Curing Country Hams Cooking Dry Cured Hams
If you are looking for how to cook a supermarket ham, you're probably on the wrong page. For those, see Cooking Wet Cure Hams

Dry Cure Hams, often called "Country Hams" or "Virginia Hams", are salt cured and smoked by slow but reliable methods already established during the Roman Empire. The only real change, about 100 years ago, was addition of potassium nitrate to the salt cure for better color and flavor.   Photo by smokymountaineer contributed to the public domain .

For information on the many other types of hams, see our Hams, and for more general information on pork products see our Pork Products page.

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Dry cured hams are traditionally made in the American Southeast, particularly Virginia and Kentucky, though there is some production in other prts of the country. This cure is also widely used all over Europe and in China for traditional products. Since Chinese hams are not imported into the United States, Asian markets here in California sell cut slabs of Virginia hams (usually front leg) as an acceptable substitute.

Notably, American dry cure hams (with the exception of "serrano style") are expected to be cooked, while most of the European products are expected to be sliced very thin and eaten raw. I admit to having eaten a fair amount of the American product sliced thin and raw without ill effect.

Dry cure hams are not normally served whole as a big main course item as wet cure hams are. They're salty and the flavor is too intense. They're used as a feature ingredient in many recipes, used in sandwiches and served cut thin to be placed on crackers or such, or just eaten plain as a snack.

Do not attempt to use a wet cure recipe with a dry cure ham. These hams are salty and hard as a rock because they've lost 18% to 20% of their original weight in water during curing. They are commonly uncooked but may be cooked. Either may be smoked or unsmoked (a cool smoking is used).

Buying Dry Cure Hams

You are unlikely to find an American dry cure ham in your local market, unless you live right where they're made. They are, however, quite easy to purchase on the Internet or by phone. American producers provide not only whole hams but smaller products for uses where a whole one is just too much or two expensive.

A whole Virginia ham is usually well under US $100. In contrast a Spanish Serrano ham (to be eaten raw) will set you back aroud $850 and a Spanish acorn fed Iberico ham about $1650.00. American "serrano style" hams can be had between $100 and $170 - again, to be eaten raw, not cooked.

For reference, here's a list of well known dry cured ham products you may encounter:

  • Ardennes Ham (Belgium) - an uncooked dry cured, air dried ham that is eaten raw. Similar to Italian prosciutto.
  • Bayonne Ham (France) - see Jambon de Bayonne.
  • Black Forest Ham (German) - an uncooked dry cured, air dried ham smoked over pine and/or fir. It has an intense flavor and is used mainly as an ingredient in other dishes or for sandwiches and appetizers. Note that "Black Forest Ham - brine cured" is a wet cured imitation, not much like the real thing.
  • Bradenham Ham - an English dry cured smoked ham finished with molasses, brown sugar and spices. Deep red color.
  • Cottage Ham - same as a picnic ham but just the butt end of the front leg.
  • Irish Ham - a brine cured ham that is then smoked over peat and/or juniper. It is prepared same as a Virginia ham.
  • Jambon de Bayonne (France) - the famous unsmoked dry cured ham of the far southwest corner of France, Pays Basque and Gascony. Similar hams are made by Basque communites in northern California and other places in North America.
  • Jamon Iberico (Spain) - a top of the line ham made from acorn fed black pigs, to be eaten raw. They're now imported legally, into the United States, but with shipping, duties, etc. a whole ham will set you back about US $1650. I hear they're a lot cheaper in Europe.
  • Jamon Serrano (Spain) - a dry cured ham made from white pigs, to be eaten raw. They're now imported legally into the United States, but with shipping, duties, etc. a whole ham will cost you about US $850. "Serrano Style" hams are now made in North America, though they aren't exactly the same.
  • Jinhua Ham - a Chinese dry cured ham - considered very fine but illegal to import into the United States. Asians here in California use Virginia ham as a substitute. It can be bought by the slice in Asian markets here.
  • Kentucky Ham - a dry cured ham that's a little drier than Virginia hams. Smoked over corn cobs, hickory and apple wood.
  • Parma (Italian) - prosciutto made in the city of Parma, reputed to be the best.
  • Picnic Ham is the part of the front leg of the pig equivalent to the ham. It is always cured (if fresh it'd be called a "picnic shoulder") and is generally smoked. Not as tender as ham but a good ingredient in many recipes. This ham is now sold in 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick slices in the Asian markets here in Los Angeles as a substitute for Chinese hams which are illegal to import.
  • Prosciutto (Italian) - a dry cured, uncooked ham that is not smoked (I have been told that some smoked is made in the Alpine corner of northern Italy). Part of the cure period is spent under weights so it tends to have a flattened shape. In Italy there is a cooked (cotto) form but elsewhere the raw (crudo) form is expected. Sliced thin and eaten raw, but also included in recipes.
  • Serrano-Style Ham: - a North American ham in the style of Spanish Jamon Serrano. Depending on production and aging these can be had for US $100 to $170. Intended to be thinly sliced and eaten raw.
  • Smithfield Ham - a dry cure ham made in Smithfield Virginia, a center of dry cure ham production.
  • Virginia Ham - a dry cure ham made in Virginia but probably not in Smithfield. Smoked over hickory and apple wood.
  • Westphalian Ham (Germany) - a dry cured ham long smoked over beechwood and juniper wood. Generally sliced thin and eaten raw.
  • York Ham (England) - a dry cured ham lightly smoked but can be salty. Can be eaten raw but is generally cooked like a Virginia ham or boiled.
Storing Dry Cure Hams

Dry cured hams do not need to be refrigerated until they are cut. Once cut they are vulnerable and must be kept below 40°F. They will still be vulnerable to mold (which can be scraped off if not too severe).

Freezing Cured Hams:   Plan not to. Either as purchased or as leftovers cured meats don't last long in the freezer - 1 to 2 months max, and even then quality will suffer. Freezing should be considered an emergency option only. I have direct testimony from one who did freeze leftover ham and suffered the consequences (pretty much inedible). The reason for this is the salt - the ham is never truly frozen and is subject to rancidity.

Ham Storage
Type of HamRefrigeratedFrozen
"Country" Ham (whole)
- cut
- cooked
(room temp 1 year)
2 to 3 mos
7 days
don't
don't
1 mo

Cooking Dry Cure Hams - Step by Step

Start 1 to 2 days ahead. This recipe presumes an apple glazed ham (see Glazing), but other glazes and cooking liquids can be used as well, and of course the glaze can be omitted. You'll need a covered roasting pan for the main baking, and if you glaze you'll also need a shallow pan with rack.

  1. Scrub the mold off your ham and submerge it in cold water. Change the water after 4 hours, then one or more additional times as you soak for 1 to 2 days, depending on how much salt you need to leach out.
  2. Preheat oven to 325°F/160°C.
  3. Mix about 1/2 gallon of apple cider with 1 gallon of water.
  4. Place the ham in a deep coverable roasting pan fat side up (you'll turn it over 1/2 way through) and pour in enough of the water / cider mix to come up about 2-1/2 inches on the ham. Reserve the rest for replenishment.
  5. Optional: add to the liquid 10 slices of Ginger and 1 teaspoon of peppercorns.
  6. Cover and place in oven.
  7. Check liquid level every 1/2 hour or so and replenish as needed.
  8. At 1/2 the estimated baking time (figure full baking time at about 20 minutes per pound), pull out of the oven, turn over, and return to the oven, still covered.
  9. When the ham is done (155°F/68°F if uncooked, 135°F/57°C if fully cooked), pull it out of the oven.
  10. Turn the oven up to 400°F/200°C.
  11. Remove the skin and most of the fat. Place on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Coat thoroughly with your glaze.
  12. Place back into oven and bake at 400°F/200°C for 20 to 30 minutes until the glaze is shiny and crisp.
  13. Remove from oven and set out on the counter and let stand at least 20 minutes before slicing. Actually, country ham is generally served cool or cold, and the longer it stands the easier it will be to slice.
Byproducts
  • Fat stripped from the ham can be used in place of bacon fat (and will probably be more flavorful). Be mindful whether you stripped it before or after baking (if before it will have to be cooked, but that's probably going to happen anyway in your recipe).
  • Bones - cover your bones and trimmings with cold water and bring to a simmer for a few hours for soup stock. Goes well mixed with pork stock if you have any of that in the freezer.
  • Skin - is edible as a tasty snack. If stripped before baking fry it lightly with some ham fat. If stripped after baking you'll probably have to steam it a bit to soften unless you like chewing tough things. It is also usable as an ingredient in recipes.
Glazing

Glazing adds extra flavor and a crisp texture to the outer edge of ham slices. You can use a thin glaze and apply it all through the baking period or use a thick final glaze and baste with fruit juice during baking. Most glazing recipes call for brown sugar. I use Jaggery because I like the flavor and it's what I usually have on hand.

If you'll be using a thin glaze and basting with it through the entire baking process you must remove the skin, shave the fat to about 1/8" to 1/4" thick and score the fat into a diamond pattern before you start baking. You can also do this for the final glaze method if you want a pretty ham. It can be messy stripping skin and fat when the ham is almost done.

If you want to do a final glaze but your glaze seems too thin to adhere properly, you can mix in some bread crumbs. This is particularly done with country hams.

Along with the glaze step, many recipes call for studding the ham with cloves or pinning (with toothpicks) fruit slices or ginger slices to the outside of the ham. Others consider clove sticking too fussy but want the clove flavor so they just grind some up and mix into the glaze.

Apple Glaze
1 cup Applesauce
3/4 cup Brown Sugar
3 Tbsp Dijon Mustard
1 Tbsp Horseradish
Baste your ham with Apple Cider or Apple Juice
If desired, stud ham with cloves

Honey Glaze
1 cup Brown Sugar (packed)
1/2 cup Honey
2 Tbsp Dijon Mustard
Baste your ham with Apple Cider or Apple Juice
With 30 minutes to go
Stud with cloves if desired
Brush on glaze & return to oven
Continue basting with glaze until done.

Orange Glaze with Chipotle
3 cups Orange Juice
3/4 cup Brown Sugar (packed)
1 Chipotle Chile in Adobo
3/4 cup Triple Sec
Heat orange juice in saucepan and reduce to 2 cups
Stir in Brown Sugar until completely dissolved and a light syrup
Take off heat
Chop Chipotle fine and stir into glaze.
Stir in Triple Sec.
Use this glaze for basting every 20 minutes or so through baking.
Safety Tips

Cured hams aren't as bacteria prone as raw meats, turkeys and the like, but proper precautions are still necessary.

  • Do not use the same surfaces or utensils used for uncooked ham for cooked ham or any other food until they have been thoroughly cleaned. I clean with a disinfecting cleanser which releases some bacteria destroying bleach as you work with it.
  • Make sure hams that must be refrigerated stay below 40°F/4.4°C at all times.
  • Dry cure (country) hams do not need to be refrigerated until they are cut. Once cut they are vulnerable to mold and must be refrigerated and consumed within a few days.
  • You want to keep your cooking time as short as possible and your temperatures as low as possible to preserve flavor and juiciness, but "as low as possible" for uncooked or partially cooked hams is 160°F and 140°F for fully cooked hams. Below those temperatures is considered unsafe.
  • Store uncooked hams tightly wrapped and completely sealed so they can't drip any juices onto other food.
  • Refrigerate leftover ham as soon as possible, and if it is a lot, divide it so it chills quickly.
  • Ham shouldn't be frozen because that affects the texture and flavor. If you must freeze, keep in mind that the quality of cured meats degrades rapidly when frozen so the keep time is not as long as you might hope, just 1 to 2 months. It'll still be safe for a while longer but quality deteriorates quickly. In comparison, a fresh uncured ham will keep well frozen for 6 months or more.
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