Country ham is a type of cured ham native to the American South. Unlike city ham, the more widely available ham in the United States, this type of ham is cured through a long and slow process which yields a highly shelf stable ham with a very complex flavor which some consumers liken to prosciutto and other great dry cured hams. Like other specialty hams, country ham is usually available through a boutique butcher or by special order, and some consumers prefer to order it directly through butchers in the American South.
One of the most famous country hams in the Smithfield Ham, from Smithfield in the state of Virginia. A long history accompanies the Smithfield Ham, which traditionally came from pigs fed on peanuts. While the diet requirements for pigs turned into Smithfield Hams have been relaxed, they must still come from Virginia and they usually are associated with superior quality. Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina are also big ham producing states, with slightly different regional variations on their country hams.
To make a country ham, the meat is liberally salted and hung in a cool place for several weeks. The salt may be mixed with sugar for additional sweetness, and sometimes salt peter is mixed in as well, to keep the color red. Many producers also cold smoke their hams with hickory or maple smoke. Once cured, the ham is dry aged, and it loses up to 20%, and sometimes even more, of its initial weight in this process. After dry aging, the ham is packaged for sale.
An unopened country ham does not need to be refrigerated, since the curing and aging process stabilizes the meat. It is not, however, edible just yet. First, the consumer must scrape the outer layer of the ham off to remove surface salt and mold which arises during the curing process. Next, the ham must be soaked in several changes of fresh cold water for up to 30 hours to draw the salt out, or the ham will be unpalatable. Then, the ham can be baked, boiled, or fried for consumption. Some producers package ready to eat country ham, for consumers who do not want to go through this preparation process.
Even after soaking, a country ham tends to be very salty. This strong salty flavor is unappealing to some consumers, who prefer more mild brined city hams or fresh pork. Usually, this meat is used as an accent in a dish, rather than being served as a main course, since the salty flavor can get overwhelming. It goes well with pasta sauces, salads, fruit, and a variety of other foods.