My granddad, a farm boy through and through, showed me the ropes on crafting good old home-brined ham well enough. You don’t need a lot – just curing salt, water, fridge space, and a sprinkle of spices and brown sugar (which are optional).
I’ve never liked store-bought hams. They’re pumped up by machines with a quick-curing highly synthetic ham brine. Then you see them tossed into giant smoker-ovens. Straight to market! I’ve done my own hams and pitted them against the commercial ones. Trust me, the homemade version is always in a league of its own if you know how it’s done. Today, I’ll show you how to wet-brine a ham like you were born into this. It’s pretty simple, but there are a few tricks you ought to know.
How to Wet-Brine a Ham?
Before we dive into the down-home secrets of ham brining, remember this: there’s more than one way to brine a pig. What I’m sharing here is my go-to wet brine method. But don’t be shy to explore other ways to wet-cure a ham before you embark on your porky adventure. Now, let’s get down to business!
Note: This wet brining procedure is not the same as when you wet-cure a ham. The purpose of this wet brining process is to infuse the ham with flavor and moisture not to preserve it for longer shelf life.
Ingredients for a 7-Pound Fresh Ham Porker
- Half a cup of kosher salt
- 2 cups of brown sugar
- 1.5 tsp of pink curing salt (this ain’t your regular table salt!)
- 1 tablespoon of pickling spice
- 1/4 cup of molasses
- 6 quarts of water (4 quarts and 2 quarts in separate bowls)
Tools You’ll Need
- A large food-grade bucket (like the one your grandma used for pickles)
- Stove or heat source
- Large pot for boiling water
- Mixing spoon
- Ziploc bag (for holding the ham in brine)
- Dinner plate
- Clean bucket (for rinsing, if needed)
Step 1: Prepare Your Brine Mix
Take a big, food-grade bucket (the kind your grandma used to make pickles) and toss everything from the ingredient list. Well, except for the water and the pork.
Optionally, you can add more spices. Think of a cinnamon stick, a half cup of honey, a tablespoon of whole mustard seed, and some red pepper flakes for those who like their hams spicy from the ground up.
Step 2: Boil and Add Water, then Mix
Now, you need to get that water steaming. Boil up two quarts of it, then pour it over the flavor and spice mix in your bucket.
Give it a good stir, and make sure it all melts together.
After that, toss in the remaining four quarts of cold water and stir. Now gently lower your pork roast(s) into the brine-filled bucket.
Step 3: Submerge the Pork Roast
Remember this golden rule: that fresh ham has to stay completely submerged while it’s soaking up all those delicious flavors. How? Grab a dinner plate and flip it upside down right on top of your pork.
For extra pressure, throw a Ziploc bag filled with water on top of the plate to keep the roast from floating out.
Step 4: Refrigerate and Wait
Pop that brine bucket in the fridge. Some folks say you should flip or turn the roast in the brine every day. It works for them. But I’ve never tried that as I don’t see the need.
Your pork roast needs one day of wet brining for every two pounds of pork. For a seven-pound roast, that’s a minimum of three and a half days. Make sure the bucket is chilled throughout the whole ham brining process.
Step 5: Rinse the Brined Pork
When the time’s up, it’s rinse time. You’ve got two choices: rinse your pork in cold water for a few minutes (makes it saltier), or put it back into a clean bucket with fresh water and let it chill overnight (for a milder ham).
What’s the Essence of Brining Ham?
The essence of brining ham is all about kicking up that flavor, keeping it juicy, and making it melt-in-your-mouth tender. Here’s why it’s worth the effort:
- Flavoring: You’ve got a mix of salt, brown sugar, and a bunch of spices in that brine. When your brine ham, it soaks up all those flavors like a sponge. The result? A ham that’s savory, rich, and as aromatic as a meat candy.
- Moisture retention: The secret sauce of brining as a process is how it locks in moisture. The salt in the brine does some magic on the protein. By opening the meat fibers, this helps your ham hang onto water. Translation: no dry, boring ham on your plate.
- For enhanced texture: Brining makes your ham soft and tender. It’s like a gentle massage for the meat, breaking down those muscle fibers. The endgame? A ham that practically melts in your mouth.
- For uniform seasoning: No more bland bits! Wet brining, unlike dry-curing, spreads the flavor evenly through every nook and cranny of your ham. Say goodbye to tasteless spots.
So What’s Next Once I’m Done Brining Ham?
The next step is smoking the ham, of course!
I like to roll with an electric smoker or my Pit Boss wood pellet smoker for this (because, hey, not everyone is blessed with a smokehouse). Simply pop that ham in the smoker, flip the switch, crank it up to 225 degrees, load up the tray with wood chips, and smoke away. Was that too rushed? Then check out the complete guide below:
How to Smoke a Brined Ham?
- One brined ham
- Wood chips for smoking (hickory or applewood works great)
- A hungry crew ready to devour some delicious ham
Tools You’ll Need
- A wood smoker (or your smokehouse)
- Wood chips for smoking
- Meat thermometer
- Drying racks or blotting paper
Step 1: Preheat Your Smoker
First, fire up your smoker and set the temperature to 225 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s around 107 degrees Celsius for my metric friends).
Step 2: Get It Smoking
Step 3: Dry Your Brined Pork
Before it hits the smoker, place your home-cured ham on some drying racks. This allows any excess moisture from the brine to drip off and helps create that perfect smoky crust.
Alternatively, you can also place the ham on blotting papers and then blot away the water on the ham.
Step 4: Introduce the Ham to the Smoker
Place your beautiful home-cured ham on the smoker rack. Let the smoking begin.
Step 5: Monitor and Maintain
Keep a close eye on your smoker’s temperature. If it’s a frosty day outside, it might take a bit more effort for your smoker to maintain that 225 degrees. No worries, just let it do its thing.
Step 6: Let It Smoke
Close the smoker lid and let your ham hang out in that sweet, smoke fume. Your ham needs a few hours to cook and soak up all that flavorful smoke.
The goal is to reach a safe internal temperature of at least 145 degrees, as the USDA recommends. But I like to take it up to 150-160 degrees Fahrenheit (65-71 degrees Celsius) to get things well-done and perfectly smoked.
Step 7: Savor the Flavor
Once your ham hits the right temperature, carefully remove it from the smoker. Let it rest for 15 to 30 minutes before slicing into that delicious masterpiece.
Step 8: Serve and Enjoy
Gather your hungry crew and carve up that smoked brined pork. Whether it’s a family dinner or a special occasion, this ham is ready to steal any show.
Can You Smoke Hams Without a Smoker?
You’ve got a home-cured ham ready and begging for a taste transformation. But what if you don’t have a smoker? Well, that’s no problem at all. Next, I’ll show you how to cook or ‘smoke’ hams without a smoker using three different methods.
1. In an Oven: Oven-smoked Ham
Got an oven? You’re in luck! You can whip up a good smoked ham right in this kitchen appliance. Here’s how:
- Set the oven temperature to around 225-250°F (107-121°C).
- Place your prepared ham on a roasting rack in a roasting pan and cover it tightly with aluminum foil. This creates a mini smoking chamber right in your oven.
- Now, you’ll need some wood chips. Soak them in water for about an hour, then drain them.
- Create a little packet of soaked wood chips by wrapping them in aluminum foil and poking a few holes in the packet. Place this packet directly on your oven rack.
- Pop your ham and the wood chip packet into the oven. Let it bake (or smoke) away. Estimate around 15-20 minutes of smoking time per pound of ham. For example, if you have a 10-pound ham, you’ll need to smoke it for approximately 2.5 to 3.5 hours. And voila, you’ll have a beautifully oven-smoked ham with that irresistible smoky flavor.
2. Using Liquid Smoke: the Quick and Easy Fix
Liquid smoke is like a magical potion for adding that smoky flavor to your ham without any fancy smoking equipment. Yeah, we aren’t smoking here. Except that the smoking process has been done before. All you need to do is add it to the ham. But how? Here’s how to do it:
- Preheat your oven to 325°F (163°C).
- Place your ham in a roasting pan, and get ready to give it a flavorful makeover.
- Grab a bottle of liquid smoke (available at most grocery stores). I like the Stubbs Liquid Smoke because it is made from hickory wood smoke which is perfect for my hams.
- Now brush or drizzle it generously over your ham. Make sure to coat all sides for that full smoky effect.
- Cover your ham with aluminum foil and roast it in the oven for the recommended time based on its weight.
3. On a Grill: Smoking in the Great Outdoors
If you’ve got a grill, you’ve got another smoking option right at your fingertips. Just make sure it’s got an indirect cooking zone. Here’s how to smoke your ham on the grill:
- Set up your grill for indirect heat by lighting one side of the grill and leaving the other side unlit. This is possible on a charcoal grill like the Cuisinart CCG190RB or a Kamado-style grill like this Char Griller Akorn. You’re aiming for a cooking zone with a grill temperature of about 225-250°F (107-121°C).
- Soak your wood chips in water for an hour, then drain them. Again, hickory or apple works. But take note… wood chips or wood chunks!
- Place a small aluminum foil pan filled with water on the lit side of the grill. This adds moisture and helps regulate the temperature.
- Spread your soaked wood chips over the lit side of the grill. Once they start to smoke, place your ham on the unlit side of the grill.
- Close the grill lid and let your ham soak up that smoke flavor for several hours.
- Keep an eye on the grill temperature and add more soaked wood as needed to keep the smoke rolling.
- Monitor the internal temperature with a meat thermometer. You can stop cooking when it reaches at least 145 degrees.
Pro Tips About Brining Ham
Brining ham is an art. And like any craft, it’s got some rules and tricks. Here are some tips that will have you brining like a seasoned chef, from picking the pork cut to the curing salt.
1. The Perfect Pork Cut: Choosing the Right Meat Matters
Truth is you can toss just about any fresh pork cut into your brine mix. But when it comes to hams, what you’re looking for is “leg of pork,” as the USDA calls it. So let’s see all the choices you’ve got here:
If you’re looking for the classic whole ham experience, go for a bone-in, uncooked ham. That’s almost the entire hind leg of the pig, taking aside the hock.
You can find whole hams at the butcher shop. But I’ll warn you – a whole ham is not for satisfying small cravings. This is an expensive 20-pounder! And it takes around 30 hungry folks to finish this.
However, if you want to speed things up or prefer a more manageable portion, ham steaks are there too. They’re essentially slices of ham, perfect for quicker brining and cooking.
This is also known as the pork shoulder, the picnic ham, or the picnic shoulder. It is the best when it comes to crafting seriously something away from the classic ham.
It’s inherently rich, flavorful, and has a good balance of lean meat, fat, and connective tissues.
Ham Butt End
No ifs, ands, or butts about it, this cut is also one of the best for making home-cured hams. It comes from the lower part of the hind leg. It’s meaty and delivers deliciousness that’s just perfect for ham-making.
Ham Shank End
Now, this end comes from the upper part of the hind leg, and it’s not bad either. It brings that beautiful balance to the ham game, adding savory goodness to your table.
2. Water: Not Just Any
Water is a fundamental part of your brine. Don’t use tap water as it contains chlorine and pathogens that can affect the taste. Here’s what you can use:
- Filtered water: Using filtered water is a safe bet. It ensures that impurities and off-flavors won’t sneak into your brine and ham.
- Spring water: If filtered water isn’t an option, spring water is a good alternative. It’s usually clean and has a neutral taste.
3. Choosing the Salt: It’s More Than Just Salty
Salt is the main thing in your brine. But not just any salt. The type you choose can make or break your home-cured ham. Here are your options:
- Pickling salt: This is considered the best type of salt for brining because it’s easy to find. Considering you’d be needing a lot of salt, it’s also quite inexpensive. It’s consistent and has no impurities.
- Kosher salt: This is a popular choice for dry-brining due to its pure, clean taste. And it’s got larger grains for longer dissolution and longer brining.
- Pink salt: If you want a home-cured ham that looks like the real ham, pink salt might be your option. Pink curing salt is also known as Prague powder or by the specifically branded Insta Cure No. 1. Be careful with this though. It contains 6.25% sodium nitrite. When the salt is used at high dose levels, it can be toxic. That’s why I don’t use it. If you have to, a teaspoon per five pounds is the normal measurement for pink salt.
- Sea salt: Just like Kosher salt, high-quality sea salt is solid. I use this too. The primary component here is sodium chloride with no trace of iodine as with Kosher salt. But sea salt often requires double the amount of the Kosher type of salt. Also, it’s a bit more expensive but can add a subtle complexity to your brine solution.
- Table salt: Table salt is the regular salt seen in most salt shakers. While it’s common in many households, table salt can contain additives like iodine and anti-caking agents. But it’s not ideal for ham-brining as these additives can affect the taste.
Recommended: For optimal results, I recommend either pickling salt, kosher salt, or high-quality sea salt. They dissolve well, offer a clean taste, and won’t muddy the waters (or your brine) with additives.
1. What Should I Soak My Ham In?
After brining your ham, you should soak it submerged in water and place it in the fridge for around eight hours. This helps remove any excess salt from the meat and prepares it for cooking.
2. Does Ham Need to Be Brined?
It’s not a must, but brining amps the flavor and juiciness. So, it’s a delicious choice!
I’ve spilled all the beans on brining and smoking ham right in the comfort of your home. We’ve gone through the whole process, from picking out the perfect pork cuts to choosing the salt for the best ham. But here’s the deal – the “hamiverse” is vast, and there’s a lot to explore.
Feeling adventurous? Try the dry brining method if you’re short on fridge space. Heck, you can even experiment with a non-ham cut like the pork butt or shoulder. It’s your kitchen kingdom, after all!