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Contact Information
lNew Meat Specialist TBA
Dr. Robert Harmon, Chair
Animal Sciences
907 W. P. Garrigus Building  
Lexington, KY 40546-0215
Phone: (859) 257-2686   
Fax: (859) 323-1027  

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History of Curing Hams

Curing meat is a very old tradition that was done for years out of necessity. Before people had refrigerators, meat would spoil quickly if it wasn’t preserved in some way. After animals, especially hogs, were slaughtered much of their meat was cured with salt, sugar, and spices. Doing this kept the meat from spoiling for much longer amounts of time—sometimes a year or more!

Hog slaughtering was done in the late fall so the temperature would be cool enough to keep the meat fresh until it could be cured but not so cold that the meat would freeze. This was the perfect time of year to save a little fresh meat for the holidays, too.

Every part of the butchered hog was used for something. Some parts that couldn’t be easily cured with salt were eaten immediately. Things such as the brain and tenderloin that wouldn’t keep without spoiling were eaten right away. The intestines were used to encase sausage that was made from much of the scrap meat. But many of the big cuts of meat, such as the shoulder, ham, and side were cured with salt right away so they would keep without being refrigerated.

Because we now have refrigerators and many other modern conveniences we often don’t think about doing things the “old fashioned way.” The 4-H ham curing contest is a great way to learn a new skill while learning about the past!


Choosing a Ham

Before a ham is cured and becomes a country ham, it is first a fresh ham. Sometimes fresh hams are called green hams. When you choose a ham to cure you should look for many different things. The ham should be heavily muscled and have good coloring. The color of the lean meat should be light pink while the fat should be white. In addition, the muscles of the ham should be firm, not soft or watery. The ham should have very little fat under and along the butt face and over the collar.

Most fresh hams weigh between 15 and 35 pounds at the start of the curing process. The finished country ham will weigh much less because a lot of water will evaporate out of the ham during the curing process, making it lighter.

Before you cure your ham it should be stored at a temperature of less than 40 ° F. If your ham gets warmer than this it could spoil before you even start to cure your ham!

This is an example of an excellent ham. It is heavily muscled with a wide, deep butt face. It is of high quality with lean that is a uniform, proper pink color. This is very good coloring. The muscles exposed are firm and not watery, indicating high quality. Also, there is little fat on, under and along side the butt face and little collar fat.


This is an example of a light muscled, low quality, fat ham. Its butt face is shallow and narrow. The ham’s coloring is not consistent throughout the its exposed muscles. But this ham’s biggest fault is that it is fat! It has too much fat under its butt face and around its collar. This ham has too much fat and not enough firm, well colored muscles.

If you are participating in the 4-H country ham project your fresh ham will be provided for you.

The Ingredients You’ll Need

Salt -This is the most important ingredient. In fact, you could cure a country ham with just salt alone! When you prepare the cure for your ham you will need to include 7.5 to 8 pounds of salt for every 100 pounds of ham that you will cure. Your finished country ham should contain about 4% salt. The USDA requires that all hams that are labeled “shelf stable” contain at least 4% salt, while more than 4% salt can make the hams taste too salty. When you cure a ham, the salt must come in contact with the entire surface of your ham.

Sugar -Sugar is optional in curing your ham. Many people include it in their cure mix because it adds flavor to the ham, can offset the harsh taste of the salt, and keeps the ham soft during the curing process. If you choose to add sugar to your cure mix, you can use either brown or white sugar, depending on what flavor you would like in your finished country ham. When preparing a cure mix with sugar, use approximately 2.5 pounds of sugar for every 100 pounds of ham that you will cure.

Nitrate or Nitrite -These are also optional ingredients. Nitrate, nitrite, or a combination of the two can add flavor to your ham, fix the color of the ham, and lengthen the shelf life of the finished product. If you use nitrate or nitrite only use it in very small amounts! Use only 1 to 2 ounces for every 100 pounds of ham that you will cure because large amounts of these chemicals can be poisonous. Because nitrate and nitrite are so poisonous it can be difficult to find them at stores. Another name these ingredients are sometimes sold under is “Prague Powder.” If you wish to use nitrate or nitrite in your cure mix but can’t find anywhere to buy it, you may want to consider using a pre-mixed cure. Many of these ready-to-use cure mixes already contain the proper amount of nitrate and nitrite.

Spices -Also optional, spices can add unique flavors and coloration to your country ham. The most common spices to use are red and black pepper. They can be added to a cure mix in small amounts to suit your tastes.



How to Cure a Country Ham in a Bag

Mixing the Cure -First mix your cure in the proper ratio. For every 100 pounds of ham that you cure you should you 7.5 to 8 pounds of salt. If you choose to use sugar, you will need 2.5 pounds of sugar for every 100 pounds of ham that you cure. If you decide to use nitrate, nitrite or a combination of the two you will use only 1 to 2 ounces of these in total for every 100 pounds of ham. Finally, you can use small amounts of spices.

Rubbing the Cure into the Ham -After you mix the cure together you must rub the cure mixture onto every part of the ham. Pay special attention to rubbing the cure into the exposed muscle tissue because the salt will penetrate this tissue faster than the surrounding fat or skin of the ham. Make sure you get some cure mix into the tissues around the hock. This is very important. If you do not put cure mix around the hock it could cause bone souring.

Curing the Ham -Once you have rubbed cure mix onto all the surfaces of the ham, then you will wrap the ham in brown paper and place the ham, hock down, in a ham sock. The ham is then ready to be cured. It must be put in a place with adequate air movement. This is important because the ham is losing a lot of water by evaporation. If the extra water cannot leave the ham then the ham will rot. This is also the reason you should never wrap hams in plastic. Always use paper! The best place to hang hams in an aging room or smokehouse where the temperature and humidity are controlled.

Preparing the Ham for Aging -After 35 to 60 days of curing, the hams will be ready to be removed from the brown paper. Take the ham out of the sock, and unwrap it from the paper. Brush off all the extra salt that is stuck to the ham. Then place the ham in a new sock. At this point the ham can either be aged, or smoked and then aged.

Smoking Your Ham (Optional) -Though smoking your ham is not necessary, some people like to smoke their country hams. Smoking a ham gives it extra flavor, and smoking dries the surface of the ham to better prepare it to be aged. If you choose to smoke your ham, it should be done after the ham is cured but before it is aged. You should use hardwood to smoke your ham. Some good choices are hickory, oak, maple or any fruit woods. Smoking your ham should be done for 1 to 2 days at a low temperature. Do not let the temperature of your ham get over 100 ° F! If the temperature gets this high the important enzymes within your ham that are responsible for giving your ham its flavor will be killed.

Aging Your Ham -Hams should be aged for at least six months after curing to give your country ham flavor. The longer you age your ham, the more flavor it will have.


How to Cure a Country Ham in a Box or Bin

Mixing the Cure -The same ratio of ingredients is used in curing hams in a box as in when hams are cured in a bag. For every 100 pounds of ham that you cure you should use 7.5 to 8 pounds of salt. If you choose to use sugar, you will need 2.5 pounds. If you decide to use nitrate, nitrite or a combination of the two you will use only 1 to 2 ounces of these in total. Finally, you can use small amounts of spices. For every 100 pounds of ham you cure you should use 10 pounds of cure mix when curing hams in a box. For example, if you are curing 5 hams, weigh each ham. If the hams weigh a total of 125 pounds then use 12.5 pounds of cure mix on these 5 hams.

Put Ham Here!

Rubbing the Cure into the Ham -As with curing hams in a bag, the cure mix must come in contact with all the surfaces of the ham. The important difference to note is that when curing hams in a box it is ideal to apply the cure in three separate applications, 5 days apart. Also, the extra cure that is not stuck directly to the surface of the hams should be stacked on top of the hams.

Curing the Ham -The hams should then be placed in a well drained box to cure. Hams should be left in the cure box two days for every pound it weighs. A twenty pound ham should cure for 40 days. It is best to cure hams during the winter months of January and February because there are fewer temperature changes during these times and the humidity is low. Curing in a box can be successful in November and December if the humidity is very low despite higher than ideal temperatures. Keep in mind that if a ham freezes, it will absorb the cure mixture more slowly, as the salt cannot be absorbed into frozen tissues.

After the Ham is Cured -After the ham is cured it can be either aged or smoked and aged using the same methods described in the instructions for how to cure a ham in a bag.


If you are interested in participating in the Country Ham Curing Contest, contact your county’s 4-H Extension Agent!


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