In late Spring 2009 I ventured from my dad’s farm in rural Knox County, Kentucky (Red Brush area) to Madisonville, Tennessee to visit Benton’s Country Hams.
At that time there had been a dust-up in the media over this mom n pop pork operation, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it. I drove the 120 miles with a song in my heart as I knew what my reward would be once I got there. I ended up buying a few pounds of bacon, some prosciutto, a sack of grits and a big one year old country ham.
Time flies whether you’re having fun or not, so a couple weeks ago I noted the fact that this jewel of a ham had remained uncooked, and was now about two and a half years old. Time to get down to business. Here’s the timeline of preparing and cooking a fully cured 16lb 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 5 gallon plastic bucket to begin the process of bringing this beauty back to life. I unwrap the packaging, the aroma is beyond intense-if you have any aversion to meat it could send you into deep psychiatric care-submerge the ham in cold water, then lock the doors to my spare room to keep my hound dog off the prize.
Thursday: Every 12 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 simmering 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 about do the trick.
Every four hours I flip the ham, and note the progress of the cooking. At the eight hour mark the ham has visible cooked, and the shank is starting to show separation from the meat.
At the 10 hour mark plus the nine hours of simmering on the stovetop, 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 a beautiful deep murk of color and aroma.
What does 30 months of aging and 19 hours of cooking get you? In this instance 12 people gathered in a backyard in Austin, Texas all using words to the effect of “best meat I’ve ever eaten”.
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.