only ones that should ever be cooked. They still have a bit of moisture and are not as hard as the longer aged hams.
This week I have included two of my favorite ways to eat country ham, red eye gravy and my grandmothers country biscuits. The Sanders were kind enough to give me a taste of some of last years hams, and I gotta say, it just melted in my mouth. The fat was so sweet and the meat exceptionally tender. I can't wait to participate in the next stage of the country ham process. Stay tuned for to the next part of this delicious series.
Good luck and enjoy
Country Ham and Red Eye Gravy
Serves 2 (Red eye gravy is a favorite recommendation of the Sanders. This recipe only takes about 15 minutes. The salty bitter smoothness of the gravy will take your taste buds away. The butter and sugar aren't necessary, but I like the extra umph they round out in
all the delicious ham flavors. Serve with biscuits, rolls, fried eggs, or grits.
6 ounces country ham, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon butter, plus more for ham if necessary
1/2 cup strong black coffee
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth or water
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Heat a large skillet (preferably a seasoned cast-iron) over medium-high. Cook ham (2–3 minutes per
side). Add 1/2 Tbsp. butter if ham is lean to help the browning process, until browned and fat has rendered. Do not remove fat. That is necessary and delicious. Transfer ham to a plate.
Pour coffee into the same skillet and cook over medium-high heat, scraping skillet with a wooden spoon. Make sure you get all those good bits stuck to the bottom. This will just add to the flavor and glaze. Add broth and sugar; simmer, stirring occasionally,
until thickened and reduced to about 1/4 cup, 3–4 minutes. Make sure sugar has dissolved completely. Add 1 Tbsp. butter and whisk until thickened or blended as much as possible, about 1 minute more.
Pour gravy into a small bowl or serving vessel drizzled over or alongside ham. Serve gravy immediately while hot. I like to serve on the side. Some guests like more or less than I do. Make extra. Some folks like gravy with a side of ham. Don't be surprised to see
their plate swimming in red eye.
Nan-Nan’s Buttermilk Biscuits
One of my families favorites, these biscuits are leavened by the baking powder. Quantity varies on biscuit thickness and size but usually serve about 3-4.
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon soda
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup shortening (can be substituted with butter for a less flaky more fluffy biscuit)
1 cup buttermilk (if you don’t have buttermilk, add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar to one cup of milk. Mix and let it sit for about five minutes, or until thickened).
Sift dry ingredients into a bowl (measure first). Mix and add buttermilk, then shortening. You can attempt to stir this but I recommend just rolling up your sleeves and getting in there with a fork or hands. Add more flour to dough to prevent it from sticking to your hands.
Roll out dough onto a floured board and cut into small round circles. If I don’t have a cookie cutter, I use the top of a small opened jar, first dipped into flour to prevent dough from sticking.
Bake at 350 for about 10-12 minutes, or until light brown.