Country ham, that centuries-old icon of farmstead smokehouses and blue-collar breakfasts is enjoying resurgent popularity with American foodies – but not as the baked-whole centerpiece of Southern holiday dinners. They're consuming it as charcuterie, just as they do the famed hams of Spain and Italy.
Restaurant chefs who view country ham as a unique slice of culinary Americana are helping driving the trend. They and their customers not only love the smoky-tangy meat sliced paper thin and served with wine or bourbon, they're attracted to the stories of ham-curing heritage and the colorful curers themselves.
Home curing is also exploding as thousands of enthusiasts cure hams for themselves and post tips and photos in social media forums whose members number in the tens of thousands.
"I do think the charcuterie market is there for country ham," said Bob Woods, owner and curer at The Hamery in Murfreesboro, Tenn. While the bulk of his hams are still sold whole for boiling and baking, sales of his 18-month-old Tennshootoe ham, sliced paper-thin, are rising steadily.
"Young people especially like it, and they come here to get our ($20 per pound) Tennshootoe because there's nothing else like it. There's a new enthusiasm for it."
Cooked country ham — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / rudisill
Country ham defined
Country ham begins with a hock-free hind leg of a pig that's salt cured and air-dried for preservation. The craft has been practiced and refined here since English settlers landed at Jamestown, Va. in 1607. Curers commonly use an 80-20 mix of salt and sugar (white or brown) with an occasional dappling of red or black pepper. Salt's hygroscopic properties pull water out of the meat, which deprives bacteria of moisture and initiates their death.
Depending on each ham's weight and a curer's preference, a country ham will stay "in cure" for 28 to 40 days before it's washed of any residual cure and hung to dry. As the meat evaporates water and firms, enzymatic reactions cause its flavors to intensify and gain complexity.
Unlike Italian and Spanish hams, country hams often are hickory smoked for added flavor, aroma and heightened appearance. Some that aren't smoked are rubbed with cure, wrapped in butcher paper and remain that way until consumed. Others still are neither smoked nor wrapped, just cured and dried.
Unlike barbecue styles, which are geographically unique, the differences in country ham styles are nuanced more by elders' recipes than any particular place, said Nancy Newsom, owner and curer at Col. Bill Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Hams in Princeton, Ky.
"I've talked to a lot of curers, and we all do it a little differently but still kind of the same," she said. Newsom took over the business from her father 30 years ago, making her a rare woman country ham curer. Laughing, she added, "That our cure is different is what I think makes ours the best. Of course, others think the same way about their cures!"
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Commercially, about 2.5 million country hams are produced annually in the U.S. South and mid-South. With the 2019 merger of California, Mo.-based Burgers' Smokehouse and Paris, Tenn.-based Clifty Farm Country Meats, roughly 1.5 million of those hams are now made under the Burgers' umbrella.
Goodnight Brothers in Boone, N.C. produces another 500,000 hams, leaving the last half million cured by much smaller players producing between 2,000 and 50,000 each.
Hams made by smaller curers typically make up the pork most coveted by chefs and connoisseurs. Their longer-aging yields complexity and firmness commonly found in European hams, products that most American charcuterie fans are most familiar with. Consequently, it's not surprising that around 4 million Spanish and Italian hams are imported to the U.S. each year.
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That imported cured hams outnumber domestic country hams poses a multifaceted concern, said Sam Edwards III, owner of Edwards Virginia Ham in Surry, Va. Imported hams are marketed to consumers as ready to eat, while at the USDA's insistence, consumers are directed to cook American country ham. The impression that it's not safe to be eaten as charcuterie is misleading and a marketing disadvantage, Edwards said.
"It comes down to a measure of water activity," defined as the point at which a ham is sufficiently dried so that pathogens cannot live within it, Edwards said. He and other country ham producers insist their hams' water activity is not only aligned with USDA guidelines, but they're as low or lower than European hams deemed ready to eat. "In the country ham world, that information hasn't been used to show that our products can be eaten like a prosciutto ham."
For many good reasons, Edwards added, European ham curers charge far higher prices than their U.S. counterparts. The cost of a single Iberico ham, made exclusively from the Iberian hog, is about $1,500 retail. (By comparison, short-aged country hams cost around $60; long aged are typically twice that.)
This specific breed of black-hoofed hog leads an ideal, free-ranging life consuming acorns and other nuts and fruits that fall from trees, and rooting for insects. That healthful activity and natural diet combine to create unctuous and incredibly flavorful intramuscular fat not found in lean commodity pigs typically used by country ham producers.
That Iberico hams are aged 1 to 2 years also drives up costs significantly since hams lose weight over time. Edwards also said the dizzying price has some European prestige baked in.
Using costly heritage-breed hogs, "we're selling some of the best long-aged hams made anywhere, hams aged 18 months to 2 years," Edwards began. "Our most expensive hams are $250 apiece, while European hams cost a lot more."
A delicious charcuterie platter — Photo courtesy of E+ / fcafotodigital
Small producers will drive the trend
According to Steven Burger, president of Burgers' Smokehouse, demand remains strong for the short-aged (4 to 6 months) hams his company sells. They're tender, less salty and modestly priced – qualities appreciated by a wide range of retail and wholesale customers.
But he also believes the country ham industry overall is benefiting from innovation by smaller producers who long-age hams (12 to 30 months) for sale at retail and to mid- and high-end restaurants.
"To perpetuate our industry, [curers] with marketing savvy who can [prepare] over 4,000 to 5,000 hams a year – and sell them for a high price – can reach those ham aficionados," Burger said. Citing similar examples of booms in other industries, he pointed to the the positive changes wrought by an increase of craft in wineries, breweries and distilleries. "The stage is set for that kind of growth, and it behooves us to have a healthy, growing industry."
Brand education is necessary, said Woods, as well as some hands-on guidance on how to eat it.
"Putting a forkful of country ham in your mouth, like you do roast beef or turkey, is like putting a bunch of potato chips in your mouth at once," Woods said. "A more satisfying experience is putting one chip in your mouth at a time. The same goes for a thin slice of country ham."