Some foods pack a startling wallop of flavor into a relatively small package. Cooks use anchovies for an intense fish flavor, Parmesan for an intense cheese flavor and smoked ham hocks for an intense pork flavor. Unlike anchovies and Parmesan, which last almost indefinitely, ham hocks -- like ham or bacon -- are relatively perishable in your refrigerator.
Ham hocks may be fully cooked or uncooked, depending on how they're produced. Cooked hocks usually say "fully cooked" or "double-smoked" somewhere on the package. If the hock is still vacuum-sealed in its original packaging, you can keep it refrigerated for two weeks or until its "use-by" date, whichever comes first. Once it's opened, or if you purchase it unsealed, you should use it or freeze it within 3 to 5 days. An uncooked hock is good for up to a week in the refrigerator or until its "use-by" date, whichever comes first. Once frozen, a ham hock remains food-safe indefinitely, but its flavor and quality are best within the first few months.
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A ham hock is the lower portion of a hog's leg, the "ankle" section between its feet and the shank end of a smoked ham. Some meat packers cold-smoke the shank at a temperature that's too low to cook the pork. These are labeled as uncooked, cold-smoked or "cook before eating." Other packers smoke the shank at a higher temperature that cooks the meat, either after cold-smoking -- these are called double-smoked -- or instead of cold-smoking. Hot-smoked shanks are safe to eat from the food-safety perspective, but for practical reasons, they need to be cooked.
Tough and Chewy to Lush and Tender
If you've ever cooked lamb or veal shanks, you'll understand why ham hocks are usually cooked for a long time. A hock is the same cut, and like shank meat, it's filled with dense, chewy muscles and stringy, gristly connective tissue. Given a patient cook, and a long, slow cooking time, the connective tissue largely dissolves. The finished hock melds the sweet and savory flavor of ham with the lush, soft texture of pot roast -- a truly memorable combination.
Add a hock to your favorite long-cooked meals, where it will infuse the entire dish with its rich ham flavor. A few common examples include
- long-cooked Southern-style collards or green beans,
- baked beans, or any bean dish cooked on the stove,
- split-pea soup and
- European-style "loaded" sauerkraut.