Country Ham Goodness

It’s a tradition among American Southerners to serve ham, collard greens, and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to bring good luck for the coming year.  In my family, that means country ham—a salt cured ham made in rural parts of the region, including Virginia, my home state; North Carolina, where my maternal grandparents were born; South Carolina, where I currently live; and others nearby such as Georgia and Tennessee.

To make these hams, they are salt cured for one to three months and then hardwood smoked, usually over hickory, before being aged.  Aging can take from several months to 2 or 3 years, depending on the fat content of the meat.  Typically, they are sold unrefrigerated, wrapped in heavy paper, and secured in a cotton bag.  Since I travel to Virginia to see family around Christmas, I buy mine at Spivey’s Market in Emporia.


Uncooked country ham from Spivey’s Market, scrubbed, soaked for 36 hours, and ready to be cooked.

The taste of country ham is salty and smoking makes the meat red.  It’s similar to prosciutto, but prosciutto is not smoked, the meat is moister, and usually more thinly cut.

Tim and I are looking forward to hosting a large group of friends on Sunday evening.  Along with the ham, we’ll have collard greens, Hoppin’ John (a Southern recipe for black-eye peas), scalloped potatoes, spoon bread, deviled eggs, and a pickle and relish tray.  To get a head start, I began soaking the ham on Wednesday and cooked it last night according to my mother’s recipe, ensuring it will be moist and tender.

Here’s what Mom taught me.

A store-bought ham should be soaked for 24 or more hours to partially re-hydrate the meat and relieve it of some of its saltiness.  I usually aim for a day and a half, changing the water at least twice.  To cook a medium ham (about 12 pounds), preheat the oven to 450 degrees F, put the ham in a roasting pan (fat side up) with 2 cups of water and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil.  Cook at high heat until you can smell the ham (usually 30 to 40 minutes), before lowering the heat to 350 degrees F and cooking for another 2 and a half hours.  Then, turn off the oven and let it cool down without opening.


Cooked ham–wish you could smell this! Don’t forget to save the pan drippings.

Sounds easy right?  Well, here’s the secret trick to make it a snap—you begin cooking the ham at 7 or 8 p.m. and then turn the oven off before going to bed, letting the ham sit in the oven all night.  In the morning, take the ham out, remove the foil, let the ham come to room temperature, and then wrap it before refrigerating.  The pan drippings are like gold, save them for cooking the collards.

Before serving the ham on Sunday, I’ll trim away the skin and some of the fat.  For the best slices of meat, I’ll cut through the thickest part of the ham toward the center bone.

The country ham looked and smelled great this morning when it came out of the oven.  Tim and I had a little taste, too, before wrapping it and tucking it away.

What about your New Year’s Day?  I would love to hear what you have planned!


22 thoughts on “Country Ham Goodness

  1. Gloria Ballard

    Marian, I haven’t had ham cooked this way since … I can’t remember, but your post immediately brought back the memory of my mother’s kitchen and that delicious fragrance. Thanks!

  2. Lisa Wagner

    Love the post! I’ve never been a ham person (my mom’s canned ham with raisin sauce, long ago, hmmm). But, a recent holiday dinner out, with some slices of a house-cured country ham, well, it was delicious. I’ve still got an inquiry out as to the source!

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Lisa–For some reason, country ham doesn’t seem to be as common in the Upstate, or maybe it’s just Greenville. I don’t know anyone who cooks one but me. I did see a few in Publix this year, though.

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Eliza–I don’t know anyone who smokes meat now, but smokehouses were common in the part of southeastern Virginia where I grew up, with lots of farmers curing their own hams. Hope you have an enjoyable New Year too. Cheers!

  3. Jeff Minnich

    Marian, brings back many memories, and you know I come from old, old Alexandria/Virginia roots! And, to me, Hoppin’ John is a must for New Year’s luck! Happy New Year to y’all!

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Hey Jeff! I use Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for Hoppin’ John, as my mom’s method was basic beans and ham drippings. Love the touch of thyme and other extras. Best wishes for a terrific 2017!

  4. johnvic8

    I grew up (in Virginia) with country ham. I love it. A special gift at Christmas: my Dad sent us a Smithfield ham to Tokyo each of the three years I was stationed there,.Most folks we knew had never heard of it,but fell in love with it immediately. It takes a sharp knife.
    I had hoped to attend the MG seminar in Feb, but have a conflict. Maybe next time.
    Have a wonderful New Year. Perhaps, we can get together on one of my trips to my daughter.

  5. automatic gardener

    I am a Pennsylvania Dutch Yankee transplanted (as the natives refer to us) to Texas over 30 years ago. At the end of every year, I begin my search for pork shoulder and sauerkraut. Grocery store managers had a hard time understanding why I would want that combination! Back home, homemade sauerkraut is sold by organizations at shopping centers for fundraisers this time of the year and the meat cases are filled with pork. Down here, I may have to shop more than one store to score my PA Dutch New Year’s tradition. And yes, black-eyed peas are everywhere! Happy New Year!

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Chloris–Collards look like a long-leaf cabbage but don’t make a head and taste more like Kale with a bit of a bite. They become tastier after the first frost. When eating, some people put a hot vinegar sauce on them. Best wishes to you for a wonderful 2017!

  6. pbmgarden

    Happy New Year greetings Marian. The ham looks so delicious, your special menu is sure to please. Both send me back to some good ole days of meals with relatives. I need to run out for a bag of black-eyed peas for tomorrow!

  7. Brenda

    Sounds delectable. I love a real country ham and collards. But I’ve never developed a taste for black eyed peas. Throwing luck to the wind, I guess. We’re having a quiet, day shoveling snow and watching football while a leg of lamb (from happy sheep at our local winery/distillery) spreads the smell of rosemary, garlic, and mustard through the house. Happy 2017 Marian.


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