Country ham is a beloved Southern delicacy that has been enjoyed for generations. But with its intense saltiness and unique curing process, many people wonder if it’s safe to eat raw.
In this article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of country ham, including how it’s cured, how to prepare it, and whether or not it’s safe to eat uncooked.
So grab a glass of sweet tea and settle in as we dive into the world of country ham.
Can You Eat Country Ham Raw?
The short answer is yes, you can eat country ham raw. In fact, it’s a common practice in many Southern households to slice off a piece of ham and enjoy it as a snack or appetizer.
But before you start chowing down on raw country ham, it’s important to understand the curing process and how it affects the safety of the meat.
Country ham is dry-cured with salt, which helps prevent bacterial growth and makes the ham safe to eat uncooked. However, the curing process also results in a very high salt content, which can be overwhelming for some palates.
Traditionally, country hams were soaked in water to remove some of the salt before being cooked. But today, many people prefer to enjoy the ham uncooked, either sliced thinly or in thicker chunks.
If you do choose to eat country ham raw, be sure to purchase it from a reputable source and follow proper food safety guidelines. Keep the ham refrigerated until ready to eat, and slice off only what you plan to consume at that time.
What Is Country Ham?
Country ham is a type of cured ham that is native to the Southern United States. Unlike city ham, which is a more widely available type of ham in the US, country ham is cured through a long and slow process that yields a highly shelf-stable ham with a complex flavor that some consumers liken to prosciutto and other great dry-cured hams. To make 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. However, before consumption, the outer layer of the ham must be scraped off to remove surface salt and mold that arises during the curing process. The ham must then be soaked in several changes of fresh cold water for up to 30 hours to draw out the salt or it will be unpalatable. Only then can the ham 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.
The Curing Process
The curing process for country ham is a crucial step in making it safe to eat raw. Dry-curing with salt is the method used in the United States, which involves coating the meat with a salt cure rub to draw out moisture. This process reduces the weight of the ham by up to 25%, resulting in a more concentrated flavor.
The salt box method is used for American country hams, where the ham is literally buried in salt under refrigeration. This differs from traditional European style hams that use coarse sea salt and apply it in more measured quantities. As a result, American country hams have a much higher salt percentage than their European counterparts.
After curing, country hams can be smoked, cooked, or frozen for later use. However, since they are typically saltier than other products, they benefit from soaking in water for 1-12 hours in the refrigerator before cooking or eating raw.
Country-cured ham is usually sold vacuum-packed and presoaked, while others are sold as is in the net in which it was cured. In either case, the ham is still quite salty and needs to be washed and soaked for one to two days, keeping it cold and changing the water every 12 hours. The ham must be boiled for 20 to 25 minutes in clean water before consuming.
During the long curing and drying process, country cured hams develop an unattractive layer of mold due to their high salt content and low temperatures. This is normal and an indication of proper aging, much like fine cheeses. However, the mold resulting from aging must be removed before cooking or consuming the meat. It is not safe to consume the mold itself.
Cooking Country Ham
While it is possible to eat country ham raw, many people prefer to cook it before consuming. Cooking country ham can enhance its flavor and texture, and also ensure that any potential bacteria are eliminated.
One popular method for cooking country ham slices is frying them in a skillet. The ham slices should be at least 1/4 inch thick and have some fat around the edges. Heat a large skillet on the stove, add a couple of ham slices and cover the skillet with a lid. Do not remove the fat from the slices, and do not add oil or butter to the skillet. Cook on one side for about 2 1/2 minutes, turn the slices over and cook for another 2 1/2 minutes on the other side. They should be brown and cooked after five minutes.
Another way to cook country ham is by baking it in the oven. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F, place the whole slice of ham in a baking dish, cover it with foil, and bake for approximately one hour. Multiple slices may require longer cooking time.
If you want to add some sweetness to your country ham, you can use a glaze packet or your favorite ham glaze recipe. You may also sprinkle the fat side with brown sugar and breadcrumbs, then bake at 400°F until brown (about 15 minutes).
If you are grilling or smoking your country ham, it’s important to cook it at a low enough temperature to get the internal temperature up to 160 F. A good baste for a country ham should be sweet and acidic, such as Dr. Pepper.
No matter which cooking method you choose, it’s important to keep an eye on your country ham to avoid burning it. Plan on starting out with your country ham at least three days before you need it, as the curing process takes time. Enjoy your cooked country ham as a delicious addition to any meal or as a snack on its own.
Risks Of Eating Raw Country Ham
While it is possible to eat country ham raw, there are some risks associated with consuming uncooked meat. One of the main concerns is the potential for bacterial contamination. Country ham, like all meats, can harbor harmful bacteria such as Listeria, Staphylococcus, and Toxoplasma gondii. These bacteria can cause serious illness, especially in vulnerable populations such as young children, older adults, and those who are immunocompromised or pregnant.
Another risk associated with raw country ham is the high salt content. Excessive salt intake has been linked to a range of health problems, including high blood pressure and an increased risk of certain cancers. Additionally, some people may find the taste of raw country ham too salty to enjoy.
It’s also important to note that not all country hams are created equal. The curing process can vary depending on the producer, and some hams may be more prone to bacterial contamination than others. It’s crucial to purchase country ham from a reputable source and follow proper food safety guidelines when handling and consuming the meat.
Alternatives To Eating Raw Country Ham
If you’re not comfortable eating country ham raw, there are plenty of alternatives to enjoy this Southern delicacy.
One option is to cook the ham in a sweet liquid, such as ginger ale or Champagne, to balance out the saltiness. This method is especially popular for holiday dinners and special occasions.
Another option is to slice the ham thinly and use it as a flavorful addition to sandwiches, salads, and charcuterie boards. The salty, smoky flavor of country ham pairs well with a variety of other ingredients, such as cheese, fruit, and nuts.
If you’re looking for a healthier alternative, consider using leaner cuts of ham, such as smoked turkey or chicken, in your recipes. These meats offer a similar flavor profile to country ham without the high sodium content.
Finally, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can try making your own version of American prosciutto by aging a country ham for several months with salt and sugar. This will result in a milder, more complex flavor that can be enjoyed raw or cooked.
No matter how you choose to enjoy country ham, be sure to savor the rich history and tradition behind this Southern staple.