As a cut of meat that is often used for seasoning purposes, ham hocks are a cut of pork that is found around the ankle joint of a pig. While not generally considered to be appropriate for serving as a main course, they pack a lot of flavor, which makes them an excellent additive to many types of vegetable-based dishes.
Ham hocks are most often taken from the front section of the leg of the pig, in the general area of the ankle. The slice or portion of the meat is generally a semi-thick cut that is packaged in groups of two or three hocks. They may be purchased raw or fresh, as well as smoked and cured. Cured varieties have a relatively long shelf life, which makes them ideal for storage and use over a longer period of time.
Perhaps the most common use of ham hocks has to do with seasoning cooked vegetables. In many parts of the United States, this part of the pig is used as a relatively inexpensive way to season various types of greens. Turnips, collards, kale and mustard greens are often slow cooked with one or two ham hocks tossed in for a little extra flavor. The pork contains just the right amount of salty accent to provide a pleasing taste with most greens, without the addition of any extra salt or other seasonings. While some people choose to serve the meat with the greens, others remove it before placing the dish on the dinner table.
Beans and peas are also often seasoned with ham hocks. For example, pinto beans, navy beans, crowder peas and black-eyed peas are often placed in a crock pot with the meat and allowed to slow cook over the course of several hours. As the beans and peas soften and cook through, the flavor from the ham seeps into the texture of the peas, leaving a pleasing taste.
Ham hocks are usually obtained from a butcher shop or the meat department of a supermarket. Because the meat is not usually considered ideal for serving as alone, they are generally less expensive than purchasing bacon or ham steaks to use in flavoring various types of vegetables. Chefs recommend only using the meat once, as it does not retain much flavor after it has been cooked.