Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Home-Cured Holiday Ham – First You Brine, Then You Brag

There are many reasons for making your own holiday ham, but the best one of all, may be the most superficial. After the holidays, as people are standing around the water cooler, bragging how great their glazed carrots were, or how amazing the cranberry sauce came out, you can say, “That sounds great, but did anyone else cure their own ham? I didn’t think so.”

Above and beyond establishing your culinary dominance with friends, the other reasons are pretty good too. You can flavor your ham any way you want; you can somewhat control the salt content; and depending on how many people you need to feed, can cure any size cut of pork you want, from a whole leg to a small loin roast.

There are thousands of different brine and spice combinations, but the procedure is pretty much the same no matter which way you go. However, there is one thing all these recipes have in common, pink salt. To make a true ham, you’re going to need a curing salt that contains sodium nitrite, which is what gives the meat its pink color, and signature “ham” taste, verses something that just tastes like roast pork.

This magical ingredient goes by several names, including Pink Curing Salt #, Insta Cure #1, or the one I used, Prague Powder #1. Yes, you can theoretically use things like celery juice, but long story short, nitrites are nitrites, and it doesn’t matter where they come from. For more info on that, and potential health issues, this article by Michael Ruhlman is a good read.

Once the ham is cured, you’ll want to give it a soak to rinse off the brine, and how long you do this can effect how salty your meat is. I prefer just a quick dunk, but you can leave it for as long as 24 hours, which will produce what I’ll call a low-sodium ham. It’s still pink, and flavorful, but barely salty. Experimentation is the only way to figure out how long to you should go, but I wanted to give you the range.

If you do want a home-cured ham gracing your Christmas table, I’ve given you just enough time to get it done. A local butcher should be happy to give you a few tablespoons of pink salt, otherwise it’s quite easy to find online. Whether it’s for a holiday dinner or not, I really hope you give this a try. Enjoy!

7 to 10 pound fresh, bone-in pork shoulder “picnic” arm roast (or any large hunk of pork)
For the brine (adapted from Ruhlman’s basic ham brine recipe):
6 quarts water
18 ounces kosher salt (this is about 2 1/4 cups Morton's Kosher Salt, or 3 2/3 cups Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, as they have difference size grains)
2 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon pink salt #1
1 rounded tbsp pickling spice, or any spices you want

For the optional glaze:
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup maple syrup
pinch of cayenne
pinch of salt  

- Once cured, you should smoke and/or roast your ham until it reaches an internal temp of at least 145-150 F. 

- For a more detailed video on how I prep a ham for the oven, check out this Crispy Honey-Glazed Ham video.


EL der said...

Great post! What are some options you'd recommend for smoking?

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for the recipe! I am having trouble finding a bone-in roast, is that required? Thanks a ton!!

smothmeek said...

I am having trouble finding a bone-in roast - is that required? If not, any changes to the recipe? Thanks a ton!!

Elizabeth said...

Nicely requesting the maple-mustard glaze recipe, please.


Food Junkie said...

I have done this pork loins and hocks to get some really delicious results but haven't tried a whole ham yet. It is easy to do if you follow the directions here and well worth the effort. My Christmas will be away this year but I am definitely doing this one when I get home. The only caveats to apply are mix and measure carefully - you don't want to overdo the nitrite; and keep everything refrigerated or well chilled during brining to prevent spoilage.

Chef John said...

oops, just added glaze to ing. list!

Chef John said...

I prefer bone-in, and they should be easy to get at a butcher, but any piece of pork works.

PK Bee said...

We aren't pork fans. How would this technique work with salmon?

Mark Leggett said...

Hi Chef John!
Great technique and I want to give it a try so I will pose a stupid question....
If I only have half the amount of pork do I just make half of the recipe for the brine. I.E half the water, spices and nitrites or do I make the whole lot and really soak the meat.
Keep up the great work!!

Judie Muncy said...

Hey Chef John... We live in the Bay Area. Where did you find the shoulder?

supervillainsomeday said...

When smoking isn't an option, would smoked salt be a viable alternative? If so, about how much should replace the kosher salt?

And if liquid smoke is used instead, how much of that do you think would be appropriate?

Lincoln Fracari said...

Hi Chef John,

I will start to prepare this lovely recipe this weekend for Christmas. What is a cup measure in grams?

Thanks, Lincoln

NotAppealing said...

We're definitely planning on ham for our holiday celebration. What sides do you recommend?

FatherPhoenix said...

If you can't actually smoke it but want the smokey flavor could you add liquid smoke to the brine? I do that when I do my Boston butts in the oven and it works well with them.

Mannaggia said...

Chef John, Not commenting on this recipe but didn't know how else to contact you. Received notice today of new video Sausage Meatballs. Watched on YouTube but can't find it on the blog. Thanks

Erik Trainer said...

My butcher reluctantly gave me a few tablespoons of "pink salt"...but only after warning me that it could kill me if ingested by itself in larger amounts. Did I pick up the right stuff?

Sunny S. said...

Wow, Chef John, you really **do** like this. We will have to try this right away!! :)

Paula Matyka said...

That crispy skin at the end of the video was...provocative.

Nathan said...

Amazing, chef John! Followed your recipe to the letter except I used my brother's smoker for the first stage of the cooking, then finished in the oven on high temp. Also I didn't glaze at the end, but It didn't need it...the most delicious ham I've ever made...or tasted, for that matter! Thanks!

Curtis Hart said...

Chef John,

Just did this for our Christmas ham. However, we encountered a problem:

The brine didn't get to the center, so we had a ham/pork combo going on (8 lbs, soaked in brine for 7 days) The outer "ham ring" was really good and the pork center wasn't bad either. Would you recommend using an injection of the brine into the center mass next time?

Overall, my son and I were very pleased at the potential for doing this again in the future. Thanks for posting this "How to"

J A said...


Is there a calculation for using a larger leg of ham. or would you just add the amount of salt and spices according to a lb leg of ham

Unknown said...

Chef John -

I made this a month or so ago and shared it with friends. They loved it. Told me it is a "keeper." For her retirement party, I thought I'd prepare it again for a friend. I will be out of town leading up to the party, and am wondering if I can brine and freeze it, then come back home, thaw it, and prepare it for the party.


Chef John said...

I don't see why that wouldn't work! Good luck!

Artemis r said...

Our local pork is frozen prior to our use. Do you suggest thawing it prior to brining for similar results to your delicious fresh pork or brining it frozen then slicing the fat once thawed? ?

Kelly Jamieson said...

Did this last year..was sooo yummy.. Only thing was the brining did not get to the center of the meat. I believe there are others that experienced the same.

Ok what is the answer.. brining longer or getting a meat injecter.In addition if it is the injector that is the key..where do you inject?

Gaby Rizk said...

Hi great video & recipe as always. Any alternative to pink salt? As its believed not to be healthy.