When you think of barbecued pork, you likely think of a shoulder, butt, or ribs smoking low and slow for hours on end. But America's Test Kitchen and its Cook's Country crew recently uncovered the joy of a cut rarely used for barbecue. Fresh ham is cut from the shank area of pig's hind quarters; it has less fat the more typical pork cuts. After it is smoked for several hours, you get a meat that is leaner, a bit chewier (thanks to the addition of chopped cracklin'), and a wonderful change to pulled pork. Managing producer Sally Swift talks with Tucker Shaw from Cook's Country about the process and shared a recipe for South Carolina Fresh Smoked Ham.
Sally Swift: So, I know that you guys have been roaming around the Carolinas for Cook's Country. This week’s show is focusing on the South, and I wanted to talk to you about something you discovered at Hite's Bar-B-Que.
Tucker Shaw: What a great place. Hite's Bar-B-Que is in West Columbia, South Carolina. And you're right, we've been spending a lot of time in the Carolinas. We expected to find great pulled pork dished down there, but what we didn't expect to find was this wonderful dish at Hite's Bar-B-Que. They smoke fresh ham, and it was delicious. We spent more time there than we expected to because we couldn't stop eating it.
SS: Huh, fresh ham, which is a different thing than most people think about. Usually you smoke shoulders, right?
TS: That's right. The shoulder is a much more common piece of meat to use on the barbecue. When you think about pulled pork, it's usually cut from the shoulder. Ham is cut from the hind quarters, as we say delicately. And whereas most of the hams that you'll find have already been smoked or cured or otherwise treated; fresh ham is raw meat. So, what you're looking at is essentially ham that has been taken from the hind quarters of the pig and not messed with at all until you start in on it.
SS: Talk me through this recipe. You call this essentially smoked fresh ham, correct?
TS: That's right. And what makes it different from the shoulder is that fresh ham has much less fat and connective tissue all the way through it. After it is smoked for several hours, what you get is a meat that is a bit leaner and a bit chewier. And it's very easy to achieve at home. It takes a little bit of time, but it's not complicated to do. The most difficult thing for creating this recipe is special ordering this piece of meat because you won't necessarily find it at the grocery store ready to go. When you hit up the butcher, you're going to ask for fresh ham, which is cut from the shank end farther down the leg. And the reason that you want this piece is because it has more skin, and you're going to make use of that skin later in your final dish.
(Photo: America's Test Kitchen)
SS: What's the first step in this recipe?
TS: The first step in this recipe is to get some seasoning into the meat, and the best way to do that is to salt it. Rub salt all over the meat quite liberally - couple of tablespoons for a six to eight-pound piece of ham and let it sit for 18 to 24 hours. This will draw that seasoning into the meat and make it much more flavorful.
SS: Okay, so that's the day before. That's a commitment.
TS: That's a commitment. Mostly hands off. Then the next day you go outside and build yourself a fire. You want to add some wood chips to that fire. It's very easy to make a packet of wood chips; fold it into aluminum foil. Drop that ham onto a hot fire, and let it go for about two hours. This is not enough to cook it all the way through, but it is enough for it to take on a great deal of flavor from those wood chips, which is what you're looking for. Then you bring it inside to the oven to finish cooking. The reason you do this is because the oven has a much more predictable and constant temperature, and you don't have to continually tend your fire outdoors.
After about two hours on that fire outdoors, it's taken on about as much smoky flavor as it's going to anyway. Finish it in the oven for about two and a half hours and bring the ham out of the oven and with a pair of tongs. Grasp at the skin and slip it right off that piece of meat. It will come off in one large piece. It doesn't take any special technique or anything; it will just slip right off. Take that skin and spread it flat on a sheet pan. Slide it back in the oven for about 25 minutes. This will create a really crisp, slightly golden brown, beautiful piece of pork skin that you'll find often chopped up and called cracklin'.
You're going take the meat that you've smoked and the skin that you've cooked and chop them together. You have this chewy, crunchy, fatty, delicious chopped up thing that at first glance will look very familiar because it will look a bit like pulled pork, but once you sink your teeth into it you're getting this whole texture contrast and really, great flavor of ham and pork.
SS: What a great way to do it. You get the smoke from the grill and then you can abandon the babysitting and just bring it in the oven and finish it off. This sounds like perfect party food for, its graduation party time, you know.
TS: Totally. It's summer. Get out on the grill. The reason we knew this recipe was a hit was because the test cooks in the kitchen went crazy for it, and as you can imagine, they cook a lot.
SS: They're jaded.
TS: Yes, a little. Not jaded. Everybody loves food, but we are skeptical; this one we could keep around. People just went bananas for it. So we knew we had a really strong winner with this.
SS: You had a winner. Now, I do have a question which is very controversial. Let’s talk sauce, which I know every southern barbecue is different. Sauce in that area is mustard sauce, correct?
TS: Very often yes. And this is a tether back to some of the German heritage that you'll find in this part of the country. At Hite's Bar-B-Que, they serve this with a rather runny but very vibrant vinegary mustard sauce. We created a sauce that's very similar to that. It looks like a bit more runny than you would think of as a thick barbecue sauce, and of course it's a very bright yellow color. It almost looks like just a squeeze of yellow mustard, but it's got this really, really invigorating flavor that pairs beautifully with a slightly sweet and fatty meat.